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© 2004 The Beast

The Twilight Samurai

Movie Review by Ranier-Atlas Faustbinder


I went to see The Twilight Samurai, a film by Yoji Yamada (of whom I know nothing) with a friend who normally never shows any emotion during a movie. This time, however, he was visibly awestruck. Usually he has this strange rule that he will not talk about a movie he has just seen until the next day—I know, it’s stupid—but on this night he wouldn’t shut up. He was saying, “Man, that movie was…” every ten minutes until the end of the night. As annoying as it sounds, Yamada’s film was worthy of such verbosity.

Many people, I’m sure, won’t like The Twilight Samurai for its smallness. You may expect rivers of blood, and much jumping around and flying from trees, but this is a different sort of Samurai film. The focus is not on fighting or the code of life, and it is narrated by a woman. Yes that is right. The director emphasizes instead that Samurai were human, and had lives beyond fighting, sleeping and eating rice. Such humanity is scarce in other Samurai films like Yojimbo or the Seven Samurai, movies whose world seems contained inside the screen, a world built for the cinema. They are also about freelance Samurai, not one who is working for a clan as in Twilight.

The Twilight Samurai is engulfing—it’s like you pay $7.50 and you’re a samurai for two-hours—but it isn’t all sword fights and tough talk. The director takes painstaking efforts to show that Samurai life can be as menial and dull as your own. He shows the clan as a corporation; the boss comes for a visit and the whole place is abuzz; coworkers go out for drinks after work every day; people gossip about the main character, Twilight Seibei, in the lunchroom. Seibei is ridiculed and talked about by everyone in the clan. The boss remarks on his terrible odor: having two children and no wife, he is unable to spend much time on his own cleanliness. Every night after Seibei is done counting food rations—his job is less than glorious—we see him walking home, with a peasant paid to carry his belongings, to his two young daughters and senile mother.

As you watch you feel the strength of every single shot, every scene seems to get more important than the one before. The movie is handled with such delicacy it’s hard to not get sucked into its world. Each scene is filmed like a mini-movie, grabbing your attention; frames are bursting with colors and ideas. Even getting dressed becomes a beautiful ritual dance, when Twilight prepares for an important duel with the aid of his friends sister.

The movie’s very smallness is its virtue, better enabling the audience to actually relate to a Samurai. He works as we do. He has problems at home, as we do. If only we could be more like Seibei, who soberly ponders decisions rather than just reacting. When his daughter asks if it is good for a woman to be reading Confucius, he deeply considered the question before answering basically yes. When his old school uncle catches Seibei’s daughter reading, he scolds her, for reading is not a thing for a woman to be doing.

Seibei falls in love with his friend’s younger sister, a girl he played with as a child. She is recently divorced from an abusive drunk who is higher in rank than Seibei. Seibei stops him from beating her on one occasion and is challenged to a duel; no one knows that Seibei is a great fighter, so they think that his days are numbered. The fights are few and far between—there are only two. It may sound boring, but the gradual tension build-up is intense, eliciting true excitement and nerves, the way people really feel before a fight—and they mean much more.

The film treats death as it is life itself. While characters in many movies, even those of the new Japanese cinema, die with a complete disdain for life, the duels in Twilight Samurai are handled carefully, reminding us that a life lost is no matter to be taken lightly. When asked to fight a man, Seibei says that he hasn’t in years, and no longer has the animal ferocity needed to kill. To prepare himself, he would need a month. Although he asks for just one day, he is scolded, and told that he must go with no hesitation, for he signed up for this life and was given an order from his superiors. I correlate this idea—maybe I don’t correlate it, but rather, it makes me think of it—to the war in Iraq right now. I remember my uncle saying something like “Bomb that Fucker,” and even my father said the same thing. Many people say, or said, such things. But would they  say so if they were the ones who had to drop those bombs? Probably not.

In the last duel of the film, the two Samurai speak before they fight. They speak about having to kill other Samurai, while the rich stand above, hiding safely in their homes. It’s a poignant condemnation of war. The poor kill each other off, taking orders from those with dough. Seibei, at one point, says that he wants to be a farmer. He is looked at like he is crazy, why would anyone with Samurai status ever do something like that?

You start to feel a love for the cinema with the colors, and the way people move. The director has a great love for the work of his cinematic elders, and feels no shame in displaying it. Characters are framed as in a Kurosawa movie; if someone moves, another person moves to fill the emptiness left on the screen—cinematic feng shui if you will. The interiors are taken from Ozu; shots indoors are framed by doors, tables or windows with the camera set chest high and little movement. Homage is even paid to Sergio Leone, in a close up shot of a character coming to challenge Seibei, just the blue sky surrounding his face, a straw hanging from his mouth—a la Clint.

So, when someone asks you what was the best Samurai movie that borrows extensively from other movies of the genre, don’t reply Kill Bill, until you’ve seen The Twilight Samurai. If Kill Bill brought the East to the West, then this film is bringing the West to the East. Seibei and his friend are annoyed by a new prospect brought in by the clan: guns. These tools of death from the West signify the inevitable infiltration of Eastern culture, a newly flippant attitude toward killing, and the loss of old ways. While we may never be Samurai, we can all identify with Twilight’s trials, as well as learn something from his morals and ideals.

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