Review by Ranier-Atlas
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.