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Empire Pictures

Official Site

Director: Yoji Yamada

Producers: Hiroshi Fukazawa, Shigehiro Nakagawa, Ichiro Yamamoto

Written by: Yoji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama

Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Min Tanaka, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Hiroshi Kanbe, Miki Ito, Erina Hashiguchi


The Twilight Samurai, on title alone, might seem like an exercise in antiquarian ass-kicking, wherein an elderly warrior gets righteous on many young punks—sort of an AARP Zatoichi—but it’s actually about Seibei Iguchi (Sanada), a middle-aged petty samurai fallen on hard times. His mom no longer recognizes him, his wife is dead, his fellow samurai have dubbed him “twilight” because of his habit of going straight home after work each day instead of drinking with them, and—major bummer here—the Meiji Restoration is just around the corner, about to put him out of a job and social position. Though the 19th-century samurai setting might seemingly make Twilight anachronistic—both in content and in the context of the current Japanese film market, which seems pretty indifferent to the genre these days—it’s constantly historically minded, framing the whole story as the last gasp of the old way of life (the whole point of the voice-over narration provided by Iguchi’s daughter). Iguchi is more Last Samurai than Tom Cruise himself. There’s even a vague possibility that this is intended to serve as allegorical commentary on Japan’s continuing problems with economic stability.

Naturally, since all Iguchi wants is to live his life in peace and avoid conflict, trouble comes searching for him (a problem similar to many Charles Bronson movies), first in the form of Lord Kodo, the irate drunken ex-husband of his best friend’s sister (and love of Iguchi’s life), and then from the clan, which demands that he put his life on the line to eliminate a troublesome retainer unwilling to kill himself in the aftermath of a factional shake-up. Twilight is a drastic reshaping of traditional cinematic samurai mythology, where a masterless warrior freely dispenses violent justice. Instead, this is the samurai system as bureaucracy. Though an expert swordsman, Iguchi hides himself in a grain warehouse, spending his days taking inventory, and his nights making insect cages for extra money. His colleagues are no more glamorous, concluding seemingly every day with a bout of drinking.

There’s not much in the way of fighting. Characters here do express themselves physically, but mostly through careful choreography. Body language is everything in expressing hierarchal relationships. The samurai sit as equals among themselves, but crawl and shuffle stooped-over before their feudal lord. Iguchi walks quietly and inconspicuously in his ratty kimono among his colleagues, but relaxes and stands proud with his friend Iinuma (Fukikoshi). And in the fights (there are a few), the tense circling before anyone strikes counts for far more than the actual encounter.

Similarly, the film rarely exerts itself overtly. The first shot after the opening credits is characteristic: a dramatic overview of the countryside, accompanied by booming drums, but a pull-back reveals the countryside to be framed by a window, and the drums to be coming from inside, the mere exercise in time-keeping of a sweaty samurai. Nothing is about to happen immediately, and the main pleasures of Twilight Samurai are, mostly, of the delayed-gratification variety. Some have found the film too methodical and laid-back to make for easy viewing, but in truth it’s uncomplicated and streamlined, showing decay and the end of an era as dynamically as possible. And though the final fourth stretches the boundaries of pacing a bit too much, it’s a mostly rewarding, absorbing film.

—Vadim Rizov

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