Man, I sure do love me some samurai films. From widely accepted classics such as Yojimbo and Throne of Blood to the gore-soaked insanity of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, the samurai genre definitely holds a special place in my heart. So when I heard about a little film called The Twilight Samurai winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Japanese Academy Awards, and saw reviews by everyone and their cousin calling it the second coming of classic samurai, I had to see what the big deal was all about for myself. So let me get started by saying this much: The Twilight Samurai is one of the best movies ever made. Ever. Seriously.
The Twilight Samurai introduces us to a world which was recently explored in the craptastic The Last Samurai in which the feudal age of Japan is drawing to a close and the samurai are quickly becoming obsolete. Of course, this is a movie that does it about 1,000 times better than Tom Cruise's lightweight fluff-piece ever could. Old school Japanese film legend Yoji Yamada has given us a perfect movie--a flawless combination of captivating story, great characters and gorgeous cinematography. And in the midst of the sheer brilliance that is The Twilight Samurai, it is the performance of Hiroyuki Sanada (Legend of the Eight Samurai) who makes this movie truly shine.
Sanada plays Iguchi Seibei, a low-ranking and debt-ridden samurai who toils as a clerk in the emperors storehouse. His wife now dead, Seibei rushes home every day after work to care for his two daughters and ailing mother. This has prompted his fellow samurai to mock him behind his back and nickname him Twilight Samurai due to his habit of getting home before dark every day rather then going out for drinks with his brothers in arms.
Once a protégé of the legendary Sonny Chiba, Sanada has grown into an incredible actor, worthy of the mantle of Toshiru Mifune and Shintaro Katsu. You see, Seibei is the kind of guy who finds more pleasure in tending his garden and raising his two beautiful children (seriously, have you ever seen kids this freakin' adorable before?) than trying to increase his rank as a Samurai. The light of his order is quickly fading, and this suits him just fine. His duty as a father takes precedence over the warrior code he once lived by.
But when a childhood friend and unrequited love named Tomoe (the lovely Rie Miyazawa) reappears, Seibei's life takes a quick turn for the unexpected. Tomoe is just getting out of an abusive relationship with a high-ranking samurai, and when her drunken ex-lover starts to get out of hand one night, Seibei intervenes and must face the consequences of his actions. And that's ultimately what this movie is all about: responsibility. Whether it be as a father, warrior, lover or son. And when his clan calls upon him to arrest a renegade samurai named Yogo Zenemon (Min Tanaka) who has refused the order of seppuku and boarded himself into his house, it is Seibei's sense of responsibility which decides his fate.
It is difficult to talk about this film without giving away too much of the plot, as it is so heavily driven by its incredible story. However, I will say that the beauty of this film is that it does not rely on any particular climactic scene to carry the weight of the story arc. Instead, it is the sheer beauty of the storytelling which envelopes you and makes you care very deeply for the characters. The Twilight Samurai is truly epic--not in the sense of sprawling battles but rather in the depth of its characters and the universality of its themes: love, loyalty and responsibility.
I have only seen the Japanese DVD of this film, but I heard that Empire Pictures did an extremely lousy job on the transfer and presentation for the domestic DVD release. This is extremely unfortunate, because this bad boy stands shoulder to shoulder with the classics and deserves to be seen in the very best way possible. (Empire Pictures)
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