Sunday, June 13, 2004

Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run)

There is, of course, a double meaning to this film's English title. First, that it's a story about the samurai as their way of life comes to the end (or as a specific one grows older), like last year's The Last Samurai. Within Yoji Yamada's excellent movie, however, it is used as a derisive nickname for Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who unlike the other samurai of the castle, hurries home before dark to be with his daughters and elderly mother.

During the early going, it's easy to think that Twilight Samurai might become a comedy or satire of some sort. It maps almost too well to twenty-first century life - though Iguchi has the title of samurai, he's a rather low-level one. He spends his days not as a warrior, but as a clerk, doing counts on the castle's stores and making sure that the books are even. He struggles to keep up with his family responsibilities, working a sort of second job building insect cages to make ends meet, and he could even be said to have a mortgage. He encourages his daughter to study Confucius (even though his uncle, the head of the family, disdains the idea of women being too educated) because book learning will teach her how to think, which will always be useful, even if sewing seems more practical now. His life falls into a familiar pattern, but he doesn't much mind - he's not ambitious, and nothing makes him happier than spending time with his daughters, ten-year-old Kayana and five-year-old Ito. Then, in an almost sitcom-like plot turn, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), the newly-divorced younger sister of his good friend Iinuma, returns to town.

Part of what makes this such an enjoyable movie, though, is that we can identify with Iguchi, even though he comes from a very different time and culture (I imagine that's somewhat the case for audiences in modern Japan, as well). That way, we're more aware of his frame of mind when the unfamiliar parts of his life - whether they be the complications of arranged marriages or the parts of his job that involve him using his sword - take center stage.

Yamada has a likable cast; Iguchi and Tomoe are a couple worth rooting for, and the young actresses playing Kayana and Ito are adorable. Aside from the bloody swordplay and the discussions of the politics that make it necessary, this could almost be a PG or PG-13 family movie. That said, what action this movie features is rather intense, including a couple shots of gushing blood; there's also recurring images of starved bodies washing up on the shore of the local river. It's labeled "Action/Drama/Family" on the IMDB, but it's definitely a case of knowing your family.

Twilight Samurai isn't a particularly challenging movie, but it is intelligent and well-constructed. It's a mature movie that nevertheless generates warm fuzzies, and now that I have had a chance to see it, I'd say it was a fitting nomination for Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, and that its near-sweep of Japan's Academy Awards doesn't surprise me.

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