Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Twilight Samurai

2002, Japan, directed by Yoji Yamada

Yoji Yamada has directed almost seventy films over the past 40 years - the kind of work ethic that puts even Woody Allen to shame - but only a handful of his movies are known outside Japan. Most of his professional career was spent on the 48 movies in the Tora-San series, which followed the picaresque adventures of the eponymous lovable loser, and which weren't big in the export market. In his own autumn years, he's turned to some more substantive material, none more so than this modest little film, set in the waning years of the samurai era. Before seeing the film, I had formed the impression that the main character, Seibei, was a rather elderly gent, so it was something of a surprise to discover that he's a vigorous fellow, more than capable of wielding a sword, though less and less interested in actually doing so. Seibei is a widow, caring, on a meagre stipend, for two young daughters and an increasingly senile mother. Like many other samurai in his clan, he works as a clerk, although he sets himself apart from his colleagues by his refusal to join them in merrymaking, preferring to care for his family. Events conspire to reveal that he retains much of his skill with a weapon, as he defends a young woman's honor, and he's forced back into action at the behest of his clan. The film ultimately is about the difficulties faced by two independent individuals - Seibei and Tomoe, the young woman who becomes a part of his life - in a society governed by a rigorous set of rules and taboos, but the film doesn't overdo the deeper themes, focusing instead on the details of Seibei's life, whether it be the making of insect boxes, fishing, the ceremonial preparation of weapons and dress, or the eating of food: these small touches rapidly draw us into his very codified world. The performances are strong - and more naturalistic than in some of Kurosawa's historical work, for example - with Hiroyuki Sanada, who appeared in the Japanese Ringu movies, especially effective. The film is let down only by its coda, which is overly sentimental even though it strives for something more clear-eyed.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States