The Twilight Samurai
What do you do when the life you thought you were born to live becomes a mere shadow of what you thought it would be? When the dream that once drove you dissipates; replaced by empty routines that perpetuate the way things were more than the way they could be? And what of the evolution of your self? As time passes, and traditions fade, the things that once mattered pale in comparison to the possibilities for change. However, the past doesn’t always relinquish it’s hold so easily, and there are often times when the old ways are summoned forth to address challenges heretofore unmet; presenting obstacles that can interfere with one’s changing attitudes and demand psychological and moral compromises that can upset one’s mental balance. What would you do if such a challenge looked to destroy what appears to be your one true shot at happiness, and peace?
Often called a Japanese “Unforgiven,” director Yoji Yamada’s “The Twilight Samurai” explores the answers to these questions in a hauntingly poetic meditation on the life of a knight outside his shining armor, plodding through life in the street clothes of man far removed from his destiny. It tells the tale of Iguchi Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), a recently widowed, low-ranking Samurai, who is struggling to raise two daughters and care for a senile mother while serving his clan on a paltry 50 kokus (about 7500 kilos) of rice a year. Seibei is a man trapped by circumstance, confined in a cage of an anachronistic lifestyle driven to the edge of extinction by the relentless march of progress. The time of the Samurai is passing – the art of the sword replaced by the art of economics – and Seibei is about to find his traditional notions of responsibility to the clan pitted against his desires for happiness, simplicity, and peace.
As the film opens, we witness the death of Seibei’s wife and a lovely, yet grandiose funeral procession that we later learn had more to do with familial expectations than financial realities, leaving the family with a crushing debt. With exquisite subtlety, Yamada illustrates the bland reality of Seibei’s life: from his shabby wardrobe and unkempt appearance, to his joyless job as a stores clerk. He works with group of other samurai – none of whom appear to have ever known a day of glory – who have given him the somewhat derisive nickname “Twilight” for his penchant for going home before nightfall, rather than hang out at the local Geisha house. We see that while Seibei’s sense of duty may bind him to his responsibilities for the clan, the real reason for his early evenings are the deep ties he has for his family. While his companions are out drinking, Seibei does piece-work (making cricket cages to augment his meagre income – a scandalous task for a Samurai), while teaching and encouraging his daughters to pursue a life of the mind, rather than be satisfied with “woman’s work.”
What’s interesting to note is how skillfully Yamada illustrates Seibei’s life, while simultaneously showing us that the man, while not entirely happy in the purest sense of the word, is neither pitiful nor broken. There is a deep humility to Seibei’s existence; a stoic acceptance of his pseudo-peasantry and its accompanying hardships. Seibei never complains, and we soon begin to realize that he’s come to prefer the life of a simple farmer over the politics and strictures of the samurai way. What his fellow samurai may see as pitiful, Seibei sees as a return to simplicity and peace; a desire for love has replaced a desire for glory.
In spite of this almost zen-like acceptance, we sense that Seibei could use a little more light in his life. Destiny delivers a glimmer of hope with the return of Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), Seibei’s childhood friend and sweetheart. Tomoe has come to her brother’s house after a clan-ordered dissolution of her marriage to an abusive drunk. From the first moments she enters Seibei’s house, with her shy, yet radiant smile and open affection for all, something like sunshine returns to the family. She nestles herself into the family’s routines effortlessly, caring for and tutoring the girls while Seibei is at work, and assisting with meals and piecework upon his return. She tells the girls stories of Seibei’s youthful chivalry and positively glows as genuine laughter flows from the children and Seibei tries unsuccessfully to hide his embarrassed smiles.
Unfortunately they find their happiness threatened when Koda, Tomoe’s abusive ex-husband, comes to the village to demand the return of his wife and the restoration of his honor. He challenges Tomoe’s brother to a duel, and Seibei, in an act of chivalrous intervention, agrees to take up the challenge on his friend’s behalf. In order to respect the clan’s ban against dueling, Seibei shows up bearing nothing more than a training stick, with which he proceeds to systematically dismantle his opponent. Suddenly, everyone realizes that, for all his humility and gentleness, Seibei is indeed a formidable swordsman, and rumors begin to spread of his prowess.
Tomoe’s brother Michinojo (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), recognizing both the honor and intent of his friend’s actions on his sister’s behalf, offers Seibei’s the chance to ask for Tomoe’s hand in marriage. But Seibei, regretfully, and painfully, declines, stating that because of his lowered social status he could never give Tomoe the life she deserved, no matter how much he may want her. Michinojo tries to convince Seibei that Tomoe is has already indicated her acceptability to the offer but Seibei holds firm. Tomoe stops coming to the house, and Seibei and his family descend once more into the gloom.
Meanwhile, news arrives that the Lord of the clan has died, and, in a resulting power struggle, a retainer from the losing side, a fearsome swordsman named Yogo Zen’emon (Min Tanaka), has rejected calls to commit seppuku and has barricaded himself in his house, threatening to kill anyone setting foot inside the door. Thanks to the unwelcome attention gained from his battle with Koda, Seibei is summoned to the clan headquarters and tasked with killing the mysterious watchman who has dared to refuse to abide by the traditional codes of honor. Seibei tries to beg off the commission, informing his superiors that raising his daughters has stripped him of his capacity to kill, and that all he desires is to be allowed to live out his life as the simple farmer he has become. His superiors will have none of this, however, insisting that he accept the task or face expulsion from the clan. Trapped by the bonds of his position, and his duty to tradition, Seibei sadly agrees.
It is here, in the final act, that Yamada begins to examine the underbelly of the Samurai mythos, peeling back the veneer of tradition and glory to expose the tragedy of human life put to political purpose. Seibei’s order’s are not a noble charge to eliminate an enemy, but more like a janitor’s job to eliminate a source of embarrassment. Yogo’s disillusioned act of rebellion is not so much a threat to the community, but a rejection of rules of behavior already falling out of favor. His central challenge: Why should I abide by a set of rules nobody else has any intention fo following? Through his defiance, he is challenging the powers to be to act in accordance with the old ways, knowing full well they lack the capacity to do so. Nevertheless, his actions are an affront to a political order used to having its way, resentful of the direct challenge to its authority.
In a cruel irony, we realize that Seibei has essentially been tasked with killing a more actualized version of himself. Yogo has recognized the time of the samurai is passing, as has perhaps, Seibei, but whereas Yogo is willing to make a formal break with the code, Seibei has bound it so thoroughly to his identity that separation is really not possible. In fact, the personal nobility we have come to admire in him is a direct result of his devotion to the ideals Yogo has challenged. With the apparent loss of Tomoe, Seibei has reluctantly returned to the traditions that formed him, denying himself a shot at the happiness he so obviously desires. The impending struggle between the two men thus becomes a reflection of Seibei’s own internal struggles with his desires for peace and his duty to the past.
What happens when these two men finally meet challenges everything you may have learned about the way of the Samurai, and leaves you in awe of Yamada’s mastery of approach. All our questions, all our doubts, all the hopes we have for these extremely honorable characters are addressed in a surprising and bittersweet way that will linger in the heart long after the credits roll.