Director Yôji Yamada, creator of more than 70 films and a legend of Japanese cinema, has always been most famous for his contemporary dramas and TV series (his Otoko wa tsurai yo series alone has 48 installments). But like many Japanese directors, he was drawn from a young age to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, the unparalleled master of the form.
“. . . [B]ook learning gives you the power to think. However the world might change, if you have the power to think, you’ll always survive somehow.”
— Seibei Iguchi
Director Yôji Yamada, creator of more than 70 films and a legend of Japanese cinema, has always been most famous for his contemporary dramas and TV series (his Otoko wa tsurai yo series alone has 48 installments). But like many Japanese directors, he was drawn from a young age to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, the unparalleled master of the form. Finally, in 2002, he decided to try his hand at writing and directing his own samurai film, Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Samurai).
Winner of an unprecedented twelve Japanese Academy Awards — including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay — and Japan’s official nominee for Best Foreign Film at the 76th Academy Awards (2003), it tells the story of Seibei Iguchi, a low-level retainer struggling to cope with the shifting political landscape shortly before the Boshin War, Japan’s last civil war. At that time, the role of the samurai in many clans was changing drastically; Iguchi, although trained as a warrior many years before, works as an accountant in the castle storehouse. His wife, who passes away at the opening of the film, left him with two young daughters and a senile mother. His devotion to them leads his fellow samurai to nickname him “Twilight” because of his unwillingness to participate in any of the friendly activities that might keep him occupied past that hour.
The poverty under which he struggles is severe, and he experiences humiliating chastisements at nearly every turn. As the only adult in his household, he is not only the sole provider and protector for his children and mother, but he must also work the land, clean and maintain the house, and make insect cages on the side in an effort to make ends meet. Understandably, his appearance (as well as his personal hygiene) bears the brunt of these labors, and his fellow samurai grow increasingly reluctant to associate with him, fearing that his obvious lack of attention to his status and reputation will drag them down along with him.
His uncle arrives at the house one day with the standard societal solution to all of Iguchi’s problems: marriage — to a woman both unbecoming and desperate enough that she is willing to marry a samurai as poor and unmotivated as he believes his nephew to be. Much to his uncle’s shock and chagrin, Iguchi flatly denies his problem: Despite his circumstances, universally understood to bring shame and suffering to a samurai, Iguchi is neither ashamed nor unhappy. Instead, he speaks eloquently of the incredible joy and pride he experiences each day as he watches his daughters “blossom like beautiful flowers.” As for a wife, Iguchi has other ideas; Tomoe Iinuma, the recently divorced wife of an abusive husband and a long-time childhood friend, is the woman of his dreams.
As the structure of the clan continues to deteriorate, however, it becomes increasingly difficult for Iguchi to stay hidden in the castle storehouse. Eventually, the clan leaders discover a distasteful mission requiring someone both highly skilled and thoroughly expendable — and so they turn to Twilight Iguchi. At first he refuses, saying that he has “lost the desire to wield a sword. A serious fight, the killing of a man, requires animal ferocity and calm disregard for one’s own life,” and he no longer has either. But when his family’s safety is the price named for his compliance, he must agree. His impending battle — one of only two action sequences in the entire film — forces him to clarify both his relationship to Tomoe and to his daughters, and his understanding of the role he plays in the vanishing samurai world.
Given the time-honored traditions of Japanese samurai films, Yamada brings a thoroughly unexpected sensibility to the story. From the opening voiceover narration of Iguchi’s youngest daughter to the film’s startling postscript, it is unlike any other samurai film I have seen. Despite the unfamiliarity of its settings, it is as accessible and relevant as any contemporary film. Rather than focusing on the struggles and tribulations of a powerful, heroic warrior, Yamada is interested in the everyday tribulations of a virtual nobody — a man who does not battle with evil on a great stage, but who must endure and overcome the sufferings and temptations present in ordinary life — the Little Way of the Samurai.
Unlike Edward Zwick’s strangely inconsistent Last Samurai (2003) — a film that deals with a similar time period in Japanese samurai history, yet cannot resist the temptation to portray the “enlightened Westerners” as the ones possessing the final answers — this work demonstrates not only a nuanced understanding of the eroding samurai code, but a far subtler solution to the “problem of progress” that faced Japan in the mid-1800s; a solution whose heart lies in Twilight himself, and in his selfless devotion to his family.
Tasogare Seibei is a film that respects and honors its protagonist for his willingness to live life without ambition, even within a social structure that clamors for it unceasingly. It is a film that reminds us that those on lower rungs of the economic ladder may far outstrip their “betters” when it comes time to measure their true worth.
Above all, it is a film about the importance and value of one’s family: Iguchi’s unwavering devotion to his mother, his children, and his potential wife guides him through the instability and eventual decay of the samurai way of life. It is the family, not society, that is our true foundation, and the joy and honor showered upon the man who puts his family before himself remain unmatched.
Joseph Susanka writes from Lander, Wyoming.