By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Shortly after beginning The Twilight Samurai, I realized that I had seen the star’s face somewhere recently. I was having a hard time placing him, so I consulted trusty old friend IMDB to find out.
Carl Rinsch, or pretty much anyone involved with 47 Ronin, would have done well to take more cues from The Twilight Samurai, instead of silly Pirates of the Caribbean-style bullshit. This film is about a low-level widowed samurai, Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), who just wants to live in peace and watch his daughters grow. However, when a childhood friend, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), reappears, and political turmoil spills over into his small town, romance and danger upend his peaceful life.
Wow, where to start? This film was one of my more pleasant surprises since starting randomly choosing them from my list this year. It’s textbook filmmaking, building character first before advancing the plot too quickly, so that each twist and revelation hits like a sledgehammer to the gut.
Some of you may need more powerful metaphors.
Hiroyuki Sanada is simply spectacular in the lead role, portraying a decent, soulful man full of love for his family and possessing strong convictions. He’s a man you earnestly want happiness for, and when the sweet, demure Tomoe reenters his life, that hope intensifies. Sanada’s chemistry with Miyazawa is subtle and deeply affecting, communicating more in a few small gestures and expressions than ten rain-soaked makeout sessions could.
So when honor and duty collide with these characters’ persona l hopes and dreams, the results are inevitably bittersweet. I generally hate voiceover, but in this film the daughter’s perspective and it nostalgic air give the film a novelistic quality. A plot that could have been processed into any run of the mill romance or action flick takes on a timeless, larger-than-life character.
Director Yoji Yamada does an incredible job not only developing plot and character, but establishing an authentic sense of place and time. He shoots snowy mountain backdrops and small town pathways with equal beauty, and combines the set design, costuming, and extras work to produce an immersive 1860s Japan that feels entirely real.
Just a few details keep this one from perfection. Some of the smaller performances, especially the comic relief ones, are a bit hammy, and the end credits song is somewhere between poorly suited and outright awful. Worst, though, is the sort of rushed epilogue, particularly regarding Seibei and Tomoe. SPOILERS: In a film about honor and commitment trumping desire, I’d think there’d be some issues with or reservations about breaking off her engagement. There’s at least one missing conversation there.
The Twilight Samurai is a beautiful story of a man and his family trying to survive within an unjust system, clinging to their ideals and each other at the end of one era and the dawn of a new one.
Take a Drink: every time Seibei’s hygiene comes up
Take a Drink: whenever the class system rears its ugly head
Take a Drink: every time Mom forgets someone
Take a Drink: for Confucius recitation
Take a Drink: every time a body floats downriver
Do a Shot: when Seibei is pushed into violence