The Michigan Daily discovered in April 2005 that several articles written by arts editor Marshall W. Lee did not meet the newspaper’s standard of ethical journalism. Parts of these stories had been plagiarized from other news sources. Although the article below has not been found to contain plagiarism, the Daily no longer stands by its content. For details, see the Daily’s editorial.

 

Yoji Yamada’s “Twilight Samurai,” a rich and lyrical exercise in cinematic restraint well deserving of its record 12 Japanese Academy Awards, is a rare gem of a samurai film.

Yamada’s 77th feature and Japan’s foreign-language Oscar nominee for 2003, “Twilight Samurai” is set in rural Japan during the era of the Meiji Restoration, circa 1868 — the same period as iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent “Seven Samurai” and Edward Zwick’s vastly overrated Tom Cruise vehicle, “The Last Samurai.” The three films examine a time of great social change in Japan when political upheaval and technological advancement left many samurai — disciplined warriors still living by the ancient Code of Bushido — facing poverty and unemployment. But unlike Kurosawa’s violent, philosophical powerhouse and Zwick’s sweeping historical epic, “Twilight Samurai” is a relatively gentle domestic drama filled up with melancholy and subtle beauty.

The hero of the film is Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), a timid, low-level samurai living under the rule of his clan in northeast Japan, where he spends his days not in battle, but as an accountant, balancing books and keeping track of dried fish and vegetable stores. Declining invitations from his colleagues to go out drinking and carousing, Seibei hurries home each evening at dusk because he has a senile mother and two young daughters to support and is in debt after the death of his wife from consumption.

Seibei’s story is told by Yomada and cinematographer Mutsuo Naganuma in muted tones and colors, elegantly recreating a feudal village that seems, in contrast to Katsumoto’s highly stylized home in “The Last Samurai,” less like an extravagant set piece and more like a living, breathing entity. Seibei’s community retains it’s architecture, values and customs even as the changing world is making its way of life obsolete. A scene in which Seibei and his old friend Linuma discuss the chaotic streets of Kyoto while a nearby group of guards practice rifle fire under a blossoming lotus tree is a smart illustration of this.

Since the death of his wife, Seibei’s life has been anything but easy, and after long days in his office, the weary samurai rushes home to grow crops and build insect cages, anything to earn a little extra cash for his family. Seibei’s co-workers mock his unkempt appearance and torn clothing and one afternoon when the lord of clan visits the warehouse and notices his “strange aroma,” the samurai is reprimanded and beaten.

News of Seibei’s humiliation spreads quickly and, in a scene that is alternately hilarious and moving, Seibei is paid a visit by his indignant uncle who urges him to remarry and bring a woman into the house to cook, clean and mother the two young girls. As it happens, Seibei’s childhood sweetheart, Tomoe (Rie Miyazaki), has become single after divorcing her violent husband and she soon begins to help around the house. Although romance seems a natural step, Seibei is too timid and weary to propose marriage.

A decision to help Linuma in a fight soon gets Seibei in over his head as the clan leaders approach him with a dubious assignment: He is to kill the defiant master swordsman Yogo (Min Tanaka) who has barricaded himself in his home after refusing to kill himself at the order of the clan.

The film’s third act is wonderful in the way it simultaneously defies expectations and asserts everything the audience believe about Seibei, bringing tension, depth and elegance to a climactic fight scene that could easily have been another routine action sequence. The fight between Yogo and Seibei, as well as the protracted conversation that precedes it, are just too good to spoil, but the extraordinary exchange of dialogue and the low, lingering camera shots inside Yogo’s house make for an exemplary film sequence.

In the lead role, Sanada achieves a minor miracle, allowing Seibei to be wholly good without ever seeming shallow or foolish, and he is especially fun to watch in those moments when the hero’s hopes and fears boil just below his placid surface. Yamada is a master of character study, creating in each frame a world so delicate and compelling that even the smallest of Sanada’s gestures — a deep and weary breath, the slightest smile of contentment — grabs the viewer’s attention and fills the screen with life.

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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