Movie Review: Twilight Samurai

The title evokes a deadly killer, moving through the shadows of twilight to hunt his victim. He is an implacable foe, who blurs the distinction between the Samurai, honorable knight of the Japanese feudal period, and the ninja, the feared assassin and spy. This is not what this movie is about at all.

The Twilight Samurai is about a petty retainer in a Japanese clan, a bureaucrat who works in the storehouses of his clan’s castle. His wife has died of consumption and he is left to care for his two daughters and senile mother on a small salary. He has little ambition, and all he wants to do is enjoy his daughters and live in peace.

People try to change him. Family members try to get him married off to different people, and his co-workers are embarrassed of him because all he ever does is work and he doesn’t present himself the way a samurai ought. They call him “twilight Seibei” because Seibei never stays out with them at night but always goes home at twilight. But he doesn’t care about any of that. He just wants to make his way in the world. He even considers giving up the title of samurai and becoming a peasant farmer. He causes trouble for himself by protecting an old childhood friend from her cruel husband, revealing that he is a skilled swordsman. He tries to downplay the attention this draws to him, not wanting to be thought of as a warrior.

But with the death of the clan lord, the man becomes unable to avoid the bloody times he lives in. The clan comes calling on him, drawing on his skills as a swordsman from the past, skills he has almost forgotten. And as much as he’d like to, the clan will not allow him to refuse.

The Twilight Samurai is a beautiful movie, about a man caught between his duty to his clan and his duty to his family and himself. The lead, Hiroyuki Sanada, brilliantly plays the part. He plays a humble retainer just trying to avoid trouble, and his face and posture is that of a scraping servant when he is in front of his masters and a loving, dignified father when he is with his family. But when he rises to the challenge forced on him by his clan, we see him become something else- a hardened warrior.

This characterization is mirrored by the role played by his childhood friend, the battered wife. She demonstrates herself to be a very unusual woman by pushing for a divorce from her cruel husband, and seeking out Seibei. She makes her intention clear, that she would like to be with Seibei, but she comes from a richer family than Seibei and he is worried that she would suffer from the loss of station. Like him, she just wants to be part of a kind family and lead a simple life, but she, like him, is trapped by the expectations of the times.

The pacing, direction, writing and cinematography are all very well done. I have to judge the writing through the subtitles of course. But the subtitles appear to have been done with care. I can’t speak to their accuracy, except they certainly matched the mood of the actors and moved the story along clearly. And they were thorough. Sometimes you can tell a cheap subtitle job by a few written words used to translate a great deal of speaking. Of course, misspellings and bad grammar are a big giveaway too.

This is not a martial arts movie. There are a few fight scenes, and they are gripping. But this is a drama, about a man just trying to make his way in a world that will not leave him alone. Highly recommended. Parts of it are pretty bloody, but there’s nothing else at all objectionable in it. I got it from Netflix. I don’t know if you could find it at Blockbuster or Hollywood, though.

5/5 stars.

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