Lauded by numerous international film festivals and winner of
12 Japanese Oscars, Twilight Samurai arrives on our shores with
impressive credentials. Treading similar ground to Tom
Cruise’s recent labour of love, The Last Samurai, it
chronicles the twilight of the warrior era in Japan. Unlike
Cruise’s narcissistic blockbuster, however, the central
character here is not glorified for his noble adherence to the
old way of life but for his quietly dignified efforts to distance
himself from the samurai tradition. Seibei Iguchi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada, star of the original
Ring films) lives a hopelessly dull existence in rural 19th
century Japan, scraping together enough money to sustain his two
daughters and infirm mother. His samurai days are long gone since
having to sell his beloved sword to fund his wife’s funeral.
Only the reappearance of childhood sweetheart, Tomoe, lifts the
family’s gloom, but before long an order from his
clan’s chief to assassinate a violent dissenter throws his
hard-earned peace into turmoil, as he is forced to rekindle his
dormant samurai spirit for a ferocious duel. Sanada plays Seibei
to absorbing perfection, combining a sense of desperation with a
grim resilience fuelled by his love for those around him. Rie
Miyazawa also gives luminous support as Tomoe, a revitalizing
presence in the family through her unspoken affection for Iguchi.
It is their simple humanity which is the key to the film’s
power. Anyone expecting a samurai bloodfest in the vein of Kill Bill,
then, would do best to look elsewhere. This is primarily a period
piece and, as you might expect from the elegiac nature of the
film, the pace is appropriately funereal. If the story drags in
places, it is always redeemed by the quietly commanding screen
presence of the two leads. Both a superbly subtle character study
and a poignant hymn to Japan’s lost past, Twilight Samurai
is one of those rarest of cinematic creatures, a film that also
qualifies as a genuine work of art.ARCHIVE: 3rd week TT 2004