Review: The Twilight Samurai (2002)

I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Twilight Samurai over the years, but sometimes hearing too many good things about a movie can make me avoid it.  If my expectations are raised too high, I can often be disappointed even when a feature is pretty good.  That’s why my first experience with writer-director Yoji Yamada’s work was The Hidden Blade.  I found that movie to be mediocre–not bad exactly, but slow and less than engaging.  My reaction was so ‘meh’ that I failed to even write a review.  I just didn’t have much to say about it.  I’m happy to say that The Twilight Samurai produced a very different reaction.

TTS is a beautiful film.  It’s one of those rare projects wherein the elements coalesce into a whole that’s greater than its parts.  Based on the novels of Shuhei Fujisawa (as are Yamada films Hidden Blade and Love & Honor), Yamada’s screenplay soars.  There’s enough economy to keep the story moving at a steady clip and enough character development to make you care about the unfortunate samurai, Seibei Iguchi, and his family.

Like many samurai features, TTS is set just prior to the Meiji restoration–a period when all samurai were beginning to question their position in a society that no longer needed men to fight one another with swords.  Iguchi is even more unfortunate than most because his wife passed away leaving him with two little girls and a senile mother to care for on his very small stipend.  The thing that endeared me to the character was the fact that his role change to the samurai version of Mr. Mom awakened something inside of him.  After spending time caring for his daughters, he found the activity to be far more fulfilling than his life as a retainer.  Over the course of the film, he longs to be released so that he might spend his days farming and tending to the needs of his family.  He also wants to be with a childhood friend on whom he’s had a lifelong crush, but a variety of circumstances, including his own lack of self esteem, continually get in the way of the fulfillment of that dream.  It’s a surprisingly moving portrait of a character who I rooted for at every turn.

Hiroyuki Sanada (seen here in the west in The Last Samurai, Sunshine, & Speed Racer) plays the titular samurai and he does so with such pathos that it would be difficult NOT to root for him.  He breathes life into the character’s every movement, revealing his inner thoughts in actions as simple as removing his socks.  The supporting cast is all very solid, but I especially loved the two children.  Every moment of their screen time is filled with charm and honesty.  Neither of them seems to be the least bit aware of the cameras and their love for their father is contagious.

Production elements are all top notch too.  Mutsuo Naganuma’s cinematography is beautiful without being obtrusively so.  Costumes and art direction disappear instead of calling too much attention to themselves.  And the minimal score by famed electronic composer Isao Tomita hits all the right notes and, to my relief, sounds more orchestral than I expected.

There is one element that I disliked, however, and that’s the voice over.  I’ve rarely been fond of the device, but here it simply doesn’t work.  The speaker is supposed to be Iguchi’s daughter as an old woman, but if the story is being told from her perspective, there are huge chunks of the film that she couldn’t have known about.  There is no footage of her as an old woman until the end of the movie and the extra information she provides in that scene doesn’t really help the story to succeed.  It’s like having one bookend instead of two and is lopsided as well as unnecessary.  A filmmaker and writer as talented as Yamada could have come up with a better solution.  It doesn’t significantly hamper the storytelling but it is occasionally distracting.

As modern samurai films go, this one is near the top of the heap, offering a moving love story, interesting characters, an unpredictable plot, and some exciting swordplay.  Very highly recommended.

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