The Twilight Samurai Review

Set in Unasaka in North Eastern Japan in the late nineteenth century, an old woman, Ito, narrates the story of her father, Seibei Iguichi (Hiroyuki Sanada) – a low-ranking government official who has come into hard times following the death of his wife from consumption. The expense of her long illness combined with an expensive funeral has left the family in serious debt, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Iguchi’s work colleagues or the master of the clan on an impromptu visit to the grain store where he works. While his colleagues go out to enjoy a drink after work, Iguichi returns home (earning him the nickname ‘Twilight Seibei’) to look after a sick mother and two young children, trying to earn some extra money growing crops and making wicker insect traps. Seibei’s brother-in-law would like him to get married again, but Seibei is no longer a great catch and he is happy with things as they are. When his childhood sweetheart, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) turns up recently divorced from an unhappy marriage, Seibei finds himself forced to defend her honour in a duel. Although he is only a junior clan retainer, he is still a samurai, albeit one no longer practised in the use of the sword. The duel earns him a reputation he doesn’t feel he deserves and he soon finds himself assigned to a dangerous task on the clan’s behalf.

Winning 12 Japanese Academy Awards in 2003, Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai is one of the most successful films in recent Japanese history. Based on a hugely successful series of stories by Shuhei Fujisawa, its delicate and accessible blend of pseudo-autobiographical and historical drama, family values, old-fashioned romance and martial arts action achieved unprecedented mainstream success. Much of the attraction of the film is in its very simplicity, a fond looking back on an apparently simpler time, where times were hard and the people were poor, but they knew their position, behaved with dignity and respect, managed the best they could and were happy nonetheless. It’s clearly a rose-tinted view and this is likely to be a contentious issue with some viewers. On one hand, the autobiographical narrative device of an old lady looking back with fond memories of her father and nostalgia for her childhood does seem calculated, but the inequities of the feudal system are not completely overlooked – bodies of frozen, starving peasants can be seen now and again floating down they river and retainers like Seibei himself are subject to whatever demands are placed upon them by their masters. The narrative device also manages to successfully draw the viewer in towards the characters, helping identification and explaining some of the stranger behaviour and attitudes for those unfamiliar to the customs of the period.

And it’s hard not to be beguiled by the story and characters. The story of the reluctant samurai is a favourite device of Akira Kurosawa, who used it to great effect in Seven Samurai, Sanjuro and Red Beard and in the posthumously filmed After The Rain, where the sudden explosions of unexpected violence are all the more effective for the superb detail that has gone into the characterisation, showing real human people who care and feel pain for their victims rather than the killing machines of most samurai films. That is certainly the case here in The Twilight Samurai – the director, through the narrator, taking great pains to depict strong characters and outline their circumstances in such a way that you cannot help but identify with their predicament and be concerned about the outcome. Although the careful building of character and plot can cause some repetition and over-elaboration, it does lead to a conclusion where the viewer is nevertheless thoroughly gripped and emotionally involved in an outcome which contains one of the best death-scenes I’ve seen in a long time. The eventual appearance of the narrator in the film’s coda could be seen to border on sentimentality, but the wrapping-up of the story is portrayed in such an indirect method – through plain narration and a simple shot – that it is hard to see it as anything but sincere in its genuine affection for the characters and the story of their lives.

Tartan’s release of Twilight Samurai has seen a number of delays and cancellations. Plans for a 2-disc Special Edition offered by some on-line retailers were eventually dropped and even the single-disc edition was cancelled due to an inability by Tartan to obtain decent source materials. It appears now due to demand for the film, that Tartan have gone ahead and released Twilight Samurai on DVD without having satisfactory source materials, which makes a mockery of the statement issued by Tartan on the postponement of the DVD in August.

The picture quality here isn’t good. With a running time of 129 minutes – not the 125 that is listed on the cover and which would be accurate with PAL speed-up – it appears that the print used in the DVD release here has been transferred from an NTSC source, probably the Japanese edition. Colours and contrast have been severely dampened in the process. Blacks are almost non-existent, particularly in indoor scenes, which look brown and murky with very little detail whatsoever. The image is soft and shows constant motion blur artefacts and brightness shows up ghosting and flare against dark backgrounds. Outdoor scenes look a little better, but are probably far from accurate representations of the colour warmth. It is all fairly distracting and really doesn’t do the film justice, rendering some crucial scenes murky and indistinct. The aspect ratio is listed on the cover as 2.35:1, but is actually 1.85:1 anamorphic, which appears to be the correct ratio.

The audio choices are fine, a DTS track performs admirably with strong directional effects and a clear musical score by Tomita. Tomita’s score at times threatens to swamp the film in synthetic Japanese music, but it actually remains understated and used carefully and appropriately throughout. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are also included.

Extra features are limited to a nice Original Theatrical Trailer (1:58) and a simplified Teaser (1:04) that gives no indication as to the nature of the film. A Tartan Trailer Reel includes trailers for Respiro, Basque Ball, Beijing Bicycle, In The Mood For Love, Lovers of the Arctic Circle and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Sping.

The English title of the film - The Twilight Samurai - somewhat misrepresents the original title Tasogare Seibei (‘Twilight Seibei’). This is not an action movie, but a gentle and affecting Japanese period drama, played out with delicate charm by the two leads Sanada and Miyazawa. Some – myself included – will find it a little bit too sweet in places in its overly-romanticised look at the past, but it's played with such understated simplicity that it is hard to harbour any serious objections to this beautiful little film. Tartan’s DVD release of the film on DVD is clearly inadequate and, following previous trends, will almost certainly be replaced at a later date with a better sourced print and perhaps the extra features that they were unable to obtain for this release. I suggest you wait until that edition is released.

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