Although I still think that the samurai/rônin genre went into decline for the last three decades of the 20th century, but I’ve come to realize that my obituary for the genre was premature, mostly because of the sort of trilogy of samurai movies Yamada Yôji made in the first decade of the 21st century.
The last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) are somewhat equivalent to the end of the “wild west,” specifically, the obsolescence of pistol duelists (gunslingers). This closing of a kind of warrior order (albeit one without the rigorous code and fully developed philosophy of bûshido—the way (Tao) of the sword) is the backdrop for most of the great westerns of the 1950s and 60s (The Gunfighter, Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Once Upon a Time in the West, et al.)—or at least most of those not directed by Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann.
In a number of the American westerns about the twilight of the “wild west,” the gunslingers turned south, getting involved in Latin American (mostly Mexican) disputes and revolts (The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Professionals, The Wrath of God, A Fistful of Dynamite, and many of the spaghetti westerns, including A Bullet for the General). In contrast, the samurai had nowhere to go. Their swordsmanship skills were obsolete, with no foreign market—and their association with the xenophobic shogunate that had kept Japan closed off as much as possible from the rest of the world.
IMO, the greatest of the films about samurai aware of the obsolescence of their skills and decline in status in the long pacified empire Kobayashi Masaki’s “Seppuku” (196) and Okamoto Kihachi’s “Kill!” (1968). In the latter, the critique of blindly following the commands of evil masters is explicitly stated by Genta (Nakadai Tatsuya) to Hanji (Takahashi Etsushi) a strong peasant who has sold his small land-holding to buy a sword and seek work as a samurai. Genta is a great swordsman who is fed up with the whole social order and rapacious samurai in particular. In the former, Nakadai played the father of a master swordsman unable to provide for his family and had sold his sword.
The “twilight” samurai Seibei in Yamada Yôji‘s “Tasogare Seibei” (released internationally in 2003 and nominated for a 2003 best foreign-language film Oscar with the literal translation “Twilight Samurai“) has employment, albeit at the lowest salary and prestige rank (50 ryo). The somewhat slow start shows that he has been impoverished by his wife’s terminal illness and the fancy funeral her relatives demanded. Seibei Iguchi (Sanada Hiroyuki)has two daughters (aged 5 and 10) and a senile mother to try to support. So preoccupied with gardening and housework and piecework (making cricket cages) is he, that he has become scruffy and unwashed. He is reprimanded for this and is a joke to most of the other retainers (of some castle in northern Honshu). Enjoying watching his daughters grow up (and teaching them to read to prepare them for a world he expects will change), he doesn’t care about the scorn of other swordsmen turned clerks, who call him “twilight” (in the sense of half-bright).
He does have one (higher-rank) friend, Mitsuru Fukikoshi (Iinum Michinojo). The viewer gradually learns that Seibei’s childhood sweetheart/playmate was Fukikoshi’s sister Tomoe (Miyazawa Rie). Fukikoshi married her off to an even higher-ranking samurai who turned out to be a drunkard who beat her. Fukikoshi arranged a divorce, and Tomoe has returned to live under his roof (where she must defer to her older brother’s wife).
Fukikoshi has received multiple offers to marry his sister. She has been visiting and helping out in the Sebei household and wants to marry him. As much as Seibei Iguchi loves (and has always loved) her, he does not want her to feel degraded and be worn-down by being the husband of an ill-paid and (in the view of most) contemptible very minor samurai.
When Tomoe’s ex-husband comes a’callin’ and challenges Mitsuru Fukikoshi to a duel, Seibei Iguchi insists on taking Fukikoshi’s place. Dueling among the lord’s retainers has been forbidden, and Seibei takes a dangerous by brilliant way to fight the oaf who has abused the love of his life.
He attempts to suppress any discussion of his triumph, but when a master swordsman (played by dancer Tanaka Min in his first speaking role) refuses to commit seppuku, barricades himself in his house, and cuts down some other top-ranked samurai, Seibei Iguchi is ordered to slay the rebel. He attempts to decline the honor, but is bound to obey. This leads to another lengthier, but quite interesting confrontation, and a bittersweet end.
Sanada is nothing short of great in the role of the humble, unambitious, but stalwart Seibei Iguchi (in there with Nakadai in the 1960s rebel samurai films and with such reluctant gunslingers as Gregory Peck in “The Gunfighter”). The film viewer sees what his haughty fellow samurai fail to see (but what Tomoe does see). Both of his duels involve great daring and skill on his part. Unlike most every other samurai film, the duels are realistic. Seibei Iguchi does not cut down dozens of assailants with nary a scratch (as Mifune frequently did; Nakadai also cut down multitudes but did not escape unscathed). His fights are one-on-one with better-armed opponents who are in fighting training (which he has had no time for since marrying).
Seibei’s devotion to his family is very great (though not unparalleled in the 1960s end-of-the-shogunate classic), and the love story (loving Tomoe too much to marry him) is far more developed than in any samurai movie I’ve ever seen (though, Lord knows, there are movies about obsessive love among Japanese of various eras, including “Double Suicide” from the twilight of the shogunate one).
For me, the visual stylization of samurai movies works better in black-and-white (though the Samurai trilogy of the 1950s was filmed in Technicolor). Nevertheless, the color cinematography by Naganuma Mutsuo ooks like it was impressive, particularly in the river-fishing scene in which Mitsuru Fukikoshi sounds out his friend about marrying Tomoe. The first duel is also fought at the edge of the river. (The final duel is fought indoors without a whole lot of light.) The visual transfer is not very good, alas (the audio is better).
“Tasogare Seibei” swept the Japanese film academy awards (twelve, including picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor, cinematography) and should have received the Oscar that went to “The Barbarian Invasions” (yet another mistake in the long list of Oscar mistakes!).
It runs a bit more than two hours, but after some initial slowness, there is nothing gratuitous. It is very unusual in being narrated by a daughter of the reluctant hero (female perspectives on samurai are few, if others exist! What is shown is not, however, from her perspective). I like her final voice-over, which has bothered some others.
The DVD includes a theatrical trailer, and interviews with director Yamada Yôji and with leading man Sanada Hiroyuki. Yamada (dubbed into English) explains that he wanted to make a re realistic period piece about someone from the lower ranks, and to have sword fights in which there are no instant deaths, but in which the loser is the one who bleeds to death first.
Sanada is fluent in English (having played the Fool to Nigel Hawthorne’s King Lear for an extended run with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and more recently played the sinister Japanese advance man in “The White Countess” and a foe of Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai”). Sanada talks about his experience in a quite varied career (Ringu and many yakuza films) and his martial arts training (and input in the choreography of fight scenes in both “Twilight Samurai” and “The Last Samurai”).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray