The Twilight Samurai

The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei), directed by Yoji Yamada, takes place during 1868 in a province near Mount Fuji where a feudal clan is the ruling authority. As the emperor in Edo shuts down various clans, the clan remains albeit much less defiant than the Choshu and Satsuma clans in the south–or the clan depicted in The Last Samurai (2003). Those at the top of the clan hierarchy allocate land and rice to various samurai, who in turn are in charge of peasants and houseservants; women are strictly subordinate to men. Some samurai hold higher positions than others. One of the most humble, with an annual allotment of fifty bales of rice, is Seibei Iguchi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), whose wife dies early in the film. Although the expense of the funeral virtual bankrupts him, he spares little expense so as not to offend his wife’s family, who are higher up in the hierarchy. But he still has to take care of two daughters and an aging, senile mother. In the daytime, he manages his master’s stores of foodstuffs, specializing in the salted cod collection. After his day at work, Seibei works in the garden and directs the family in building wooden cricket cages for extra money. The Japanese title, “Twilight Seibei,” refers to a nickname given to him by his coworkers, who belittle him because he goes home after work rather than carousing at the local geishahouse. One day, Tomoe Iinuma (played by Rie Miyazawa) suddenly appears in the village, having divorced Toyotarou Kouda (played by Ren Osugi), who is one of the clan’s top swordfighters. When her former husband learns that she has returned to live with her brother Rinnojo (played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi), he challenges him to a fight, but Seibei intervenes, resulting in the scheduling of a duel on the following morning. Seibei wins but spares Toyotarou’s life because he uses a stick rather than a sword. Seibei’s boyhood friend, Tomoe then decides to go to his house in the daytime while he is at work in order to perform needed household chores. Eventually, Tomoe’s brother asks Seibei if he would like to marry Tomoe, but he declines because he cannot provide the affluent lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. Meanwhile, the head of Seibei’s clan has died, and a struggle for succession is taking place. When one faction wins, Yogo Zenemon (played by Min Tanaka), who has supported the losing faction with his swordsmanship, must be eliminated. Refusing to commit seppuku, he barricades himself in his house and vanquishes an assassin that the winning faction sends. Seibei is then commissioned to finish him off. Before going to battle, Seibei asks Tomoe to marry him, but she confesses that she has already accepted another proposal. Saddened, Seibei goes to battle, a rather strange encounter indeed, and succeeds in his mission despite the absurdity of following the bushido code at a time when the samurai themselves were an endangered species. When he returns from battle, most filmviewers will hope that Tomoe has remained, and that the two will marry despite her commitment to someone else. Ito (played by Erina Hashiguchi), his youngest daughter, in a final voiceover, explains that during 1871 the emperor abolished all clans, and that Seibei died in the Boshin War, the last gasp of feudal power, though many upper-rank samurai in time rose to positions of great wealth. As is common with rural stories set in historical periods, the customs and scenery will make a more powerful impact on filmviewers than the sentimental plot, which is based on three novellas by Shuuhei Fujisawa. The Twilight Samurai eloquently illustrates the Japanese concept of on, that is, dedication and respect to others that involves loyalty and obligations to those above and below one in the hierarchy. Always exhausted, Seibei has fulfilled obligations to many people–to his wife’s family, his mother, his daughters, and to those higher in the samurai hierarchy–, all without a thought to any self-indulgence. Whereas the film will serve to promote intercultural understanding for gaijin (non-Japanese), those in Japan will notice the loss of traditional values and will be reminded of the pros and cons of the wrenching dislocations of the modernization that proceeded apace after 1871. MH

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