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A more humble version of Hollywood’s “The Last Samurai” forfeits flashy sword fighting scenes for rich character development through a much quieter humanistic approach.
The Twilight Samurai
Running time: 129 minutes
Producer: Shigehiro Nakagawa, Hiroshi Fukasawa, Ichiro Yamamoto
Director: Yoji Yamada
Writer: Yoji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama
Art Director: Mitsuo Degawa
Cinematographer: Mutsuo Naganuma
Costume Designer: Kazuko Kurosawa
Editor: Iwao Ishii
Sound Mixer: Kazumi Kishida
Music Composer: Isao Tomita
Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi, Ren Osugi, Miki Ito, Min Tanaka, Hiroshi Kanbe, Erina Hashiguchi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Kanako Fukaura
Production Company: Shochiku Co., Ltd.
Premiere Date: November 2, 2002
The Twilight Samurai is a reflective and humanistic period drama focused on the life of Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada of The Ring and The Last Samurai), a low-ranking samurai of the Unasaka clan in the Shonai Province of northeast Japan during the last days of the Edo Period (1603-1867). After losing his wife to tuberculosis, Seibei is left by himself to care for his two daughters, Kayano (Miki Ito) and Ito (Erina Hashiguchi), and his senile mother, whose funeral costs him his sword (the soul of the samurai). He hurries home after work every evening at twilight only to concentrate on domestic chores, which earns him the nickname of “Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Seibei)” penned by his peers. His closest friend, Michinojo Iinuma (Mitsuru Fukikoshi of Samurai Fiction and Whiteout) informs him that his sister, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa of Peony Pavilion and The Cabbie), has recently separated from her abusive husband, Toyotaro Koda (Ren Osugi of Hanabi and Sonatine), a high-ranking samurai, and plans to move in with him.
Tomoe visits Seibei and the two build a mutual affection for one another but the samurai widower rejects the possibility of an arranged marriage out of fear of bringing shame and burden to Tomoe and her wealthy family. Toyotaro insists on Tomoe’s return and a drunken confrontation with Seibei leads to a duel that he embarrassingly loses. Seibei, on the other hand, is hailed as a hero by his colleagues. As the word about his victory spreads through the palace, his superiors order him to kill Zenemon Yogo (Min Tanaka), a retainer who disobeyed a suicide order. He reluctantly agrees but before he takes off for battle, Seibei asks Tomoe to marry him if he survives the duel, but she reveals that she has already accepted a proposal from a wealthy retainer. The unexpected happens when Yogo and Seibei find themselves in a sentimental conversation about the adversities of maintaining the ideals of the dying samurai class instead of a brutal fight. Seibei returns home to greet his youngest daughter, Ito, who is portrayed as an older woman in the last scene, visiting the grave of her father and late mother (Tomoe, who eventually marries Seibei) and reminiscing as the narrator through an epilogue.
The Twilight Samurai is based on three short novels by Shuhei Fujisawa, one of Japan’s most revered authors of samurai fiction: “Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Seibei)”, “Hoito Sukehachi (Sukehachi, the Beggar)” and “Takemitsu Shimatsu (Record of a Bamboo Sword)”. This film is the first screen adaptation of Fujisawa’s novels and the first samurai film for director Yamada. The Twilight Samurai is Yamada’s 77th film and marks his 41st year as a director since his first feature, Stranger Upstairs (Nikai no Tanin). Yamada, popular for his series It’s Tough Being a Man (Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo) which started in 1969 and is the world’s longest theatrical film series about a bad luck lovelorn peddler named Tora San, has won innumerable awards for his work.
This meditative character-driven elegy swept the 26th Japanese Academy Awards in 2002, winning 12 of 14 awards (the second-highest number ever since Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance?,1996) including Best Picture and Best Director recognition for veteran director Yamada, as well as the Kinema Junpo magazine Best One prize (considered Japan’s most prestigious award). Yamada also walked away with the First Hawaiian Bank Golden Maile Award for Best Film Feature at last year’s Hawaii International Film Festival.
In a press statement, director Yamada notes, “At last, the time has come for realizing my long-cherished dream, to portray the realm of Shuhei Fujisawa on the screen with cinematic beauty and power. To challenge a truly authentic samurai movie is replete with excitement.”
Japanese Reviews of The Twilight Samurai
Translated by Fumie Nakamura
By Takeshi Nakayama
“A lot of middle class workers found many things that were familiar to them in this film and thus, became very emotionally attached to the story. The film made the aged, yet experienced, male cry in a similar way as some other documentary shows do in Japan, such as Project X, which deals with various historic constructions and scientific projects done by skilled men that greatly contributed to modern technological society. The Twilight Samurai, on the other hand, is about a lower class samurai, which resembles the lives of every other man today who goes to work and raises his children, and whose pay is low. This film caught the hearts of the middle aged male audience.”
“The Twilight Samurai did not win any awards at the Berlin Film Festival despite its popularity and favorable reception in Japan. However, it does not necessarily mean that this film, Yoji Yamada’s first samurai movie, is not good enough to reach the standard of the genre. Yet, unlike those films that are more sensational and powerful, such as Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, it may be difficult for audiences in America and European countries to understand the aesthetic and interesting details of the film.”
Nov. 29, 2002
“The movie emphasizes the beauty of nature – the snow-capped Mt. Chokai and its neighboring range that lies between Yamagata and Akita prefectures provide an impressive contrast with the blue sky. The film’s landscapes offer a sense of serenity that is almost overwhelming.”
“Keiko Kishi plays the grown-up Ito, Seibei’s youngest daughter, who stands at her family grave in the final scene. Here, it is revealed that the deep voice that has been narrating the film is hers. This is the downfall of an otherwise enjoyable film, because although she is used to evoke a sense of mature nostalgia, something tells me Kishi’s voice is less than fitting. It’s also frustrating, as it leaves the remainder of [the] hero’s life up to the imagination.”
Process of Oscar Nominee Selection in Japan
The Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ) calls for submissions each year and holds a jury committee to select one feature film to be considered for Oscar nomination. The committee members consist of a diverse group of film critics, directors and industry professionals.
Japan’s Film Industry
In recent years, the Japanese film market has welcomed an average of 53-57% of imported films, maintaining a healthy mixture of domestic and foreign films. Movie theatres screening both domestic and imported films have also grown dramatically from 38.62% in 1996 to 69.79% in 2002. (Information courtesy of Unijapan.org).
In the ‘90s and into the 21st century, many young directors took advantage of the freedoms within the industry and the independent production units as well as marketing VHS and DVD. Japan is also responsible for creating a new genre of the anime, which is quickly becoming an international sensation (See article: Japanese Animation and Comics in the US). The genre of animation film was not highly respected artistically until Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro won several Japanese film awards in 1988. Currently, anime films represent about one third of the total box office earnings. More anime films are exported from Japan than non-animations. Since the birth of anime, Japan has witnessed the success of films like Hideaki Anno’s The End of Evangelion and Hayao Miyazaki’s Mononoke-hime (The Princess Mononoke) in 1997, which surpassed the record earnings of the American film E.T. with a stunning total of 12 million viewers. Not to mention Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away of 2001.
Azusa Soya of Uni Japan Film states, “Last year Spirited Away got an Oscar and it was a hot topic among Japanese media, however, the movie was already popular and a big hit in Japan. So winning an Oscar does not necessarily mean it will affect box office sales. Although the media will pick up on the topic and as a consequence, people will recognize the title [of the film] and its story. It may possibly affect its DVD/VHS sales. Mount Head by Koji Yamamura became very popular after one TV station showed a one-hour documentary about him. Only animation industry people recognized him before, but after being nominated for an Oscar, many others recognized his name and picture.”
Link to the The Twilight Samurai's official site: http://www.shochiku.co.jp/kakushiken/index.html (Japanese only)
Date Posted: 1/23/2004