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Twilight Samurai

japanese samurai movie

When people think about a Japanese samurai movie, one assumes it will be full of stereotypical sword fights and gratuitous bloodshed.  However, 2002’s The Twilight Samurai surprised me.  I loved this movie.  It was a personal story, an intimate one, as opposed to some epic societal shift of an entire culture. Able to completely suspend my disbelief, I felt as though I lived in this small, feudal shogun village. 

The Twilight Samurai (or titled ‘Tasogare Seibei’ in Japanese) is a 2002 film, starring Hiroyuki Sanada, whom you will recognize as “Ujio” in 2003’s The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. The story takes place in the late 1860s and involves members of the Unasaka Clan in the Shonai Province. This area is now referred to as the Yamagata Prefecture in northeast Japan.  This is at a time of significant, progressive change in Japan just prior to the Meiji Restoration when the samurai lost their status as top of the caste hierarchy.  In Twilight Samurai, some samurai pretend nothing is changing during this societal transformation. Others defiantly resist the changes. While some accept it as a natural defeat.  Indeed, the age of the sword is coming to an end and society struggles to adapt to that change.

The scenery of this Japanese samurai movie is breathtaking. The village sets are immensely impressive.  It very much makes me want to visit the countryside of Japan.  The music is also emotional, fitting, and complementary to the cinematography.  ​I was pleasantly surprised at how well annunciated the Japanese dialogue was.  I recognized some words, having studied Japanese for a few years in college.  However, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that I actually understood any of the story’s detail without the assistance of the subtitles.  At over two hours of reading subtitles, this may not be your kind of movie – but I really connected with it.

The Twilight Samurai, in some respects, has occasional tones of a romantic comedy, but is overwhelmingly a romantic tragedy in that the two that love each other are consistently blocked from being together by the arbitrary standards of a conformist culture and the societal expectations of a doomed feudal regime.  The story is so familiar and so human, that non-Japanese speaking viewers can easily connect with it.​Much like many books and movies today, the protagonists in this film are people of modern-day values trapped in a time and a system of antiquated, obsolete ones.  The order of the samurai and their sense of obligation and loyalty are part of what keeps a low-ranking samurai, Seibei (pronounced ‘Say’-‘bay’) from his childhood love, Tomoe (pronounced ‘Toe’-‘mo’-‘eh’).  Similarly, the conformism and social conservatism of a woman’s expectations are what keeps her from him.  ​

There are only two fight scenes in the entire Japanese samurai movie.  If you are expecting an action movie, you’ll likely be disappointed.  This movie is a story about relationships.  Told from the point of view of Seibei’s youngest child, the story reveals itself with hints of the class Romeo & Juliette dilemma. ​The samurai belong to a class and each individual samurai’s rank within that class is measured by a monthly rice stipend or ‘koku.’ Our widowed hero raises two daughters and cares for a mother with Alzheimer’s with only 50 koku.  This petty amount is described to be only enough for a single person to survive for one year.  This low stipend has forced Seibei to take menial side jobs such as cage building and farming to subsidize.  ​

Twilight Samurai is valuable for someone who is interested in Japan’s culture beyond that of just martial arts.  Here, a lot is learned of a samurai’s place, position, and interaction with a society.  While there is much that I have always admired about the samurai, I suspect the reason why they are essentially extinct is because of some of the rigidity of their alleged values.  This assertion is something I am currently writing about for an upcoming article for the Castle Rock AIKIDO Dojo Newsletter. There I will review the Seven Values of the Samurai first articulated in the 1899 Japanese text entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe.  ​

In a scene near the end of the movie, I am reminded of some of the text from Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of 5 Rings: The Water Book, when he describes the best ways to fight indoors.  I had not truly appreciated these passages until I watched this scene from Twilight Samurai.   ​The Last Samurai and The Twilight Samurai are similar to each other in that both take place at approximately the same time period. However, The Last Samurai deals with these societal changes on a macroscopic level and Twilight Samurai addresses these societal changes on a microscopic level.  

The Twilight Samurai wasn’t about changing the country or saving the world.  It was about a series of events that brought two people together.  It was about a man who was, overall, content with his place and standing in the world – who had no ambition to rise in it other than to provide as best he could for his family.  I guess one could argue that of the seven virtues of a samurai, Seibei most valued that of humility.  ​As I watch more and more Japanese films I’m getting used to what I (at least by Western standards) might call their melodramatic performances.  I can definitely see how this movie won 12 awards from the Japanese Film Academy, including Best DirectorBest FilmBest Actor, and Best Actress.  

This article was republished in 2024. It was written in 2008.

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