In the nineteenth century at the end of Japan’s feudal age, widowed, low-ranking samurai Seibei Iguchi is an accountant at his regional lord’s storehouse, where he has been nicknamed ‘Twilight’ (Tasogare) because he refuses to socialise after working hours. Instead, he rushes home to care for his two daughters, Kayano (age ten) and Ito (age five), and his senile mother andto farm and do piecemeal jobsto pay debts. The sudden reappearance of Seibei’s childhood crush Tomoe, who has returned to her brother Iinuma Michinojo’s house to escape an abusive marriage, offers the potential for a love story. Seibei faces two obstacles: first, he challenges Tomoe’s alcoholic ex-husband, Toyotaro- Ko-da, to a duel, but uses a wooden practice sword to knock Ko-da unconscious rather than kill him. After winning respect for the swordsmanship he had tried to keep hidden, Seibei is ordered to assassinate an elderly samurai Zenemon Yogo who has sided with a losing political faction and whose family situation resembles his own. Seibei knows that he must uphold the samurai code of honour and his own ethics and that either he or Yogo must die.
Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) exemplifies Yamada Yo-ji’s (1931–) character-driven films, the likable, unpretentious protagonists of which, no matter if they are of the past or present, face problems in their families and jobs and suffer from decisions made by their political leaders, just as their Japanese film audiences do. One of Japan’s most prolific directors, Yamada created 81 films between 1961 and 2012. He was responsible for the longest-running series in world cinema history: It is Tough Being a Man (Otoko wa tsurai yo), 48 films over 25 years (1969–1995), which ended with the death of its leading actor Atsumi Kiyoshi (1928–1996). The series, more sentimental and less meditative than Twilight Samurai, was extremely popular in Japan but received little international attention, in part because its humour premised on Japanese daily life and current events was difficult to translate. Its main character Torasan – an itinerant salesman, who, in each film, falls in love, travels Japan to help the woman he desires, but never wins her love – became a folk hero. Yamada won best film honours at the Japanese Academy Awards four times: The Yellow Handkerchief (Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi, 1977), My Sons (Musuko, 1991), A Class to Remember (Gakko, 1993) and Twilight Samurai (2002). Twilight Samurai earned 11 additional Japanese Academy Awards, including best director, actor, actress, supporting actor, cinematography, screenplay, and soundtrack, and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2002 American Academy Awards. This big-budget blockbuster with global theatrical release was the first of Yamada’s trilogy based on novels by Fujisawa Shu-hei (1927–1997), one of Japan’s most famous writers of samurai fiction, and was followed by Hidden Blade: Oni’s Claw (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004) and Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006); the three films had different all-star casts.1 Like such other Yamada films as Our Mother (Kabei, 2008) set during the Second World War and About Her Brother (Ototo, 2010), about family care, Twilight Samurai is sincere with occasional humour, historical yet contemporary, understated but intense, and rich with local details. The story unfolds at a slow, steady pace, allowing emotions to heighten and end in tears. As stated by film critic Mark Schilling, ‘Yamada keeps the schmaltz content low and the pathos on high’. 2 He respects his audiences’ intelligence and earns their emotional responses.3
Seibei Iguchi (played by leading actor and karate expert Sanada Hiroyuki) is a low-ranking samurai who works as an accountant at his regional lord’s grain storehouse, the ‘office’ which has a hierarchical spatial arrangement similar to twentieth-century corporations. With no wars to fight and under the tightly regulated social order imposed by Tokugawa Shogunate, the hereditary position of samurai meant being a bureaucrat rather than a warrior, and salaries were given in the form of stipends depending on the size of the family’s estate. Samurai were permitted to carry two swords, one long and the other short, an honour not allowed to farmers and merchants, who were lower in the social hierarchy, and they were often trained in martial arts, which they did not use in battle. Seibei’s fellow samurai coworkers nickname him ‘Twilight’ (Tasogare) because he refuses to join them at drinking establishments after working hours, a form of socialising also required of modern businessmen. Seibei has no time to take care of himself, and his regional lord reprimands him for his torn clothes and body odour. His wife died from tuberculosis caused in part by their poor living conditions for which Seibei feels guilty. Despite his difficulties, Seibei is content with his modest life and does not desire to advance his position or to remarry. A theme of Twilight Samurai is that people should be judged by their honourable deeds and sense of honour rather than their social and economic status. Throughout the film, voiceover narrations by now elderly Ito, grateful for her father’s care, adds another layer of empathy for the plight of Seibei and Tomoe.
The story unfolds through small moments of family intimacy, and serious topics – death, childcare, aging parents, divorce, workplace stress, debt, political strife, and murder – are handled with emotional restraint. In arguably the most poignant scene, Seibei asks Tomoe to help him properly dress and perform rituals for his duel with Yogo. This implies that Tomoe would be the last of Seibei’s close friends and family he would see if he dies. He humbly admits his feelings for Tomoe, who regretfully states that she has already accepted a marriage proposal, adding further suspense about what might happen if Seibei lives. The sparing dialogue is accompanied by the gentle soundtrack by established composer Tomita Isao, noises of village daily life, and well-placed silence. The characters are filmed from varying angles, including from behind as if seen from a doorway, in medium and close-up shots to wordlessly convey their emotional states and to make the film audience feel privy to a private moment. After Seibei leaves for Yogo’s house, the audience is finally permitted catharsis in Tomoe’s tears as she sobs when Seibei’s senile mother asks who she is, a refrain in the film.
Yamada both works within and subverts the genre of ‘jidai geki’ and masterfully uses Japanese history as a means of subtle critique. Jidai geki are period films, television programs, and stage plays set mostly during the Edo period and often featuring sword fighting (chambara) and stories of samurai revenge.4 (Films set in modern times can be categorised as ‘gendai geki’.) Twilight Samurai differs from many other jidai geki through its focus on a samurai’s routine domestic life rather than his quest for glory. (Humanistic director Kore’eda Hirokazu was perhaps inspired by this approach in his 2006 film Hana (Hana yori mo naho).) On the one hand, Seibei represents the way of the ideal samurai (bushido-) – to be self-sacrificing, honourable, resourceful, talented in military arts, among other qualities, and to be loyal to the clan above all. In the Edo period, this behaviour was more prevalent in literature and theatre than in reality. Twilight Samurai dramatises the crisis of needing to choose ‘duty’ (giri) over ‘passion’ (ninjo-), a common theme of Edo-period popular culture. On the other hand, Yamada shows the suffering of Japan’s last generation of samurai in the ‘twilight’ of their period of dominance, facing financial hardships and reduced to bureaucrats in an outdated political order. Seibei and his cohorts are strikingly different from Edward Zwick’s 2003 Hollywood film Last Samurai that was shown in theatres in the United States around the same time. Yamada also alludes to the fact that these men were no better off after the system of military rule was abolished in the dawn of the Meiji Period (1868–1912). Sword fights are skilfully performed without special effects, at a time when computer graphics were plentiful in jidai geki, and are not pleasurable to watch. This underscores Yamada’s strong message about the inanity of fighting to the death, a theme Kurosawa Akira had emphasised in his samurai films. Yamada also visualises differences between the rich and poor. Many scenes of Twilight Samurai are shot inside samurai houses in various levels of upkeep and decay, and Yamagata village life provides a backdrop. (Yamagata is used as a metonymy for the Japanese countryside in such other recent films as Departures (Okuribito, 2008), which was chosen over Yamada’s Kabei for best film in the Japanese Academy Awards.)
While depicting the decline of samurai men, Yamada presents advancements of samurai women. Tomoe is progressive, outspoken and determined, and, with the help of her brother, she is granted a divorce and is permitted agency in choosing her next husband. Tomoe works within the system and uses her abilities to do housework and raise children to better the lives of people around her. She decides on her own volition to help in Seibei despite reprimands that women should not visit men. She teaches Seibei’s daughters Kayano and Ito needlework and other skills they will use as future wives and mothers. She takes them to village festivals run by peasants that were officially forbidden to samurai, showing the closing gaps between the social castes. Kayano and Ito attend a neighbourhood school for girls where they study books that were mostly taught to only boys so that they will learn to be better thinkers. Their practice recitations of Confucian precepts are an aural refrain in the film.
In general, Yamada’s films, both jidai geki and gendai geki, reaffirm the importance of the family. Yamada’s protagonists are various kinds of renegades and tramps who do not fit seamlessly into their social milieus. They are not ostracised but instead choose to be detached because they are cognizant of their own faults and the contradictions in their societies. These men find meaning by being accepted by their families, and if they wander, like Tora-san, they always return home. Yamada directly states this message in the tearjerker endings of several of his films. In her closing voiceover in Twilight Samurai, Ito reiterates that Seibei had not been poor and unlucky, as his fellow samurai had assumed; instead her father had enjoyed the great fortune of loving his family and being loved by them.
1. Twilight Samurai was adapted from three Fujisawa novels: Tasogare Seibei, Chikko- shiatsu, and Iwaibito sukehachi.
2. Schilling, ‘A Feast for Film Buffs’.
3. Bourne, ‘Japan Cuts 2010 Review’.
4. About Her Brother (Ototo, 2010), Yamada’s eighty-first film, was his first gendai geki in ten years.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Shochiku Company. Director: Yo-ji Yamada. Screenwriters: Yo-ji Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama. Cinematographer: Mutsuo Naganuma. Music: Isao Tomita. Cast: Hiroyuki Sanada (Seibei Iguchi), Rie Miyazawa (Tomoe Iinuma), Nenji Kobayashi (Cho-bei Kusaka), Ren Osugi (Toyotaro- Ko-da), Miki Ito- (Kayano Iguchi), Min Tanaka (Zenemon Yogo), Hiroshi Kanbe (Naota), Erina Hashiguchi (Ito Iguchi), Mitsuru Fukikoshi (Michinojo Iinuma), Kanako Fukaura (Yae Iinuma).]
Christopher Bourne, ‘Japan Cuts 2010 Review: Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother’, The Bourne Cinema Conspiracy, July 16, 2010. Available at http://chrisbourne.blogspot.com/2010/07/ japan-cuts-2010-review-yoji-yamadas.html (accessed 9 September 2012).
Mark Schilling, ‘A Feast for Film Buffs: Japan Offers Formidable Alternatives to Hollywood Fare in 2010’, Japan Times, January 8, 2010. Available at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/ ff20100108r1.html (accessed 9 September 2012).
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.