Twilight Samurai is a small, understated film that will likely confound the (generic) expectations of most of its audience, so unless you get a kick out of paying ten bucks to sit in a dark room and feel alienated for two hours, listen up: this film’s primary strengths are dramatic, and it is, in fact, a melodrama.
This is a great thing, as it allows Twilight Samurai to address an imbalance that typifies just about every popular representation of samurai received (or produced) in the West; that is, a privileging of the specifically martial aspects of bushido, the samurai ‘code.’ Bushido is actually a far more general set of social dictates, and it with exploring these broader ideas that Twilight Samurai is largely concerned.
Seibei is a low-ranking samurai living in mid-19th century Japan. His wife has just died of consumption, his elderly mother is dementing and no longer recognises him, his kimono is dirty and torn and Seibei is so busy attending to domestic chores he doesn’t even have time to bathe, but he is happy. Despite his problems, Seibei is content just watching his two young daughters grow up.
How this could be is completely lost on those around him, however, and Seibei’s household is constantly upset by his having to meet the demands placed on him by his samurai status.
The world around him is changing, too. Although not yet at an end, the feudal system of Japanese givernment is constantly being challenged, and, as a samurai (albeit a very poor one), this also means challenges fo Seibei. However, despite motivating many key narrative events, the politics of Seibei’s era are never used as an easy way of injecting subtext into the film; although the direct references that are made can’t be called subtle, they’re far more effective than, say, having Tom Cruise charge a gatling gun.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a samurai flick without some swordplay. Twilight Samurai is actually quite terrifying in its depiction of such fighting; despite their obvious skill, the combatants in this film appear shockingly clumsy by comparison to some of their more famous cinematic forebears — a fact which, paradoxically, makes them all the more impressive. The realism of the duels here more-or-less undermine any kind of belief that might have once been held as to the ability of such natural-born killers as Sonny Chiba or Tomisaburo Wakayama. While there is little doubt that those two could lay the proverbial spank down on anyone they met in the ‘real world,’ their hyper-stylised onscreen antics look positively ridiculous compared to what’s on display in Twilight Samurai.
Yoji Yamada’s direction is excellent, while both leads (Hiroyuki Sanada and Rie Miyazawa as Seibei and Tomoe, respectively) put in solid performances, but no single aspect of the production draws particular attention to itself. Twilight Samurai is a restrained film (appropriately so, considering its subject matter) that essentially succeeds because of its understatement.