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Twilight Samurai, The

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 09/30/03 09:27:00

"Crouching Samurai, Hidden Fury"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

(SCREENED AT THE 2003 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FETSIVAL) “The Twilight Samurai” tells the story of Seibei Iguchi, a man who should be a warrior, but instead confines himself to his home where he must look after his two young daughters and ailing mother. He works with samurai, but does not have the aggression or fury necessary to fight in any battles. He carries the title Clan Retainer, which basically amounts to File Clerk. His wife has just died and he feels he must put the interests of his family above anything else, which means not going out drinking with the other samurai after a hard day’s work. With so little time to spend on himself, Iguchi sometimes forgets to shower, bringing disgrace to his profession.

One eventually wonders why he even chose this life for himself if he never felt up to the task of fighting in the first place. Iguchi does have a past that does involve training for warfare, but he has never had the opportunity to use it for the greater good. When a fight breaks out between the luminous Miss Tomoe and her drunken ex-husband Koda, Iguchi puts himself in the position of fighting Koda after he has sobered up in order to break things up in a civilized manner.

Miss Tomoe, a childhood friend of Iguchi’s, helps him out at home. She brings his two daughters to fairs put on by the peasants in the village and she helps cook and clean. She becomes the surrogate mother to the two kids. Meanwhile, word of Iguchi’s unconventional fighting technique (used when fighting Koda) gets around town and soon he receives an assignment that could cost him his life and cause a serious rupture into his own heart of darkness.

If you walk into “Twilight Samurai” expecting a Kurosawa-type epic, you may be taken aback by how little fighting and warfare actually exists in the movie (or not if you have read the above synopsis). This movie plays more like a family drama than a Shakespearean tale of bloodshed and revenge. It’s the sort of movie Ang Lee would make if he had been given the chance to re-invent the samurai movie. It centers on a man who must try and maintain the good in him while trying to avert his eyes from the evil that surrounds. It’s about single fatherhood and, like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” unrequited love.

The movie only stumbles when it gives us voice-over narration from the adult version of Iguchi’s youngest daughter, Ito. Ito and Iguchi only appear together in a few scenes and Ito herself does not appear in any of the scenes in which the story takes major turns, so why does she get to narrate? The movie does not end up being about her, even in the film’s coda (It would almost be like having the Harrison Ford character narrate “Apocalypse Now”). A third-person omniscient narrator might have worked better, if only to convey the feeling of bringing to life a legend rather than a just a story.

The rest of “The Twilight Samurai” works wonderfully. Director Yoji Yamada does not try to emulate Kurosawa, nor does he get overly operatic. He has a refined and elegant style, careful to let his actors breathe. As Iguchi, Hiroyuki Sanada gives a deeply heartfelt performance, especially during a declaration of the heart that could have easily gone over the top. With Iguchi, he has created a deeply tragic and hopeful character, one who maintains respectability in the face of utter foolishness.

“The Twilight Samurai” is a wonderful elegy. It has a simplicity that will engage audiences while also arousing the intellect. Many filmgoers will think that they don’t want to see a samurai movie, but they would be wrong here. Iguchi is a character with whom many of us can identify. He could be more if it weren’t for the things that hold him down (His sadness, his two daughters, his ailing mother and his reluctance to put his life on the line). We contemplate his dilemma in the film’s third act as though it were our own and most of the time, we’re right there with him.

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