Dir: Yoji Yamada. Japan. 2002. 129mins.
The winner of a slew of film awards at home and a competition selection at Berlin next month, The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) may finally propel director Yoji Yamada into the international spotlight, after a long and highly successful career. Ironically, the film is in a genre, period drama, that Yamada never attempted before, preferring instead to concentrate on warm-hearted melodramas and comedies, including his 48-episode Tora-san series.
An heir to the humanist tradition of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and other luminaries of the Shochiku studio, as well as the principal financial support of said studio for decades, Yamada has long been celebrated as a master by Japanese critics, but recognition from abroad has been slower to come. The Twilight Samurai will probably not make him the hip Japanese director of the moment - it is pitched conservatively at Yamada's over-forty core audience - but a quietly passionate and impressively athletic performance by star Hiroyuki Sanada, as well as a gripping third-act showdown, recalls the genre's glory days and should translate into overseas sales interest.
Set in the last days of the Edo era (1600-1867), the film presents a Japan much like the one of today, complete with recessionary lifestyles, corporate restructuring - and men who can't say what they feel. The hero, Seibei (Sanada), is a samurai scraping along on a small stipend and working as a clerk in the clan office. At dusk, when his colleagues head to the local pub for a drink, he goes straight home - earning him the derisive nickname Tasogare (Twilight) Seibei.
His reasons for his early departure are his two young daughters and senile mother - all that is left of his family after the death of his wife. He does most of the work around the place, from tending the garden to making cricket cages for extra money. But for all his ceaseless labours, he remains desperately poor.
Then Tomoe (Rie Miyazaki), the sister of Seibei's best friend, visits Seibei's house after a long absence and brightens the gloom with her warm presence and cheery smile. Everyone falls in love with her, including the lonely Seibei, though he would rather die that admit it.
When Tomoe's drunken brute of a husband comes to claim her - she ran away to escape his beatings - Seibei confronts him and, using only a wooden stick to the husband's sword, bests him in a duel. His skill comes the attention of his clan superiors, who order him to dispatch one Yogoemon (Min Tanaka) - a disgruntled loser in a clan succession struggle. Seibei is reluctant, but the clan elders insist - and promise to end his financial worries. Just as he is about to set off, Tomoe tells him she has accepted a marriage offer. Then he discovers that his intended victim is a poor man much like himself. How can he kill him with a clean conscience' Why should he even care, now that the love of his life belongs to another man again'
Rie Miyazawa's Tomoe is a wish-fulfilment figure, who lives only to worship the hero and care for his brood. Her sweetness-and-light act belies her recent history as a battered wife, however - nary a scar remains. Miyazawa's performance, charming as it may be, offers few clues into her inner life
Sanada, meanwhile, brings a weary conviction to the role of Seibei, while wielding a mean sword, particularly in his climatic confrontation. He and celebrated Butoh dancer Min Tanaka perform their dance of death with power and grace, while connecting as comrades in injustice and misery. This scene could stand alone as a one-act play - and is one of the best things Yamada has ever done. Twilight could well be his new dawn.
Prod cos: Shochiku, Nippon Television Broadcasting, Sumitomo, Hakuhodo, Nippan, Satellite Theatre
Japan dist: Shochiku
Int'l sales: Shochiku
Exec prod: Nobuyoshi Otani, Toshio Hagiwara, Motoyuki Oku, Tomoo Miyagawa, Tomiyasu Ishikawa
Scr: Yoji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama
Cinematography: Mutsuo Naganuma
Prod des: Mitsuo Degawa
Eds: Iwao Ishii
Music: Shigeyoshi Onodera
Main cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Ren Osugi, Min Tanaka, Mitsu Fukukoshi