- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

“The Twilight Samurai,” an often brilliantly executed heroic fable, seems to have had an impact in Japan somewhat similar to the example of “Chicago” in the United States. Both films revitalized proud genres that had suffered from neglect and exhaustion for decades.

“Samurai” took 12 categories in the Japanese equivalent of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, including best picture, director, actor and actress. The movie was also a finalist for the 2003 Oscars in the foreign-language-film category.

Derived from a novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa, “The Twilight Samurai,” booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, celebrates an honorable but downtrodden example of the samurai class, Seibei Iguchi, recalled by a loving daughter named Ito. Admirably portrayed by Hiroyuki Sanada, Iguchi is an impoverished widower with two young daughters, a senile mother and a demoralizing burden of debt.

Despite the bleak prospects, director Yoji Yamada is alert to humorous incongruities in his plight. The mother’s recurrent domestic query, “Of whose household are you?” becomes a reliable running gag when patiently answered by members of the family.

The Iguchi household is located on the outskirts of a town in Shonai, a northeastern province of Japan’s main island. The time frame is the middle 1860s, shortly before the Meiji Restoration.

Iguchi has a day job as a clerk in the Unasaka clan storehouse, augmented by piece work the girls help assemble at home. More of a peasant than a warrior by temperament, Iguchi is nicknamed “twilight samurai” by co-workers who can never persuade him to join them for drinking and gossip after office hours.

Despondent in the aftermath of his wife’s prolonged bout with tuberculosis and preoccupied with a debt-ridden future, Iguchi has also fallen into the habit of ignoring his appearance and odor. This neglect leads to a shameful encounter during an inspection tour by a clan luminary.

Iguchi’s inertia is remedied by circumstances that reinvigorate him as both a swordsman and eligible suitor. Reluctantly, of course. Iguchi is painfully hard to get as a hero. A good deal of the story’s appeal depends on his excessive modesty and self-deprecation. He must dust off fighting skills to aid a friend and then fulfill a deadly clan mission that pits him against a desperate and erratic professional, Zenemon Yogo, splendidly embodied by Min Tanaka, an avant-garde dancer making a phenomenal movie debut.

Potential romantic renewal and consolation return to Iguchi’s life in the person of Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), a former childhood sweetheart who has suffered marital misfortune of her own. She adores the girls and starts dropping by repeatedly to do such things as teach them songs and spruce up the house. Underestimating his worthiness, Iguchi delays the proposal Tomeo is waiting to hear until it may be too late: the morning of his showdown with Yogo, now a clan renegade under a sentence of death. None of the dilemmas or payoffs in the plot takes a form that is easy to anticipate.

A prolific director since 1961, Yoji Yamada has devoted most of his career to a single lucrative franchise: the so-called “Tora-San” movies, picaresque comedies about a resourceful peddler. Between 1969 and 1996, he directed four dozen of them. Evidently, he took the occasional side trip into prestige material, with “Twilight Samurai” as a triumphant example at the age of 72.

This would be a mind-boggling switch in the American film industry, as if a life-long sitcom journeyman had suddenly ascended the cinematic heights. In a Japanese context, experience may be given more credit for versatility. Whatever the explanation, Yoji Yamada is now sneaking up on the American art-house public with a splendidly revisionist samurai classic.

***1/2

TITLE: “The Twilight Samurai”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with fleeting graphic violence associated with sword duels, and allusions to mass starvation)

CREDITS: Directed by Yoji Yamada. Screenplay by Yoshitaka Asama and Mr. Yamada, based on a novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa. Cinematography by Mutsuo Naganuma. Production design by Mitsuo Degawa. Costume design by Kazuko Kurosawa. Music by Isao Tomita and Yousui Inoue. In Japanese with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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