Destined to be overlooked and underappreciated, Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai is a mature, revisionist, Budd Boetticher samurai epic. The genre’s battery of traditions takes an evocative, real-world beating; here, 19th-century bushi are shogun functionaries mired in clan accounting and haunted by financial problems. Yamada, a septuagenarian work-horse best known in Japan for his 27-year run helming some 46 contemporary romantic comedies in the “Tora-San” series, set out to make a “realistic” period piece, and so the tale turns on the ludicrous injustice of clan politics, complete with dog-eat-dog task work, managerial humiliation, and pre-scripted hara-kiri. Employees of the New World Order can easily relate.
Iguchi, the titular hero (Ringu vet Hiroyuki Sanada), is a downtrodden nowhere man cowed by his low class stature, his recent widowerhood, and the massive debt incurred because of his dead wife’s tuberculosis. With his petty salary garnished and his elderly mother all but completely senile, Iguchi (nicknamed Twilight by his scoffing co-workers) finds solace in his young daughters and apparently harbors, in a culture predicated on manly aggression, no desire to improve his situation. Presumably shortlisted for the Edo period’s equivalent of layoffs, the fading warrior sees the fickle finger of fate arrive in the form of Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), his childhood sweetheart, who’s escaping an abusive marriage with a notorious swordsman. Defending her against the drunken lout (though he knows he’s too poor to marry her), the modest Iguchi exhibits righteous fighting skills no one ever guessed at, and suddenly his slightly brightening future is put on the chopping block as the clan dissolves into civil conflict and expert assassins are required.
Based on a novel by Shuhei Fujiwara, The Twilight Samurai is not a radical redressing of samurai formula so much as a sensible realigning of its priorities: Honor, ostensibly the end-all of the warrior myth, is matter-of-factly trumped by poverty, parental devotion, romantic love, familial responsibility, even complacent contentment. Yamada shoots his movie with a grandfatherly expertise, never squeezing the drama for juice or distancing us too far from the characters—it’s a pleasure to see a movie that makes every shot count, narratively and emotively. (The unceremonious observation of work—Iguchi earning extra money by assembling bamboo insect-specimen cages, as well as meticulously prepping his sword for battle—is just another factor in the movie’s commitment to reality.)
At the same time, it’s hardly a gritty experience; Yamada’s wide-screen images are as ripe and sweet as a Sirkian peach. Fujiwara’s story, with its concise yet organic contest between happiness and society, is adroitly crafted, but Samurai‘s primary blessing is a sense of humane community, where relationships have unexpected depths and individuals’ inconsistencies reflect the culture’s irrational brutalism. Climactically, a would-be death-defying face-off becomes an exhausted heart-to-heart of commiseration and mourning—punctuated by one exasperated warrior absentmindedly snacking on a fragment of cremation bone. Here, as throughout The Twilight Samurai, the acting is grippingly genuine and several degrees more convincing than its genre can usually accommodate. That Yamada’s film was actually nominated for an Oscar earlier this year shouldn’t be held against it—even the Academy’s import-selecting body can trip on its own Ferrari every now and then and elect somethingsubtle, grown-up, and nourishingly wise.