The 2003 Tom Cruise period action-drama The Last Samurai is the film that introduced me to contemporary Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada; I believe this was the first English language film that either had acted in. Since then, both have appeared in a number of Hollywood productions, but the real treat is to watch them in Japanese movies, where they have the opportunity to play a wider range of characters.
Hiroyuki Sanada won his only Japanese Best Actor awards so far (he has been nominated 4 other times) for The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) released in 2002. This is the first of veteran director Yoji Yamada’s ‘Samurai Trilogy’ (released in 2-year gaps by The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor). Many of the famous samurai films of the 1950s and 60s showcase the brave and heroic side of a samurai’s life; but even in those films, one could read the subtext of their hand-to-mouth existence and the susceptibility of their lives to the whims and fancies of feudal lords. Yamada’s trilogy focuses on this latter, less glamorous aspect of samurai life and amplifies it to tell 3 different stories where honor and self-respect stand firm in the face of overwhelming social and financial odds.
In The Twilight Samurai, Sanada plays Seibei, an impoverished widower who is a Samurai in name only, but actually spends his days doing accounts as a junior member of his warlord’s bureaucracy. He acquires the nickname ‘twilight’ because he rushes off at sunset every day to get home and take care of his 2 kids and elderly mother (while his colleagues go off to eat, drink and make merry). He even supplements his meagre income building cricket cages to sell. He is so poor that he is unable to wash or clothe himself properly and for this too, he is berated by his superiors.
At some point, his childhood friend’s sister Tomoe returns to town following her divorce from an abusive husband. Leading on from an incident involving her ex-husband, Seibei and Tomoe slowly develop feelings for each other, but Seibei declines an opportunity to marry her, given his own poverty and inferior social status. Eventually, Seibei is commanded by his feudal lord to kill a renegade samurai. Seibei departs on his mission, not expecting to return alive. His situation is so pathetic that he does not even have a retainer to prepare him for the duel; Tomoe comes home to assist him and he confesses to her that he should have married her when he had the chance, but now it is too late as she has accepted another’s proposal. The renegade samurai is a wretched creature with no hope of escape or redemption and herein lies the true tragedy of this story. The tense duel in close quarters is a fight to the death and ends in favor of our hero. He returns home to his family, exhausted and wounded, and is amazed to find Tomoe still there. Our joy in their reunion is immediately doused by the bittersweet coda (with voice-over narration by Seibei’s grown up daughter) which tells us that they married but he died 3 years later in a civil war; an appropriate end for such a down-on-his-luck character, I suppose.
I liked Yoji Yamada’s straightforward, linear storytelling approach. There are no tricks of time or perception to distract you from the story. Similarly, the camera work is very functional, with no crazy angles, rapid zooms or fast tracking shots; this is exemplified during a duel between Seibei and Tomoe’s ex-husband, which is shot in mid-range at tatami-level, with minimal camera movement, allowing us to focus all our attention on Seibei’s extraordinary skill, ending with a superb leaping, spinning blow; I must have played back this scene half a dozen times.
I also realized how much effort must have gone into a simple scene which shows Seibei speaking to someone while busily splitting wooden strips with his knife (to build the cricket cages with); this is a task that requires some skill, yet the actor Sanada carries it off with ease, just as we would expect of someone who does this task every day. This must have required great degree of practice from Sanada and perhaps multiple takes to make it appear so natural.
The music is minimalist, in keeping with the entire philosophy of keeping this movie spare and simple. Many scenes have no music at all, or often times just a simple note on a flute or the beat of a drum.
This film won an incredible 12 Japanese Academy Awards, sweeping all the major categories – Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Lighting, Editing, Art Direction, Music Score and Sound; in other words, every award except Best Supporting Actress. An extraordinary achievement, made all the more commendable by the fact that Yamada followed this up with the equally superb The Hidden Blade (nominated for all categories, but won only Art Direction) and Love and Honor (nominated for all categories, and won Supporting Actor, Cinematography and Lighting) over the next 4 years.