It’s always interesting to see the similarities between samurai films and the western. Both genres have served to inspire filmmakers from either corner of the world intermittently over the years. Sergio Leone adapted the spaghetti western classic (For) A Fistful of Dollars from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – a tale that itself borrowed elements from an American film noir, The Glass Key. Likewise, The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven, while Sergio Corbucci’s cult classic Django (the real one, kids) and just about every other influential European western eventually wound up receiving an Eastern treatment in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django.
But whereas a majority of these tales always deliver variants on the more “action packed” titles, Yôji Yamada took things to a new level many years after the classic samurai film genre seemed to put its swords up on the shirasaya with his 2002 drama The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei). Here, as if he were channelling the later western tales of someone like Glenn Ford, we find a tale of a former samurai who has had to adjust to an ever-changing world. Swordsman Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) has lost his wife to tuberculosis, leaving him to raise his two daughters while tending to a senile mother in mid-19th Century Japan on a measly salary. He even has to pawn his sword in order to pay for his wife’s costly funeral.
So, Seibei now struggles as an accountant for his clan, spending his days counting grain and dried codfish. Without a faithful spouse to tend to the various mending his apparel needs, or to even remind him to bathe after working day and night at work and home, “Twilight Seibei” (as his co-workers cruelly refer to him as behind his back) begins to develop an undesirable odor about his presence; a matter which disgraces his oh-so-traditional uncle to the hilt. But Seibei just isn’t the traditional type. He encourages his daughters to read in addition to the required (limited) education women typically receive. This is far more important to him than going out with the boys every night to flirt with geishas and drink sake until the wee hours of the morning. (Sound familiar, ladies?)
But the day-to-day rut our hero is stuck in changes when one of Seibei’s closest friends (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) reveals his little sister, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) – whom The Twilight Samurai has had a crush on since childhood – is back in town. In fact, she’s even “on the market” once again; her caring brother having arranged a divorce from the drunken and abusive captain’s son he had married her to. This not only leads to a little bit of sunshine and happiness in Seibei’s life, but, inevitably, winds up with the angry drunken ex challenging Tomoe’s brother to a duel. Seibei intervenes on his behalf, despite the fact that dueling is forbidden to any member of the clan (and is punishable by death). And though Seibei pawned his sword long ago and is very much out of practice, he’s ready to face a bit of music (in a brief but amusing fight which reminds one of Miyamoto Musashi).
And that’s just the first part of a gracefully planned and executed masterpiece from the Land of the Rising Sun that went on to earn 12 awards on its native soil, 25 more abroad, and even one of those very hard to get nominations from America’s snubberiffic Academy Awards (the first time a motion picture from Japan had earned such a distinction in over twenty years). It lost, naturally, to the French Canadian dramedy The Barbarian Invasions. Presumably, this was because the latter film was made by a country that did not bomb Pearl Harbor, featured several bits of dialogue in English, and contained many a crude sex joke. And knowing our illustrious Academy, it was probably because The Barbarian Invasions was shorter (along with one or more of the other, aforementioned possibilities).
Fortunately, while the movie that did win the award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004 (it took that long to reach U.S. soil, evidently) has been reduced to being a disc only bargain bin title at your local Grocery Outlet store, Yôji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai has only gone on to grow a wider audience over the last decade or so. In fact, ten years after it was unfairly overlooked by the same group of overpaid men and women who always give the prize to the overrated animated Disney outing each and every fucking year, this instant classic from the Far East has earned itself a new High-Definition release from Twilight Time, where it joins an eclectic roster of good’uns from all over.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the HD master delivered to Twilight Time by whomever owns the distribution rights to this one here in the US doesn’t look as crisp and as clear as the other titles the label has released. The black levels here are pretty flat, colors are a bit muted, and grain is evident throughout. I’m not sure if that’s how it’s “supposed” to look in the director’s eyes (it probably isn’t), but that’s just the way it is in this instance, kids. That said, it shouldn’t dissuade you from checking out this criminally neglected (by the Academy, that is) masterpiece. The Blu-ray includes a DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track with English subtitles (I only spotted one error; or accidental omission, rather, in the instance of a missing “to”).
In terms of special features, The Twilight Samurai includes an optional isolated music score by Isao Tomita in DTS-HD MA 2.0; the original Japanese theatrical trailer, which does not contain any English subtitles, but is a huge contrast when looked at after the main feature itself; and an additional trailer for director Yamada’s The Little House (Chiisai Ouchi). The latter extra also is presented without any English-friendly options, and I’m not entirely sure what the significance of its being here is (or if it just came with the package and they put it in). Julie Kirgo’s lovely liner notes round up this recommended film.