The Twilight Samurai

Director: Yoji Yamada

Japan| 2002. Subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 129 mins.

Nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, this is quite simply one of the most beautiful period films in recent memory, made with no pretension or overstatement to tell a deeply personal story. It’s also a superior samurai movie, getting well under the skin to open up the culture and lifestyle of 19th century Japan and containing two fight sequences that are astonishingly fast and edgy. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a low-ranking, officebound samurai struggling to cope after his wife’s death. He would much rather spend time with his two young daughters than with his co-workers, which earns him the nickname ‘Twilight’ because he always wants to be home before dark. Seibei even balks at the chance for a promotion, because it will involve a physical duel with a rebellious clan member.
Everything about this film is perfect, from the complex, involving story to the skills of the filmmakers, who somehow recreate the period without it ever looking like a movie set. Veteran director Yoji Yamada draws profoundly introspective performances that never scream of movie stardom or acting histrionics. Sanada gives a masterful but seemingly effortless performance, blending the strong intensity he showed as Tom Cruise’s nemesis in The Last Samurai with a profoundly humane personality full of warmth and humour. As we get to know this reluctant hero, who can’t even be bothered to shave his face or head like a normal samurai, we feel his soulful passion for his family. And along with him we weigh up his talents against a lack of ambition that might not be a bad thing. Placed next to The Last Samurai, which is set in the same time period, there’s simply no comparison. This is a masterpiece.

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