Going to the movies these days is rarely a captivating and fulfilling experience. Formulaic plot lines and huge special effects spectacles are a dime and dozen, but we keep going back with the hope that a film will captivate our attention with a story worth telling. “Twilight Samurai,” a powerful drama nominated for the Academy Award for for Best Foreign Language Film this past year, is such a film.
It begins with stunning images of feudal Japan at the end of the 19th century, introducing Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a low-ranking Samurai whose wife has just died of consumption. In taking on the responsibilities of both parents, he slowly becomes overwhelmed with raising his two daughters and caring for his senile mother.
Narrated by Ito, Seibei’s five-year-old daughter, “Twilight Samurai” depicts the unraveling of a society built on tradition and honor through a pair of innocent eyes. She and her sister watch her father slave between his job calculating crop numbers and other side jobs trying to make ends meet. When a fateful opportunity to rise in rank comes his way, Seibei’s role as a father and Samurai clash, forcing a powerful and life-changing decision.
Pacing plays a crucial role throughout the story, slowly establishing characters with carefully framed close-ups and beautiful tracking shots. Director Yoji Yamada handles these characters with honesty and charm, creating scene after scene of great beauty. These characters’ lives and problems, seemingly so far removed in historical terms, reflect basic human conditions still being discussed today; politics versus family and violence versus pacifism are themes constantly being addressed throughout “Twilight Samurai.”
But the core of the film remains the lead acting performance. Sanada, as Seibei, has a stirring intensity that compliments his tender moments with his children. When forced to violence, his motives are honorable and display a heroic stature long lost with movie heroes. Sanada plays a man whose desire is to see his family grow, and if he must defend such a life with a sword, then so be it.
“Twilight Samurai” sees the Samurai as people first, swordsmen last. Seibei has no desire for fame or fortune, simply the need to be with his family and survive. When society changes, he changes with it, never losing the eternal strength family can provide in moments of heartache and distress.
In a time and place in movie history where filmmakers rely on shooting first and thinking about the effects of their work later, “Twilight Samurai” needs to be embraced for its mastery of fascinating storytelling. Even though times change, the strength of a great story can transcend the disappointment of spending time with one mediocre experience after another. For all the countless “Van Helsing”s and “Gigli”s, hopefully there will always be a “Twilight Samurai” to bring our cinematic senses back to life.