Director Yoji Samada’s The Twilight Samurai may have the word ‘samurai’ in its title but the film feels less like a samurai film and more like a classic tale written by Jane Austen, if she were Japanese. Even the protagonist named Seibei (portrayed by Hiroyuki Sanada) wishes to be a farmer and does not wish to be known as a samurai. He makes clear in one scene that he is not too proud of the samurai status that has been accorded to him. Seibei is a quiet and honorable man whose humble nature and reluctance to indulge in the various fun activities of his colleagues have earned him the nickname “Twilight”, because he always immediately goes home after work. Seibei works as a store clerk in one of the castles.
Seibei becomes a widower after his wife passes away due to a sudden illness. He is unable to accommodate anything other than the duties that he has to attend to at home, which includes taking care of his two young daughters and his aging mother, who at times keeps forgetting who Seibei is. His extremely modest nature makes him less fun to be with and his unkempt appearance makes him the subject of mockery among the townsfolk. But Seibei was a well-trained warrior at one point and his skills become apparent to us his in a duel invoked at the behest of a drunk samurai named Koda (Ren Osugi) who happens to be the ex-husband of his childhood flame, Tomoe Iinuma (Rie Miyazawa).
The sweet and good-natured Tomoe was compelled to divorce Koda on account of his abusive and brutish behavior. When Seibei defends her honor, she becomes like a surrogate mother to his two children. It’s evident that Seibei is still in love with her but his low socioeconomic status prevents him from asking her hand in marriage. Seibei is doubtful that he’ll be able to offer her a good life despite knowing that she is the perfect woman for him. When Seibei is ordered by his clan to dispose of a defiant samurai, he has no choice but to obey. This unexpected situation poses a challenge for Seibei and Tomoe’s romance and we wait anxiously for the outcome. The final confrontation between Seibei and his adversary is reminiscent of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s famous coffee shop scene from Michael Mann’s Heat.
The first thing that comes to our mind when we hear the word ‘samurai’ and ‘samurai films’ is chopped limbs and gushing blood, right? But you’ll be in for a surprise when you see this one. I’m not saying that there is zero violence in it but it is relatively tame when you compare it to, say, the violence you see in the samurai films starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai or Takeshi Kitano. This is more of a family story and there are many scenes that pull at your heartstrings. Sanada’s sympathetic portrayal of Seibei will make you root for him. The film is assisted by a background score so beautiful that I once remarked that it may have been written by the Gods themselves. The final scene brought happy tears to my eyes.