Seibei Iguchi, the hero of Twilight Samurai, is a small-time samurai in a small-time clan in mid-19th-century Japan, just as the decaying feudal system is giving way to the modernization of the Meiji period. But our hero is nobody's Toshiro Mifune. Instead, he's a poor man, recently widowed, with a senile mother and two young daughters to support. The seemingly affectionate and poetic name his fellow samurai have given him--"Twilight"--is a cruel one, as we're told in the narration delivered throughout by his daughter.
Twilight Samurai is worlds apart from the kind of film we've come to expect from our exposure to Kurosawa and, more recently, Tarantino. In its presentation of a widowed samurai who'd rather farm quietly and watch his daughters grow into womanhood, and with its lengthy discussions of the class strictures that limit his options, Twilight Samurai seems like a samurai film that John Sayles would make. Although the film upends our genre expectations, it does in fact contain a couple of expertly executed fight scenes. But it's a special marvel of director Yoji Yamada's agenda that both of these encounters manage to surprise us.
Yamada is a 72-year-old film veteran who is virtually unknown on these shores. Still, his age makes him a young contemporary of Japanese masters Kurosawa, Ozu and his most apparent influence, Kenji Mizoguchi. And true to its Mizoguchian lineage, the gem that is Twilight Samurai seems as if it could have been made anytime in the last 50 years. Only the color photography gives away its contemporary provenance.
Twilight Samurai is playing at the Chelsea in Chapel Hill.