Meet the master

Veteran Japanese filmmaker finally gets his critical due in the United States

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It’s no wonder that The Twilight Samurai was nominated for 12 and won 10 of the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars — the film is a crowd-pleaser. It’s a romantic historical drama with a tense climax, which seems to be heading toward a predictable act of derring-do and then pulls the rug out from under your expectations.

The film is set in the mid-18th century, when the old order was changing and many samurai found themselves becoming anachronisms, either forced to freelance their services or find other work. The title character, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada — a minimalist actor who showed up in the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai), is a youngish widower with two small daughters and a senile mother, trained as a samurai and still loyal to his clan, but reduced to working as an inventory clerk in a food storage house in order to survive. He’s earned the nickname “Twilight” not because he’s in his declining years but because his dedication to his children and to working on his small homestead prevents him from going out in the evenings to carouse with co-workers.

The first part of the story finds Seibei becoming involved with an old flame, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), who has married but then divorced a drunken brute. It’s obvious that Seibei still loves Tomoe, and vice versa, but the conventions of the time, combined with his shame at his reduced circumstances, present a series of hurdles that seem insurmountable. The story becomes one of those maddening tales of missed connections and crushing conformity. A further complication is that Tomoe’s ex is still lurking, harassing her and her brother, and when Seibei is forced into a duel with him we get our first glimpse of the reserves of strength and skill that this quiet clerk retains.

The latter part of the film finds Seibei once again drawn into the service of his clan, sent against his will to bring back the head of a rebellious samurai named Yogo. Up until this point the film has been a leisurely, rather conventional (though satisfying) historical romance. Now the tension mounts and the film’s intent seems to deepen as Seibei’s encounter with the crazed Yogo becomes an unexpected confrontation with himself.

Twilight’s director and co-writer, Yoji Yamada, is a veteran of the Japanese cinema with more than 65 films to his credit, many of them comedies, none of them well-known in the States. And so with this film he makes, in his early 70s, an auspicious debut.

 

In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6-7, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Aug. 8, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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