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Friday, July 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Loving father, honorable man, reluctant samurai

Special to The Seattle Times

Most of our famous cinematic samurai are ronin — masterless samurai — who roam the countryside in feudal Japan looking for work, getting into trouble and exacting revenge. They are as rootless as Hollywood's concept of the Western gunslinger, upon whom, some say, they are based. That is, John Ford influenced Akira Kurosawa, and Kurosawa influenced everyone else. Whether it's the blind masseuse Zatoichi or Ogami Itto of the "Lone Wolf and Cub" series, the samurai of the popular imagination is invariably a wanderer.

Yoji Yamada's 2002 film, "The Twilight Samurai," is a small, respectful corrective. Its titular hero, a petty samurai named Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada of "Ringu" and "The Last Samurai"), works as a nondescript clerk in the years before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. He seems more accountant than swordsman and quietly heads home at twilight rather than gathering for a drink with his colleagues. They think him strange and unambitious, and derisively call him "Twilight Seibei" behind his back.

His home life is troubled. His wife's death leaves him in debt, and he's responsible for his two young daughters and an increasingly addled mother. "Of which household are you?" the mother asks, bowing and smiling to the son she doesn't recognize. He finds no time to bathe or fix his torn kimono.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***½
"The Twilight Samurai," with Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Min Tanaka, Tetsuro Tamba. Directed by Yoji Yamada, from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Asama and Yamada. Based on the novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa. 129 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences (contains a few scenes of graphic violence). In Japanese with English subtitles. Varsity.

Yet Iguchi subsumes his troubles without apparent bitterness, and with an eye that isn't blind to the small pleasures of life — whether reciting Confucian text with his daughter or admiring budding azaleas. "No woman would have his situation," his colleagues say, even though he is, in a sense, a samurai for women: a homebody with a strong body and a poet's soul.

Light returns to his life — and to the film's cinematography — in the form of Tomoe (the exquisite Rie Miyazawa), a childhood friend whose first marriage to a mean drunk ended in what I assume was a rare divorce during this period. He lights up around her, she lights up around him, and the children love her. When her ex-husband, a high-ranking samurai, shows up drunk one night, Iguchi defuses the situation and then accepts the ex-husband's challenge to a duel. It's here, fearful of killing the better-connected samurai, that Iguchi most resembles the traditional cinematic samurai, for he is a master swordsman.

"The Twilight Samurai" is based upon the novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa and won an astonishing 12 Japanese Academy Awards in 2003, including the biggies: best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. It was also nominated best foreign language film here at this year's Academy Awards.

The more impetuous and thrill-seeking among us — myself included — will be restless at times by Yamada's steady, deliberate pacing, and Iguchi, particularly in one painful instance, has too much honor. But it all serves a purpose. Intermingled with the everyday details is an overall sense of mortality. At first I thought this meant Iguchi himself was doomed, and he is, but only in the way that we all are.

The film begins with a funeral, ends in a cemetery, and in between starving peasant bodies are washed down from the mountains during the spring thaw. In such a mindset, what is ambition? The simple pleasures of watching your daughters grow trumps all.

Erik Lundegaard: elundegaard@comcast.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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