WTF ASIA 168: The Twilight Samurai (2002)

Before he became The Last Samurai, Hiroyuki Sanada was…uh…in Twilight.

Available on…Facebook. Approximately 129 minutes.

 

 

 

Iguchi Seibei is a Samurai living in mid-19th century Japan. After suffering from tuberculosis for years, his wife finally dies, leaving him with a ten-year-old daughter, a five-year-old daughter, and a senile mother.

Sebei had already been on the poor end of the Samurai class to begin with; dealing with his wife’s illness worsened his financial situation and the funeral threw him into serious debt, with 20 of his 50 koku stipend going to pay it off. I am not sure how much that was back then, but 40% of one’s pay seems like a lot regardless. With little money and no wife, Sebei sacrifices personal upkeep to make sure that his family is taken care of. With his mother’s memory worsening each day, it is up to him and his elder daughter, Kayano, to take care of things around the house. Thus, he regularly declines accompanying his co-workers on their evening drinking sessions. Because of this, they mockingly call him Twilight Seibei, as well as complain about his attire, filth, and smell.

Still, Seibei is happy just to be with his family. Also, as bad as his situation may be, he still has a loyal servant Naota. And, most importantly at least he is not yet in danger of starving to death and unceremoniously getting dumped into the river like the numerous peasants are…ahem…

At this point, the Samurai have been mostly reduced to accountants and bureaucrats. Seibei can sense that the age of the Samurai is going to end soon. Kayano says that, as her needlework improves, she can make a living sewing clothes, so why should she learn Confucius and reading and whatnot? Seibei reassures her that her teacher making her study the Classics may prepare her for what an uncertain future may bring. He himself would be fine becoming a farmer. At most, it would be better than overseeing the bean storage room of the castle.

One day, the young Lord comes to visit Seibei’s workplace. He notices a hole in Seibei’s sleeve along with the odor that he brings off for not bathing properly. His reprimand is light enough, but Seibei quickly becomes the laughingstock of the castle.

Seibei’s uncle comes to his house, both to scold him for humiliating the family and to say that he has arranged for a new wife. Seibei tries to gently reject the marriage arrangement, but his uncle gets upset anyways. A wife would have fixed up his clothes and looked after him, but does he not understand how difficult it was to find a woman of good standing who would willingly subject herself (and whose family would willingly subject her) to his circumstances? He also yells at his sister, Seibei’s mother, when she does not recognize him.

Later, Seibei asks his daughters whether they like grandma’s brother. They shake their heads. Seibei tells them that he hates his uncle. His daughters look at each other and grin. He tells them about the search for a new wife and asks them if they need a new mother. Kayano says that she is fine as long as he is fine. Little Ito copies her sister. Seibei smiles, not quite sure if they are being sincere or just trying to make him feel better for rejecting his uncle.

Iinuma Michinojo has returned from Kyoto. While his family has a stipend of 400 koku, he and Seibei have been friends since childhood. He mocks all of the masterless Samurai in Kyoto and ponders a potential upcoming war. Michinojo apologizes for not being there for the funeral and for not being able to send his sister Tomoe in his stead. Michinojo had arranged for Tomoe, seven years younger than he, to marry Toyotarou Kouda. Michinojo thought that he had done her a favor by sending her to a 1200 koku family, but Kouda turned out to be an abusive drunk. Tomoe ran back to her remorseful brother, who got her a divorce.

Tomoe actually shows up at Seibei’s house. She needed a break with hanging around and doing busywork with her sister-in-law all day. So, Tomoe stays the evening at the Iguchi residence, regaling Kayano and Ito about how she would play with her brother and their father until she turned nine and her mother put an end to her tomboy behavior.

Eventually, Tomoe has to go back to her brother’s house, so Seibei walks her there. She is about to go in when she hears her drunk ex-husband trashing the place and threatening her brother. Kouda challenges Michinojo to a duel for arranging the divorce. Tomoe tries to intervene, but Kouda attacks her too. Seibei manages to subdue him for a bit and offers to take Michinojo’s place in the duel the next day after Kouda sobers up.

Seibei goes to the duel with a wooden sword. His official reason is because the clan forbade dueling, so he is not in danger of killing Kouda. The real reason, though, is because he sold his longsword to pay off some of his debt. The sight of the wooden sword enrages Kouda, but that rage does not help him, as Seibei gets the better of him multiple times in a short period, dealing blows that would have been fatal had the sword been real.

The fight ends when Seibei knocks out Kouda. Seibei does not believe that word of this will get out, as Kouda would be too humiliated to say anything. It turns out that word does get out, and Seibei’s reputation shoots up a little bit. His co-workers even discuss whether to stop calling him Twilight.

Seibei does not care about any of this, but Tomoe is grateful for him sticking up for both her and her brother. To show her gratitude, she comes over a few days every week to help out around the house, fix up his clothes, and to babysit the girls who have grown very fond of her.

Things seem to be fine until Michinojo tells Seibei that Tomoe would like to marry him…or, at least she is more open to the possibility than with her actual suitors. Seibei thinks that he is joking and is somewhat offended, but Michinojo says that he is serious, as is she. I mean. It is obvious that she has feelings for him. And she has a great relationship with his daughters.

Obviously Seibei accepts. And they live happily just kidding, the movie is not even halfway over. He turns down the offer, saying that his late wife had never recovered from moving from a 150 koku life to a 50 koku life. While Tomoe may be happy for a few years, Seibei says that she would eventually feel that strain too. Michinojo, who still feels guilty for marrying her off to Kouda, probably figured that being saddled with Seibei’s economic woes would be a welcome alternative, but Seibei will not budge.

Michinojo a is unhappy to hear this, but he also has other matters on his mind. Their young Lord died earlier in the month and there could be a possible struggle for succession back in Kyoto. As he has feared, war is coming.

 

 

 

 

The second half of the 19th century was a tumultuous time in Japan. The arrival of American forces brought about a desperate surge of modernization to prevent Japan from becoming colonized like China. The fate of the Samurai class was a major issue, with it eventually being abolished and disarmed in the late 1860s and 1870s. The movie takes place when these major changers were taking place, but the impact was not yet fully felt. Thus, many characters carry on like business as usual, as if whatever uncertainty that they may have about their present or future is not a big deal.

A lot of Japanese movies are about nostalgia for something that could not last. That nostalgia could be something from national history or simply childhood. In this case, it is the Samurai. The movie is gentle without romanticizing it too much. The movie is largely respectful towards the Samurai and that time, but it seems to be making the case that they were becoming obsolete. They had served their purpose and served it well, but things were changing and they could not keep up as they were. Aggressive attempts to cling to the old ways either leads to senseless violence or just fosters pointless negativity.

There are several things that I like about this movie, but one major thing is the depiction of the Samurai class. At this point in time, they have become rather toothless. Sure, they can fight if they need to, but that is not really what they do. Sure, making sure that there are enough food supplies is an honorable job, but there is no real glory to it. The movie depicts the Samurai not as a class of fierce and violent warriors, but just as guys, some of whom may not have fought once in their lives. And, in the case of Seibei, the days were quite difficult.

Both Seibei and Tomoe signify potential changes in society. Seibei is still a loyal Samurai, but can see that the age of the Samurai is coming to an end. He seems okay with that, having gotten little overt benefit from being a Samurai and having no real ambitions to climb higher than his current uncertain status. While still professing loyalty to his family and his Lord, he voices displeasure at some of the orders that he gets. These invite angry responses, no matter how gently he couches his criticisms. Additionally, Seibei’s support of girls being taught the Classics is a contrast to his uncle. Regardless of whether he is on the side of the good guys or bad guys, he himself is a decent person. 

It is obvious that Tomoe is set up to be the love interest to our protagonist the moment that she is mentioned, but the movie adds a few elements of commonality to make it clearer, just to make the twist a little more painful. Whereas Seibei’s subversions are mostly soft-spoken musings, Tomoe is a little more blatant and active in her transgressions. While she is no longer the tomboy she once was, Tomoe stands up to her ex-husband and goes to another man’s house without much care of what others say. She also takes Seibei’s daughters to a peasant festival, something that people from the Samurai class were banned from attending. No, neither of these characters are revolutionary in their words or actions, but they signify cracks in the order of things. Whether or not the impending social changes are for the better or worse, they are coming, and one might as well make the best of things while still trying to maintain one’s personal integrity.

Gentle and a little on the slow-moving side, this film might not be for everyone, but it is really wonderful. This is actually the first in a semi-trilogy about samurai movies. The second movie is The Hidden Blade, which is excellent. The third movie is Love and Honor, which I have not seen, but heard great things about, though there is another movie by that title that really messed up my search attempt. I am pretty sure that you do not need to watch The Twilight Samurai before watching the other two, but I would recommend that you watch it anyways.

 

 

WTF ASIA 169:  Our Time Will Come (China: 2017, approx. 131 minutes)

Wikipedia

 
 
 
WTF ASIA 170:  Welcome to Dongmakgol (South Korea: 2005, approx. 133 minutes)