This Year's Other Samurai
Tasogare Seibei brings a uniquely human touch to the samurai film genre
Though this year's Academy Awards was the Lord of the Rings show, Tom Cruise's Last Samurai picked up several nomination. However, that hobbit-sized samurai wannabe was not the only swordsman at the awards. Astute viewers might have noticed Tasogare Seibei, (renamed Twilight Samurai in America) nominated for Best Foreign Film. Even though it didn't win (did Lord of the Rings win in that category too?), it's a film well worth your time.
Tasogare Seibei is a samurai picture, but it's certainly not the same kind of film as the Baby Cart Kozure Ookami or Zatoichi movies. Those films value action over anything - there are buckets of blood as the swords fly. As mentioned in Tasogare Seibei, "Someone mentions tenchuu or heaven's vengeance, and the swords fly." Twilight Samurai is a much more paced film; there are only two sword fights. One ends quickly and isn't even a real fight, while the other is more talk that fight.
The film follows Seibei, a petty samurai right before the end of the Tokugawa period (a little before the first Rurouni Kenshin OAV takes place). His wife has died and he spends much of his measly 50 koku income on his two daughters and aged mother. Seibei's lack of ambition proves to be an embarrassment to his family and to his superiors (indeed, his colleagues call him tasogare or "twilight" because he leaves for home right after work), but he's content in his life. That is, until his friend's sister and his childhood friend, Tomoe, divorces her abusive husband. Seibei defends Tomoe again her ex-husband by adroitly dueling him, winning the woman's adoration. She comes to his house and helps by cleaning, cooking, and looking after his daughters. Though Tomoe wishes to marry Seibei, he will not marry her. Seibei obviously loves Tomoe, but he will not marry her because his paltry stipend will lower her lifestyle. Soon word of Seibei's dueling victory reaches the feudal lord's ears, and the petty samurai is instructed to assassinate a political figure.
Yamada's film is slowly paced, but that's to be expected in a film about personal relationships. Indeed, the film is deliberately paced - there are certainly exciting moments, such as Seibei's assassination, but the film is much more about Seibei's humble lifestyle. As much time is spent in Seibei's preparation for the assassination attempt (which could end in his death) as on the attempt itself.
The cinematography in the film is gorgeous. There is a beautiful interplay of color, and the shots of castles and homes are picturesque. Indeed, some of it recalls Japanese greats like Ozu and Kurosawa. Additionally, the acting is great, with Hiroyuki Sanada (who was also in Ringu and Onmyoji, as well as Cruise's Last Samurai) as Sebei, and the well-known Rie Miyazawa (who played Oshino in the NHK drama version of Musashi) as Tomoe. The costumes are predictably beautiful.
My only major problem with the film is that the film is set up much like Titanic, as Seibei's youngest daughter (grown up all the way to old age) is the narrator, looking back at her life with Seibei. However, this is only a minor criticism. Additionally, Seibei's life continues after the film, but the rest of his life is only explained by the daughter, which is something of a disappointment. However, if Seibei's relationship with Tomoe is the major theme of the film, then Tasogare Seibei's end is acceptable, if somewhat awkwardly placed.
Tasogare Seibei certainly isn't for everyone; it doesn't have the action of other recent samurai films, including "Beat" Takeshi's Zatoichi, but for those looking for a beautiful, well paced film, and most importantly, a human film, should definitely go to the effort to find this film and watch it.