The Twilight Samurai

in 53rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Carlos Augusto Brandão

Yoji Yamada is certainly one of the best known filmmakers of Japan: he has made something like eighty films, almost all features, including the extremely popular series Tora-san, about a bad luck peddler that could never get the girl he wanted. But no one would guess that this conservative, rather self-assured Japanese helmer would he responsible for the most peckinpah-ish film ever made West of Hollywood.

As we well know, Sam Peckinpah almost always made a point out of championing the underdog, that guy that couldn’t fit in a changing world, a universe where he had grown and used to survive safely. In so many ways, Yamada’s Samurai is a brother-in-fate of Joel Mc Crea and Randolph Scott as the aging gunfighters of Ride the High Country and of Bill Holden and his Wild Bunch.

Saibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a low-ranking samurai at the time those swords-for-rent were disappearing from the Japanese culture, pressed by the political and social changes that transformed the ancient clan-structured Japanese society into a pre-modern state. But Iguchi didn’t seem to be bothered by the surmounting tide: he was a trained fighter whose nature was contrary to fighting and killing. Much to the the contrary, he was a pacifist and an early days feminist that used to pass to his two infant daughters the notion that, as important as learning how to saw and cook — as was expected of every educated Japanese girl — it was also important to learn Confucius and poetry. One day, after defending his childhood love from her abusive ex–husband, a strong and famous samurai, he was challenged for a duel. Fighting with a wooden stick and using martial techniques he had learned from an old master, he beated the living manure out the bully, who never knew what had hit him. His fame spread and soon he was forced by his clan to fight the most dangerous samurai of the region, who was challenging the orders of the local warlord. Reluctantly, he obeyed the superior orders of the clan’s council and outlived a final sword battle with his deadly opponent.

Again, like Peckinpah’s heroes, the Twilight Samurai (the title is, again, an obvious reference to Peckinpah’s characters, unfit to the changing times they lived), Iguchi had a short lived victory: just like the doomed western gunslingers, Iguchi died soon after his sword victories, shot in a battle between clans, in the Meijin war that ended by unifying Japan under one ruler and opened a new era for the country. Times had definitely changed and there was no place for him anymore.

Masterly edited, with direct and blunt dialogues mixed with Japanese philosophical sentences and a very sensible performance by charismatic Hiroyuki Sanada as the doomed samurai, this is a good film that should be seen.

Mc Crea, Scott, Holden and Borgnine couldn’t do any better, as Sam Peckinpah very well knew. All of them would like this picture, that’s for sure.

Carlos Augusto Brandao