These notes were written in 2006 for an evening class. I’m publishing them now in relation to the screening of Hana (2006) by Kore-eda Hirokazu at HOME in Manchester.

Twilight Samurai was a major commercial success in Japan and a critical success abroad. It was part of a revival in the jedai-geki or ‘period’ film in Japan and for audiences overseas it represented a ‘quality’ period film with similar status to the earlier films of Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Mizoguchi. (Kurosawa’s daughter, born in 1954 just as he completed Seven Samurai, was the costume designer on Twilight Samurai.)

Notable features of the production include the participation of television production interests in what was, by Japanese standards, a big budget film and the backgrounds of director Yamada and star Sanada Hiroyuki. Yamada Yôji is a veteran of Japanese ‘genre films’. Now over 70, he is best known as the director of a staggering 46 films in the popular comedy series Tora-san, comedy-dramas focusing on an ‘ordinary man’, for Shochiku, the major studio that distributed Twilight Samurai. Yamada also directed other genre films, but he managed to squeeze out some more personal films and Twilight Samurai represented his long-held ambition to make a ‘realistic’ film about a samurai in the 19th century at the end of the long Tokugawa era. Yamada recognises the qualities of Seven Samurai, but he thinks that it helped to revive a particular type of ‘swordfight’/’samurai’ film in the 1960s and 1970s. These films had very little basis in historical fact (much like their counterparts, the Hollywood Westerns). Yamada wanted to show how samurai behaved at home and what fighting really meant in terms of crude attacks and messy deaths, not the clinical choreography of the genre film. The whole history of the chanbara (swordfight) and the later samurai films in Japanese cinema is worth exploring in terms of how samurai warriors are represented.

The film was written by Yamada and Asama Yoshitaka and based on a short story by Fujisawa Shuhei (Yamada made two other films based on Fujisawa stories). Cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo and music by Tomita Isao. Miyazawa Rie is the female lead as Tomoe and she also appears in a not dissimilar role in Hana.

Plot outline

Seibei Iguchi is a widower and is forced to work in a lowly job as an inventory clerk in a grain warehouse belonging to his clan. His colleagues mock him as ‘Twilight’. He needs the job to pay for his wife’s funeral and the upkeep of his daughters. His mother has dementia and all in all he is a not the conventional figure of a warrior. But when Tomoe, his childhood love, is abused by her husband and leaves him to live with her brother Michinojo Iinuma’s family, Seibei reconnects with her. When the deserted husband challenges the brother, Seibei takes up the challenge – and this contravenes many rules about samurai behaviour.

In the press pack for Twilight Samurai Yamada discusses the historical setting at the end of the long Edo/Tokugawa period – when the traditional samurai warriors had to move into a more ‘modern’ social structure. He was clearly concerned to shape the story so that it had resonances for modern audiences:

I tried to include plot elements that present-day Japanese could relate to. When you’re ordered to do something by the boss, you have to do it. Or it might be the end of your job. That’s something everyone can understand – and that’s the kind of situation the hero faces. Some people buckle under the pressure and commit suicide. In Japan, nearly 30,000 people kill themselves every year – a lot of men in their 40s and 50s. Some of them have been fired, some have been told to fire others. The hero deals with his situation differently, of course – but the pressure is similar. (Press Pack)

The position of Tomoe, who leaves her abusive husband, is perhaps anachronistic since the later Edo and early Meiji periods were very bad for women, who were generally excluded from society and expected to be passive. This representation, Yamada concedes, may be a critique of the feudal system rather than a ‘realistic’ commentary, but again it helps to involve a modern audience in a period story. He also indicates that the film was successful because older audiences went to see it and then persuaded their children and grandchildren to see it. This is an important observation, since the shrunken Japanese cinema industry generally shows Hollywood films to younger audiences, with television serving the needs of the older audience. A revival of jidai-geki could help to change the fortunes of Japanese cinemas.

Part of the film’s success (it won 12 awards in the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars) certainly derives from the performance of Sanada Hiroyuki, one of the few Japanese actors to maintain a career in the cinema and to gain international recognition, partly through his role in martial arts films. After Twilight Samurai he appeared in the Hollywood film, The Last Samurai and earlier he featured in the worldwide horror film success The Ring (1998).

The setting of the film focuses on a range of ‘end of an era’ issues (and a concern about “what will happen next?”). This has clear parallels with the American Western, set in roughly the same period, and the two meet to some extent in The Last Samurai, which might be compared to Yamada’s film.