The Twilight Samurai(Empire Pictures, 12.28.2004)
Samurai are people too. People with problems and not just cool problems like having to snipe ninjas out of trees with a bow and arrow on horseback or getting surrounded by gravity-defying ronin with only a flimsy bamboo stick for self-defense. During Japanese feudalism's last gasp, Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) has bills to pay, young daughters to feed, crops to tend, a senile mother, and co-workers who think he's been letting himself go since consumption took his wife. A samurai who reeks of dried cod and can't mend his tattered robes?
Between the arch stylings of Takeshi Kitano (Zatoichi) and Zhang Yimou's Technicolor battle ballets (Hero and House of Flying Daggers), 2004 was a good year for hack-and-slash imports. The Twilight Samurai cuts deeper than its peers by bringing the action down to earth, to the grimy, muddy, day-to-day trudge of a man who's duty-bound to keep his sword in his pants.
Like many Westerns, The Twilight Samurai sighs at civilization leaving behind men of action like Iguchi, warriors castrated by a new might: wealth and its social status. When the powers-that-be need quicker solutions than bureaucracy can offer, Iguchi finds a hefty stipend dangled in front of him. Commerce has replaced honor and domesticity has dulled Iguchi's appetite for action, but there's some semblance of the old ways in combat rituals -- sword sharpening, the pretty divorcee (Rie Miyazawa) who drops to her knees to dress Iguchi - which director Yoji Yamada films with an eye towards sexual undertones.
Only twice in two hours does Iguchi lock swords, once with nothing but a wooden practice stick, and neither time does The Twilight Samurai sacrifice its realistic, ground level view of samurai life. No wires, no slow motion, no intricately choreographed martial dance-offs -- just guys swinging big sharp swords at each other and a rusty, vulnerable, hardworking father fighting for his life.
In the ample interviews with director and star (the disc's only extras), Yamada displays much more hubris than his characters, saying he wanted to make a samurai film without the superman heroics he finds unsatisfying in Kurosawa. Big words from a man whose DVD looks so crappy. Were the images this muddled on the big screen? I played with my contrast and sharpness settings for twenty minutes! Was that abuse designed to make me feel for Iguchi's frustrations even more? Well, it worked. And the picture still sucked. -- Joey Tayler