This essay examines the image of the samurai created by director Yoji Yamada, as he tries to look at the qualities of the samurai through the biopic of Iguchi Seibei. This 2002 film chronicles Seibeis life from the point of the unfortunate death of his wife to the period of the nascent Meiji era. Through an immaculate in depth portrayal of Seibei as one who defies the norms of being an unflinchingly loyal, ruthless and cold blooded samurai, Yamada tries to showcase the more obscure side of the samurai. He tracks this vulnerability, and as the film name suggests, attributes it to be one of the reasons why the samurai class ultimately declined with the changing world.
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Two main aspects of the film will be explored here. Firstly, there is the portrayal of the counter- stereotype of the samurai. Yamada chose to focus the film on major events of Seibei’s life to view him as an intelligent, rational, benevolent and vulnerable person. A second aspect would be how there is growing obsolescence and irrelevance of the samurai class in the progressing Japanese society. This is in tandem with the growing Western influence in Japan, where the exposure to Western values enabled the Japanese to think and act more rationally.
Twilight Samurai starts on a solemn note, featuring the demise of the protagonist, Iguchi Seibei’s wife. Her funeral is extravagant, but that is contrasted by the subsequent image of Seibei’s state of life. He is unkempt, grubby and is struggling to support his two young daughters and senile mother. Seibei keeps records at the dried foods store in the clan castle in the day, and hurries home when work ends to care for his family. He does not participate in any of the “after work activities” of his colleagues, which earns him the caustic nickname of “Tasogare (Twilight) Seibei”. There are many calls for him to find another wife to shoulder his burden, but he is reluctant to do so. Seibei then hears about the divorce of his childhood best friend, Tomoe, from her abusive husband. Tomoe comes back to visit him but her husband refuses to let the divorce rest. Seibei challenges him to a sword fight which the former won, freeing Tomoe from his incessant badgering. The victory calls for Seibei and Tomoe to reunite, but Seibei is too ashamed to ask for Tomoe’s hand in marriage because he feels that he is too poor for her. Meanwhile there is a power struggle in the clan and when it finally ends all the retainers from the oppositions were ordered to perform hara-kiri. One of them (Zenemon Yogo) declines to and Seibei is brought to task to kill the non-conforming samurai. Seibei reluctantly agrees and proceeds to Yogo’s residence the next day, only to find him drunk and unwilling to fight. Yogo tells him about his life as a wandering samurai, and questions why he must perform hara-kiri. Seibei empathizes with him and shares his own hardships with Yogo, only to trigger off the latter’s anger which resulted in a sword fight. The benevolent Seibei offers Yogo the route of escape, but his words are unheeded. Soon, the fight ends when the weary Yogo is cut down by Seibei. Seibei returns to his house and marries Tomoe, but their happiness is short-lived when he was killed in the Meiji Restoration war three years after.
In the film, Yamada shows both popular and not often seen images of the samurai. However, he highlights the latter in the form of Seibei’s character. Is the samurai necessarily one who is heartless in his treatment of the aged, women and children? Does he kill his enemies and arch rivals ruthlessly? Is he blinded by loyalty to his lord to the extent whereby he becomes irrational? Yamada begs to differ and challenges these popular beliefs in his film. Instead, Seibei is unambitious, benevolent, peaceful and rational.
The film first debunks the myth that a samurai treats the aged, women and children harshly. It is often propagated in popular belief that the samurai is someone who is absorbed in individualism, sacrificing family sentiments and loyalty. In times where personal interests and family interests clashed, frequently the former will supersede, resulting in bloody battles within the family. We are offered a different take on this issue of how a samurai views his family in the film. Right from the beginning and repeatedly throughout the film, Seibei is seen to be a self sacrificing, loving father and a filial son. He has to single handedly take care of his two daughters and his senile mother. If he had been imagined to be the run of the mill samurai, he would have probably deserted or even killed them in order to focus on fulfilling his duties for his lord. At this point, Yamada skillfully uses the voice of the aged Kayano (Seibei’s elder daughter) to narrate the story, further fortifying the point where Seibei is remembered for his fondness rather than the usual “chivalry or honour” tagged to a samurai. Furthermore, the views of women’s social standings in the eyes of the samurai are established in broad strokes. While Seibei’s uncle, who probably signifies one who still upholds old beliefs that women are inferior and commanded less rights, chides Kayano for learning about Confucianism, Seibei actually urges his daughters to do serious book learning because it will “empower them to change the world in the future”. This gives the hint that at that point of time, the deeply entrenched thought that women are mere workhorses for the family is slowly eroding in the samurai.
The belief that samurais are a ruthless and irrational class of people is also challenged in the film. According to the Bushido code of ethics, it is paramount that the samurai has valiant loyalty to his lord. This would necessarily mean that he is none other than a “spiritual killing machine”, built for the sole purpose to serve his lord and kill enemies. Yamada does not deny that a samurai needs to carry out his duties, but he shows it in such a way that one is coerced to do so. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Seibei was tasked to kill an enemy of his clan by his lord because he is known to be a master of short swordplay. Instead of accepting the order readily, he declines vehemently even though a handsome offer of reward was put up. He thinks that there is no necessity for violence and non-rational loyalty for one’s lord. Seibei claims that he has lost the desire to wield a sword, and thinks that “a serious fight and killing of a man requires animal ferocity and disregard for one’s own life”. This is said in a somewhat sarcastic tone in response to the Bushido code of ethics. The gradual erosion of the hardcore values that the samurai embodied reflects very vividly in this sentence.
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Twilight Samurai also focuses on the issue that the samurai is a dying class in fast evolving Japan. This is in coincidence with the previous highlighted point, about the erosion of the deeply entrenched values and fortified beliefs in the samurai. Towards the end of the Edo era, Japan relaxed the order to disallow foreign ships from entering its shores. British and Americans began to come into Japan, bringing with them the “Western” influence. Yamada plays up this point in his film where he showcased a Westerner teaching a group of Japanese how to use the rifle in the backdrop while Seibei and Tomonojo (Tomoe’s brother) were conversing. Maybe Yamada is trying to attribute the increased rationality in the samurai through Western influence to the decline of the samurai class. This point is further touched on and illuminated by casting Zenemon Yogo, in the climax of the film. Yogo, a senior retainer in the clan, was forced to perform hara-kiri when his clan leader lost the controlling power. He questions the need to be unflinchingly loyal to his master. Yamada puts harsh words into Yogo, where he continues to mention that the way of the samurai is no longer relevant as the world changed. He goes on to ridicule the hara-kiri, saying that it is absurd. Yogo no longer wants to be an “errand boy” with no soul in his life to speak of. Perhaps the ability to think rationally through exposure to Western values led the samurai to question the values that they uphold. This, coupled with the changing environment in Japan, marked the growing irrelevance of the samurai class in the society.
It is not easy to do justice to Twilight Samurai in my short essay as it is a sophisticated film with subtle yet great meanings. Clearly, Yamada is critical of what the samurai is popularly believed to be and he achieves great success in challenging the stereotype. He portrays the character of Seibei with great lucidity and beguiling depth, making it very believable and endearing to the audience. Be it the doting father, the filial son, the concerned lover or the loath warrior, Seibei definitely embodies the more human side and dispels the untrue myths of the samurai.
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