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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2002

Still swinging hard, into the twilight

Tasogare Seibei

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Yoji Yamada
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Nov. 2

"Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)," Yoji Yamada's 77th film, is also his first period drama, though the 48 episodes of his Tora-san series were period dramas in all but name. Tora-san, that perpetually lovelorn peddler, may have traveled all over Japan in the last three decades of the 20th century, but he and his extended family from downtown Tokyo were throwbacks to another era -- a friendlier, warmer, slower-paced Japan.

News photo
Hiroyuki Sanada in "Tasogare Seibei"

In "Tasogare Seibei," which is based on a best-selling novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, Yamada finds in the last days of the Edo Period (1600-1867) a Japan uncannily like the one we're living in today, complete with premodern versions of yen-pinching recessionary lifestyles, corporate restructuring, office politics -- and men who can't say what they feel. Yamada's trademark humanism is also much in evidence, tempered by a darker, more tragic view of human nature than that found in the Tora-san films. This view, however, does not appear until the third act, after more than an hour of warmed-over melodrama about star-crossed lovers, aimed at Yamada's core audience.

The hero, Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada), is the mid-19th-century equivalent of a rank-and-file salaryman: a samurai scraping along on a stipend of 50 bales of rice a year and working as a clerk in the clan office. He is, however, not a conformist. When his colleagues head to the local pub for a drink after work, he goes straight home. Since he disappears every day as the sun goes down, he is derisively tagged with the nickname Tasogare (Twilight) Seibei.

He has three reasons for his early departure: his two young daughters and senile mother -- all that is left of his family after the death of his wife from illness. Everyone pitches in, but Seibei does most of the work around the place, from tending the garden to making cricket cages for extra money. But for all his ceaseless labors, he remains desperately poor.

Then a friend and fellow samurai, Rin-no-Jo (Mitsu Fukikoshi), tells Seibei that his sister Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) has left her drunken brute of a husband and returned home. The next day Tomoe appears at Seibei's house -- she and Seibei were childhood friends -- and her cheery smile brightens the gloom. Seibei's daughters fall in love with her -- as does he, though he would rather die than admit it.

The ex-husband (Ren Osugi) reappears to beat and harass Tomoe. When Seibei defends her, the ex challenges him to a duel. Seibei wins using only a wooden stick against his opponent's sword, and his fame spreads throughout the town. Tomoe becomes a frequent visitor to Seibei's house, but when Rin-no-Jo proposes a match to Seibei, he refuses. "After three or four years of living in poverty, she would regret marrying me," he explains -- but his heart says otherwise.

Impressed by what it has heard of Seibei's bravery and skill, the clan orders him to dispatch Yogoemon (Min Tanaka) -- a samurai on the losing side of a clan succession struggle who is taking out his dissatisfaction with a sword. Seibei is reluctant, but the clan elders insist -- and promise to end his financial worries. Just as he is about to set off to perform this distasteful task, however, Tomoe tells him she has accepted an offer of marriage. Then he discovers that his intended victim is a poor man much like himself. How can he kill him with a clean conscience? Why should he even care, now that the love of his life belongs to another man again?

Why should we care either? Rie Miyazawa's Tomoe is a wish-fulfillment figure, who lives only to worship the hero and care for his brood, from the moment she enters their lives. Her sweetness-and-light act belies her recent history as a battered wife, however -- nary a scar remains. Miyazawa's performance, charming as it may be, offers few clues to her inner life.

Sanada does a better job of impersonating a human being, bringing a quiet conviction to the role of Seibei. A former gymnast who trained for action stardom under Sonny Chiba, he can also, at 42, still wield a mean sword. But while Seibei's dogged determination to do the right thing is admirable, his long slog through his twilight existence becomes tiring -- and puzzling. Why, I couldn't help wondering, is the hardworking, clean-living Seibei dirt poor, while his colleagues live lives of pleasure and ease? Don't they have families to support as well? Or is there a background story I'm missing?

In any case, the climatic showdown between Seibei and Yogoemon redeems much of what has gone on before. The tepid romance forgotten, Yamada finally presents his main themes -- the imminent disappearance of the samurai way in the coming tide of Westernization, the absurdity of mortal combat (and, by extension, war) once the combatants see each other as human beings, and the incurable contrariness of human nature. Sanada and celebrated butoh dancer Tanaka, as Yogoemon, perform their dance of death with power and grace, while connecting as comrades in injustice and misery. I don't want to add spoilers, just to say that this scene could stand alone as a one-act play -- and is one of the best things Yamada has ever done.

At the age of 70, he is just beginning to show us what he can do. But please, no more angels in kimono.

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