The western world has its own idea of the samurai. In this neck of the woods, samurai are sometimes blood-thirsty, meticulously trained savages who can disappear at will like wisps of smoke. They can appear otherworldly, even supernatural, suggesting that it wasn't generations of enlightenment and formal training that has led to their legacy, but mysticism and black magic.
And then you've got nonsense like Kill Bill where old men stroke too-long beards and revel in bawdy bullshit. In this age of Quentin Tarantino and Tom Cruise, the true essence of the samurai has become muddied and lost. This is where The Twilight Samurai enters to shatter your allusions and change so much of what you thought you knew about this ancient culture.
Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) has had a rough go of it lately. His wife has died from consumption, leaving him to not only care for their two daughters with little money, but he must also contend with caring for his mother, whom he is sadly losing to her increasing dementia. To support his family as best as he can, he has taken to working in an accountant's office, utilizing none of his skills of a samurai. Seibei struggles to find worth in himself in a world rapidly changing and one that he feels is consistently letting him down.
One of the reasons The Twilight Samurai is so effective as a film is the sheer normality of it all, which sounds like an unusual point of praise, but it's exactly this normality that gives the film its power. Seibei the samurai is not a wire-flying hero; he does not befriend a westerner to fight off the advances of a nearby warring clan. He is a widower, father of two daughters, son of a sick mother; an office drone like the rest of us forced to work in a lifeless environment doing lifeless work. And in the midst of all this, Seibi finds himself living in a world where the concept of the samurai is outdated and unnecessary. He is not only contending with the drastic turn his life has taken following the death of his wife, but he is also contending with his own worth as a person, and feelings of his own irrelevance.
Though the story of an individual examining their own worth is a timeless one, the foreign environment in which The Twilight Samurai takes place is what drives the story into unique territory. It gets a lot of mileage out of presenting a character study of this sad man who, though he bears the sword, the robe, and the tied-back hair, feels nothing like the samurai whom he has studied to be. Because of this, Seibei feels intensely human and, at times, sadly relateable. He's been dealt a shitty hand, he's barely making ends meet at a job he loathes, and his co-workers, who repeatedly ask him to come out for drinks and who are always turned down, have begun calling him "Twilight Seibei," because he always makes it a point to get home before dark so he can care for his family. They mock him for his anti-social behavior, his appearance, and yeah, even his body odor. He suffers the same indignities as your basic blue-collar 9-to-5er - it's just that he happens to be a samurai, and never has such a respected and awed-over figurehead been so castrated and dehumanized to the point of humiliation.
The Twilight Samurai is definitely not for everyone. At a running time of over two hours, and with samurai everywhere on screen all the time, but none of whom are doing cool flips or slicing men in half or other dumb Hollywood shit, preconceived notions have the power to conflict with the story. Make no mistake, though there are scenes in which the samurai exercise their skills, ultimately The Twilight Samurai is a two-hour character study about a broken man learning to feel worth again - and that's equally compelling as any wire-fight.
The Twilight Samurai is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.