Film Analysis of Twilight Samurai

Directed by the experienced and renowned Yoji Yamada, Twilight Samurai is a film set in the 19th century, towards the end of the Tokugawa or Edo era. It was a time when the samurai system was beginning to wane as Japan started to advocate itself towards modernization. The Meiji reforms had started to begin, and the samurai class was gradually being disregarded as of a higher social status. The lifestyle and demand for the samurai was thus in a process of change, as the samurai began to take on other trades such as merchants.

The film depicts the story of Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a low-ranking, 50-koku samurai who struggles to make ends meet as he supports his family consisting of an elderly and senile mother, as well as 2 young daughters. His wife had just died of consumption due to poverty, leaving him with huge debts he had incurred while treating his wife’s disease. He generates extra income by weaving insect cages, almost like a peasant, and his mundane life changes when Tomoe, his childhood sweetheart, returns back to the clan after an abusive marriage.

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Seibei is portrayed as an ill-fated samurai who seems to continuously have new hurdles appearing in his life. Some of the elements projected amidst it all has shown us certain aspects important to the samurai tradition, and reflect certain romanticized and stereotyped, or not, images of themselves to the audience. In the film, it is established right from the start that the samurai is being illustrated as a figure of authority or higher social class in the Japanese society.

Yamada has expressed this in scenes such as when the group of samurais was walking out after their lesson, everyone bowed down to them in respect, or at least in recognition. In addition, when the clan retainer comes to inspect stock at the area where Seibei worked, he chastised the latter for his disarrayed dressing, reasoning that “clan retainers must serve as examples to common folk. ” Another scene where Tomoe brought Seibei’s two daughters out for a festival further justified that they were considered a segregated elite.

Tomoe brought up the point that samurais were not allowed to attend such festivals with the peasants and townsfolk, probably because it did not make their distinction from the common folk clear. Even Seibei, whom we can safely say is a samurai of lower profile, had the luxury of a boy servant following him and running errands for him despite his dire situation. A consistent injection of such scenes by Yamada constantly convinces the audience of the samurai’s raised social status, and this is relatively parallel to our typical stereotyped image of samurais.

The raised social status of samurais thus also contributed to the need for them to look neat, presentable and kempt. Throughout the movie, we see Yamada’s consistent portrayal of samurais with almost homogenously neat, combed hair tied in top-knots, accompanied with a clean shaven middle. This portrayal identifies with the fact that the samurai’s hair was an important part of his appearance, as most texts and house-codes of samurais make reference to the importance of it. The dressing of the samurai is also an indication of their status and politeness.

This also matches the stereotype of samurais that we have, as the fact that they were dignified personnel would have given us some sort of expectation from their physical presentation. Despite that, this stereotype is being challenged in the example of Seibei, as well as the samurai Yogo Zenemon whom he dueled with in the film. Seibei’s appearance is being chided at a few times in the film for his lack of hygiene and desire to keep kempt, sometimes even attributing his unkemptness to a lack of manners.

There is a scene where there was a zoom-in on Seibei’s dirty, black-stained fingernails probably from the hours of labour, and some where it shows Seibei scratching his head in itch. When Seibei stands next to one of his better, kinder childhood friend Iinuma Michinojo who also is a samurai, there is a stark contrast in their appearance. Yogo Zenemon, who was as good as a fallen samurai, also had a messy and unfurnished look. They were both men who endured hard lives because of their dire circumstances, samurais who could not care to give much attention to their physical appearances.

This gave us a more realistic outlook at the fact that not all samurais had the same neat look. Especially during this end Edo period, as more and more samurais began to suffer from their own decline, appearances began to take a back seat. This also brings us to the point that the samurais in the show were not characterized as people always conveniently linked to fighting. The typical stereotype of a samurai is one where he carries one or two swords with him everywhere he goes, wielding it out immediately in times of need to settle the situation at hand.

During the whole reel time of 2 hours in the film, only 2 fighting scenes were incorporated, thus putting less focus on the aspect of fighting and violence. This proved our stereotyped impression wrong. In the film, the majority of the samurais seemed like warriors in name only; most were accountants or mere literates – more scenes showed the samurais doing literary work than those on action and violence. That aside, it is important to clarify that the stereotyped version of a samurai could have been strongly justified in the earlier eras before Edo. The film merely puts across to us that this is not very true given the time it was set at.

In retrospect, however, it is still evident that the instinct to fight as a solution to problems is still palpable in the characteristics of the samurais. When Tomoe’s ex-husband intrudes into her family after divorce, the problem is settled through a duel, as it is when Zenemon refuses to commit seppuku. This emulates the fact that the fighting instinct that was rooted deeply in the samurai’s culture, which coincides with our stereotyped, actually exists. However, in general, the extent of violence and fighting in the film is probably not matched up against our impression of it.

In spite of that, skilled swordsmanship is still highly regarded inside the film, as it is in the samurai code. An adept warrior proficient with the sword is one we typically know will definitely be respected, and this is clearly put across in the film. Yamada utilizes contrast again – between Seibei’s peers’ attitudes towards him before they know about his deft skills and after, to illustrate this. Initially, they speak ill of him behind his back because he chooses to return home at twilight after every lesson, instead of joining them for a drink.

However, after they had learnt of his skills since the victorious duel he had with a captain’s son, one of them began to worry that he had offended Seibei in the past if the latter had ever overheard their gossips about him, calling him “Twilight”. He became more respected, so much so that when the samurai, who coincidentally happened to be Zenemon, went forth to Seibei and asked to spar, in the name of taking revenge for the captain’s son, had left peacefully after Seibei declined his invitation. Later on, Seibei was then ordered to take on a task given by the clan, which is to kill Zenemon.

He was bequeathed this task in recognition of his sword ability, although it may not be something welcomed by Seibei. Yamada has thus provided us with the understanding that our stereotype of a samurai being honoured for his swordsmanship is something that is true. Moving on to the point about honour and loyalty that we stereotypically know are almost cardinal aspects of samurais, Yamada has steadfastly upheld this impression inside the film. Seibei was an unambitious man who desired to abandon his samurai way of life, settle back for being an ordinary peasant farmer, and was one mired in self-doubt and introspection.

However, when called upon to accept the task, Seibei’s internal struggle is revealed when the film slows down and we begin to see from Seibei’s perspective – he is caught between following the orders of the clan which essentially is a prerequisite of being a samurai, and his desire for a peaceful life after he had decided to leave his samurai ways behind. Ultimately, he gave in and honoured the task, aside from the threat of him being expelled from the clan if he refused. The clan retainer tells him that “the very thought of refusal is an offence”.

Seibei felt the responsibility to adhere to the order as a samurai, and thus accepted it. The defending of one’s honour is also seen in the dueling scenes where none of the samurais would agree to back down after being jeered at by the other. When the captain’s son, ex-husband of Tomoe, tells Seibei that he will spare him if Seibei apologizes, Seibei replies readily with “the apology is yours to make”. The samurai, when challenged, would never back out humiliatingly. Also, honour in terms of respect for each other is also emphasized upon.

Zenemon, despite appealing to Seibei’s sympathy and commiseration earlier to let him go, flipped upon knowing that Seibei had intended to kill him with only a short sword since he had sold his katana away for his wife’s funeral. Zenemon felt that it was dishonor to him that Seibei had underestimated him, and immediately whips out his sword to attack Seibei. The importance of honour as a samurai is constantly reinforced in the film, strengthening our stereotype of the samurais as honour-driven beings.

Furthermore, seppuku (which is the self-suicide of a samurai, following his master or clan head in death) was also being advocated in the past. This is seen as a gesture of one’s loyalty. Samurais who refused were disgraced and looked down upon, as it was in the case of Zenemon. The clan had to then task samurais like Seibei and the one before him to kill this dishonourable man. Zenemon, as this discrepancy, could however indicate this decline of the samurai’s dogged honour and loyalty at this end Edo period.

In the periods of suffering, honour and loyalty, although still important, were already being less regarded. Our stereotype of the extreme and blind loyalty of samurais, which involves the impression of them being merely conditioned to be ready to sacrifice oneself immediately for the clan, is thus also being challenged. The film thus provides us with a more reality-inclined aspect of samurais – that their loyalty was in fact a highly personal agreement that was logical and not blindly conditioned, through the perspectives of Zenemon himself.

He definitely did not agree that it made sense for him to commit seppuku alongside the others just because of his master’s death; afterall, he did not struggle to survive through the years just to end his life like this. This example struck an emotional chord with the audience – we begin to empathize the samurai’s wretched life, and realise that their lives are not plainly about fighting, honour and glory. In the pre-modern Japan, and even up till now, some may argue, the theme of the society being a considerably patriarchal one where men are considered as more important, and thus more highly regarded, is well-known.

This creates the stereotype that samurais are a misogynistic lot who put themselves above the level of females. Since men are then considered as more “able” and suited to make decisions and such, there is a general expectation that there was absolutely no need for women to be literate. This parallels our stereotype of samurais, and even the olden Japanese society as a whole. This can be seen in the film cut where Seibei’s uncle tells Seibei’s daughter that there was not a need for a woman to be educated too much, (insert quote here).

However, Seibei provides as an anomaly again, as he instead encourages his daughter to study and develop her thinking. Later in the film, there’s a scene which only flashes for 3 seconds that shows a class full of girls having lesson – where Seibei’s daughters were learning at. This short flash was probably to show that during this period, it was gradually becoming more accepted that girls ought to receive education. The film thus implies that our stereotype is still relevant, but not entirely throughout the samurai era.

Apart from the focus on male samurai, it is interesting to note that Tomoe is almost emulated as a female samurai herself. She is well-disciplined, educated, and stoic in nature – she has survived a disastrous and violent marriage, and yet does not look daunted in spirit at all. In addition, after she had known about Tomoe’s intention to propose to her, she had went back on another marriage proposal she had already accepted just to be with him. Her strength in spirit and determination is commendable, as she shows her unwavering loyalty towards Seibei through the years.

She is thus almost likened to a female samurai. In conclusion, Twilight Samurai is a film that has provided much insight about the lives of samurais in the past, and some parts contextualized in the era it was set at. This showed that there was a gradual difference in the samurais before the end Edo period as well as at that time. It thus shows a more reality-inclined side to petty samurais through their transition to a more declining status, making some of our stereotypes relevant at some points, and not so at other.

Bibliography/ References :
On Samurai Traditions:
I. Nitobe. Bushido The Warrior’s Code. 1979. Ohara Publications, Incorporated

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Film Analysis of Twilight Samurai. (2017, Feb 24). Retrieved from