Twilight Samurai

 

posted to www.marxmail.org on May 24, 2005

 

"Twilight Samurai" is a double-entendre. The hero, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), has been nicknamed "twilight" by fellow clerks since he goes straight home at sunset to look after his two young daughters or to plow his fields rather than join them for drinks at the local geisha house. The word "twilight" also describes the period in Japanese history immediately before the Meiji restoration that brought an end to samurai power and privilege.

 

By the 1800s, many samurai had descended to Seibi Iguchi's status. They functioned as minor bureaucrats in a decaying feudal system rather than as warriors. Indeed, Seibei's existence evokes Bob Cratchit rather than Yojimbo. His day is spent in the counting house of the local prince's palace, where he sits and enters columns of numbers onto parchment. I was reminded of the social function of my ancestors since Proyect is Yiddish for the counting house of a tax-farmer, a role assigned typically to the court Jews of the Middle Ages.

 

Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer's. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.

 

The only thing that brings Seibi pleasure is his two daughters Kayana and Ito. (Kayana, the older of the two at ten years, provides voiceover as an adult in the form of an extended flashback.) But they wonder why they have to learn how to read since sewing rather than books will provide income for the family. He answers that reading will provide the knowledge they need to understand the world and to become better human beings. This is the first indication that Seibei is not a typical samurai, who are generally a misogynist lot--including the powerful 1000-koku samurai who has been divorced by Seibei's childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) after years of drunken physical and verbal abuse.

 

When the ex-husband arrives at Tomoe's house to retrieve her, Seibei intercedes to tell him that she is no longer his wife and that he must leave at once. The aristocrat is shocked by Seibei's impudence and challenges him to a duel by the river banks the next day. When Seibei arrives armed with nothing but a stick, we assume that he will be slaughtered by Tomoe's ex-husband, who is a feared swordsman. Instead, Seibei dodges the blade and lands a well-placed blow on his head to end the duel on favorable terms both to him and to his opponent--by saving his own life as well as that of the man who would kill him. We soon discover that Seibei is actually a skilled swordsman who has forsaken combat long ago. Despite his prowess, he has lost the stomach for killing other human beings.

 

This year Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories" was published. The basic idea of the book seems plausible to me. It is the same thing I heard in a writer's workshop 25 years ago. All plots are recycled material. For example, "Beowulf" and "Jaws" are "overcoming the monster" tales. "On the Road", "Huckleberry Finn" and "Thelma and Louise" are "road" stories, etc.

 

When I discovered that Seibei was a formidable swordsman who voluntarily left the life of a professional killer behind, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood's "The Unforgiven." In "The Unforgiven," Eastwood played a pig farmer who was once a feared gunfighter. He is persuaded to pick up the gun once again by a group of prostitutes who seek vengeance against a cowboy who has mutilated one of them with a knife.

 

In "Twilight Samurai," Seibei is forced to use a sword against Yogo Zenemon (Min Tanaka), another highly placed samurai who is holed up in his house after refusing to commit harikari upon the death of his master. It appears that traditions are breaking down entirely at the end of the Tokugawa era and that armed interventions are required to keep them intact. Local officials tell Seibei that unless he accepts the mission to kill Yogo Zenemon, he will be expelled from the clan and forced into pauperdom.

 

Indeed, the film is pervaded by the sense of unyielding custom and rigid hierarchy. This is not the free-wheeling Úlan of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai" but the suffocating and oppressive reality that gave birth to a bourgeois revolution in the late 19th century. Despite its top-down character, the Meiji restoration was a reaction to the stupidity and stagnation of a feudal system that had long outlasted its usefulness.

 

Despite his growing disaffection from the old system, Seibei is still trapped by it. When Tomoe makes clear that she prefers Seibei as a new husband to other more wealthy and powerful men, he rejects her advances. Why? He says that she will never be happy with a 50-koku samurai. It is obvious that he is more concerned about his status in Shogunate society than she is.

 

Tomoe is very clear about what is wrong with Japanese society. When she takes Kayana and Ito to a ribald carnival that is mounted annually by peasants, they ask her why samurai are prevented by attending it. She answers that she does not know why, since without peasants there would be no samurai. This is about as clear a statement of the class nature of feudalism that you will find anywhere.

 

The film's climax takes place inside the house of Yogo Zenemon. The two samurai discover that they have much in common--including resentment toward a system that finds them dispensable.

 

To understand the role of the samurai in Togukawa era Japan requires a Marxian class analysis, but one unencumbered by dogmatism. There is probably no better introduction to the question than Douglas R. Howland's "Samurai Status, Class and Bureaucracy: A Historiographical Essay" that appeared in the May 2001 Journal of Asian Studies.

 

Howland states that there were two Marxist tendencies in the prewar Japan academy with varying interpretations of the pre-Meiji era. The Koza, or "Lecture" group, argued that the samurai were a purely feudal class and that the Meiji restoration resulted in the ascendancy of a reconstituted feudal ruling class, against which a bourgeois revolution must be organized. Not surprisingly, the "Lecture" group was supported by the Communist Party.

 

The Rono, or "Farmer-Labor" group, argued that the samurai had shifted class positions, with the lower rungs--people like the Twilight Samurai, in other words--joining the urban working class and becoming critical to the Meiji restoration's bourgeois revolution from above. As should be clear from things I have written in reply to Robert Brenner, I am sympathetic to these views.

 

Although it is not clear to me that Yoji Yamada, the 74 year old director of "Twilight Samurai, is familiar with this debate, there can be no doubt that his masterpiece of a film supports the "Farmer-Labor" perspective.

 

For Howland, the category "bureaucratic labor" describes the lot of the average samurai throughout the Shogunate era. He writes:

 

"As an individual, a samurai was often on his own in securing an adequate livelihood. Kozo Yamamura's important study of samurai income found that the stipend of a 'houseman' was always barely adequate, giving him in the early Tokugawa period the living standard of a merchant or artisan."

 

"The 'lower samurai,' who made up the majority of bureaucratic clerks and lowly functionaries and who felt unjustly cut off from positions of power and respect, increasingly voiced the rationalizing opinion that official appointments and positions should be based on merit rather than heredity."

 

"Thus alienated from the Tokugawa state, motivated by notions of reform, and discovering alternative models, some younger samurai--Fukuzawa Yukichi, for example--began to interpret the question of political legitimacy in new terms, even those of representative institutions, and to replace relationships of loyalty with an identification with personal and national independence."

 

In other words, the twilight samurai were the advance guard of democracy in the new Japan. Japan's failure to deliver fully on that promise is obviously a subject for another post.

 

("Twilight Samurai" was filmed in 2002 and was released theatrically in the USA a year later. This review is based on a viewing of the now available DVD. I regard this film as an unqualified masterpiece that ranks with Kurosawa's best work.)