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Reviewed by Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel Kenner
A great movie in the line of the American gunfighter classic "Shane." Director Yoji Yamada portrays a brave, modest man who stands against the tide, offering speculators a model of character and individualism. The film is set in the 1860s toward the close of the Edo period; there is little call for sword-fighting, and the once-mighty samurai roam the countryside or work as ill-paid clerks. The hero, Seibei, labors in a clan storehouse, where fellow workers nickname him "Twilight" because he declines their invitations to go out drinking. His wife's death from consumption -- and the lavish funeral demanded by her family -- left Seibei deeply in debt; he cares for his two young daughters and senile mother on his salary of 50 bales of rice a year, less 20 for debt repayment. The girls are ragged and dirty, but cheerful; Seibei is a devoted father and encourages them to learn the classics, once reserved only for men. Invited to come work as a guard in Kyoto, he declines. He wants to quit being a samurai and live as a farmer; unfortunately, the country is in a famine, and corpses of starved peasant children wash up on the riverbanks daily.
When his sunny, beautiful childhood sweetheart Tomoe returns to the village after a disastrous marriage, her visits brighten the lives of Seibei and his family; she cleans, sews, cooks, sings with the girls, takes them to festivals and is kind to the old mother. But Tomoe's jealous ex-husband, a samurai much larger than he is, challenges Seibei to a duel. Seibei's opponent, much taller than he is, arrives at the scene with a long samurai sword. Seibei deftly knocks him senseless using only a wooden stick, revealing himself as a formidable master of sword technique. He tries in vain to keep the incident secret; soon he is asked by his clan leader to kill another samurai, who has committed the crime of refusing to commit suicide for following a former leader's orders. It's a beautifully dramatic set-up for a conflict between tradition and change. Value vs. growth comes to mind (see Vic's 4/21 post below).
We have walked out of so many films lately -- the characters are invariably reprehensible, the businessman evil, the plot cynical and/or muddled -- that it's a pleasure to recommend a movie with admirable characters, a realistic portrayal of economic life and a positive, coherent point of view. As reviewer Bruce Fessler of The Desert Sun noted, the acting is so good that we don't know how the final scene will turn out.
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