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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Twilight Samurai
The Twilight Samurai
Other // Unrated // December 28, 2004
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted January 3, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

Those who are looking for raucous, aggressive, and stylized Samurai adventure and swordplay will be sorely disappointed in Yoji Yamada's exquisite The Twilight Samurai, a haunting and beautiful film set in the transition period between the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Although there are two critical duels within the film, it is a drama first and foremost, a meditation about role, happiness, and the assertion of the individual over cultural realizations and class expectations. In the lead role of Seibei Iguchi, Hiroyuki Sanada gives a quiet but commanding performance, the type of which that garners acclaim not through showmanship, scenery-chewing, or pre-planned Oscar-caliber monologues, but through subtlety, grace, and austerity. His acting is quiet, but not subdued. For any budding thespian, there's a lot to be learned here.

The story begins with the introduction of Seibei by his young daughter, who is recounting his story as an old woman via flashback. Seibei is a samurai of the Unasaka clan, albeit a low-ranking one. He is employed as a clerk, keeping records of the clan's fish supplies and other holdings. His co-workers often make fun of him: he is unkempt, unclean, somewhat smelly, and never socializes with them at night. They mockingly call him the "Twilight Samurai", as he always rushes home at the end of the day to be with his family. Seibei's wife has recently died of consumption, and he was left with two young daughters, a senile elderly mother who can barely remember him, and a mountain of debt. His wife's death and resulting funeral had left the family almost destitute, so Seibei not only has to work his clerk job but also assist with the farming and cleaning. He insists that his daughter learn their lessons on reading and writing in order to "open up the world" to them.

One afternoon at work, an inspection by the Lord of the clan brings disgrace to the family. While inspecting the stores, the Lord notices that Seibei's kimono is torn and that he reeks of fish. The Lord criticizes Seibei and reprimands him, bringing shame to Seibei and incurring the wrath of his wealthy Uncle. His uncle warns him to remarry a wife with "big haunches" who can bear him children and take care of his household, but Seibei refuses to marry out of convenience. Things change when his childhood love, Miss Tomoe, divorces her abusive husband and comes to work in Seibei's household. Yet Seibei is reluctant to marry her: his lack of money affected his first marriage in a destructive way, and he's hesitant to bring Tomoe "down" in a similar manner. Seibei's indecision is further complicated when the Clan orders him to carry out a mission to track down and assassinate a rogue samurai who disregarded his own orders. Should he do what his world and society expects of him, or should he live happily and comfortably in his own skin?

The Twilight Samurai is a beautiful-looking film, soft and delicate yet powerfully told and exquisitely shot. Yamada's direction and Sanada's acting are both first-rate, resulting in an engaging movie that, while a bit dragging in certain sections, remains generally compelling throughout. Such a worthwhile film deserves a sparkling, dazzling presentation on DVD. Unfortunately, you will not find it on this release.

The DVD

Video:

The Twilight Samuraiis presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and has not been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing appreciation. Subtitles are burnt into the print and are not optional.

I can sum up the video presentation in two words: dis-mal. This is a severely lacking transfer. The image is overly compressed, resulting in noticeable amounts of compression noise and blocking. Image detail is very soft, often fuzzy, while contrasts and shadow delineation both suffer. Most of the dark-lit scenes are almost unwatchable; a critical scene during the film's climax often blurs into nothingness, the picture lost in flat brown shadows. Colors vary from the muted to the acceptable, but this is the best aspect of an overall weak video presentation. The fact that the transfer itself is not anamorphic is just the stale icing on a pretty revolting cake.

Audio:

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and provides for a reasonably engaging presentation of the soundtrack. Dynamic range is excellent, with richness prevalent throughout the score as well as reasonable clarity contained within dialog levels. There is some active use of surrounds to highlight background and ambient activity. While not a raucous and engaging 5.1 soundtrack, the mix provided here is dynamic and engaging enough to present a fairly worthwhile soundstage.

Extras:

Special features include interviews with director Yoji Yamada and star Hiroyuki Sanada, which together run about 28 minutes in length. Both interviews are dubbed into English, as both Yamada and Sanada share their thoughts on the production. Also included are trailers for The Twilight Samurai, Almost Peaceful, and The Three Marias.

Final Thoughts:

A solemn but engaging piece of work, The Twilight Samurai presents a compelling drama set within the dying embers of the Shogunate era. The film is definitely worth your time. This DVD, unfortunately, is not. The horrible transfer and lack of real special features make for a disappointing release. We can hope that this title gets licensed out so that the film gets a proper release on DVD (Mr. Becker, I'm looking at you!). Based on the film alone, the DVD merits a rental. But only a rental, and nothing more. Disappointing.

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