“Twilight Samurai” (2002) and “The Hidden Blade,” (2004) the first two installments in Yoji Yamada’s Samurai trilogy are now available from Netflix. “Love and Honor,” the final installment, showed at the Imaginasian Theater in New York last November and should soon be available in home DVD as well. Although I missed “Love and Honor” when it was at the Imaginasian, I am grateful for the loan of a press screener from a fellow programmer at Columbia University who has had an involvement with Japanese films for decades.
I am not sure of the 77 year old Yoji Yamada’s political associations today but the N.Y. Times reported in 1982 that he was “a member in good standing of Japan’s Communist Party” and usually tried to make “some reference in his films to man’s disaffection with society.”
For those of you who think of Kurosawa’s samurai movies as genre-defining, you are likely to be surprised by Yamada’s approach (even though both directors were men of the left) for Yamada sees the men not primarily as warriors but as court functionaries in a feudal system that was about to be replaced by the capitalism of the Meiji restoration. They are always pathetic in one fashion or another, but find a way in the climax of each of his great movies to redeem their honor in a display of swordsmanship against the feudal forces of oppression. These are very class conscious films, even if the alignment of class forces bears little resemblance to modern-day bourgeois society.
“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.
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 a well-placed blow to his head ends the duel on favorable terms both to him and to his opponent. 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. Like a gunman from the old west who has given up killing (Alan Ladd in “Shane” and Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven” come to mind), Seibei soon learns that it is difficult to escape his past. Once again he is forced to take up the sword in the thrilling conclusion to “Twilight Samurai”.
The Hidden Blade
Like Seibei, the samurai in “The Hidden Blade” is something of an anti-hero. He is Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), a low-level functionary who spends much of his time learning how to use the newly imported British cannons that his master plans to use against his enemies. Just as is the case with the Tom Cruise movie, the samurai bitterly resent being forced to use such a vulgar armament and profess their preference for the sword or bow and arrow.
The fortyish Katagari has never married and like a bachelor uncle is fretted over by his relatives. They even notice that he has stopped caring about his appearance. Indeed, there is not much to sustain Katagari psychologically since his role as a warrior is anachronistic. His duties do not consist of going out with sword in hand to defeat other samurais, but preparing a training manual on how to use the new artillery.
Midway into the film, Katagari discovers that Kie (Takako Matsu), his family’s young maid who has entered into an arranged marriage with a merchant, is being mistreated by her new family. They treat her as a beast of burden and do not feed and clothe her adequately. He shows up at their manor to discover her sick and weak in a darkened room. Enraged by her treatment, he hoists her on his back and brings her back to his home and nurses her back to health. Once she is fully recovered, she begins to attend to his every need. It is clear that she is drawn to him romantically and that he loves her as well. Unfortunately for the two, the rigid caste system of feudal Japan prevents them from marrying. He is an aristocrat and she is from a peasant family.
Despite never having used his sword in combat, Katagari trained in one of the finest schools along with an old friend Yaichiro, who has recently escaped from a cage on the local Retainer’s estate where he was being jailed in ignominy. Yaichiro was implicated in a plot against the Shogunate and was not even permitted the honor of hari-kari. Eventually Yaichiro escapes from the cage and flees to a farming village where he takes an old man and his granddaughter hostage. He boldly announces that he is ready to die there. Let the Retainer send his riflemen and they will die by his sword.
The climax of the movie pits Katagari and Yaichiro against each other. Using some techniques he learned from his former master, who has renounced the martial arts and now lives the life of a simple farmer, Katagari hopes against hope that he won’t have to use them against an old friend.
Masatoshi Nagase delivers a riveting performance as the aging samurai Katagari. Although the movie is focused on the duel between Katagari and Yaichiro, it is as much a love story between the crusty bachelor and the young peasant woman whose caste keeps them apart. Implicitly, it is as the N.Y. Times put it a strong reference to man’s disaffection from society, in this case a rotting feudal system.
Love and Honor (Spanish subtitles)
“Love and Honor” once again features a hapless lower-rung samurai. Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura) is a food taster for a local clan lord, a job that virtually symbolizes the stupidity of the old order. He and six other samurai take bites of a meal three times a day just to make sure that their overlord is not poisoned. The food is delivered in complete solemnity and when the samurai make small talk about the bites they take, they are reprimanded by a vassal in charge of the operation.
One day Shinnojo eats some bad shellfish and immediately falls into a coma. When he awakens a week or so later, he discovers that he has become blind. In feudal society, there are provisions made for the disabled but as one might expect there are concessions expected from the unlucky victims like Shinnojo, including his wife being coerced into serving as a sex slave for a powerful sub-lord.
In order to preserve his sense of honor, Shinnojo challenges the man to a duel. Unlike the popular “Blind Swordsman” series, “Love and Honor” is played without any kind of showboating involving superior sense of hearing or smell, etc. You get the very strong sense that the blind Shinnojo has bitten off more than he can chew.
Again, like “The Hidden Blade”, there is a deeply moving love story at the core of the film. No matter how many times Shinnojo demands that his wife start a new life without him, she remains faithful-even to the point of sacrificing her body to keep them fed and sheltered.
There is probably no better introduction to the historical period of Yamada’s films 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 heroes of Yamada’s films, in other words-joining the urban working class and becoming critical to the Meiji restoration’s bourgeois revolution from above. I am sympathetic to these views. And despite Yoji Yamada’s membership in the JCP, his movies tend to support 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 samurai depicted in Yamada’s movies 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.