Sunday, July 16, 2006

A meticulous tableau wracked with internal and external pressures

Last night I watched The Twilight Samurai, a Japanese film that was nominated for an academy award in 2004. I was genuinely shocked by the quality of this movie. The story is superbly-crafted. Not a single element, and there are many, is clichéd and almost nothing happens as you would expect, yet the plot and the actions of the characters ring emotionally true in every scene. The use of foreshadowing is genuinely marvelous. A few of the major plot elements you can see coming. Others fit so naturally into the action that their eventual revelation is incredibly satisfying.

Visually, it is well-done but not overwhelming in its beauty. Most shots are framed conventionally, but that serves to showcase the several instances of incredibly dramatic cinematography.

The acting is excellent. Hiroyuki Sanada plays the title character and is in almost every frame. His performance is nuanced and multi-dimentional as it has to be to pull off the story. His interactions, and lack of interactions, with his daughters demonstrate rare acting skills that place him, for this performance at least, among the top practitioners of the craft.

But it all comes backs to the story. These days it is practically impossible to tell a story that is entirely original, particularly if it is an historical drama. The story of The Twilight Samurai has plot elements that are found in other movies. What sets the story so far apart from the cinematic norm is its nearly flawless construction (I’d like to drop the “nearly” but am sure I could find something to criticize if I watched it again).

I don’t like to describe much, if anything about a movie’s plot details and generally don’t like even giving the 40,000 foot view. A simple recitation of Twilight's plot elements that you will read in any mainstream review will make the movie sound boring. Yet the story has depth far beyond its superficial description and its cinematic execution by the director, cinematographer and actors makes it great art.

Yet I know, audiences demand it, so I will say this (*If you don’t want any information about the plot, stop reading now*). The film shares many conventions with the classic American western. A lone man struggles to survive in a society that is far more concerned with codes-of-honor than rule-of-law. The man is a Samurai, a fighter, who does not want to fight. He may or may not eventually fight. Until the actual denouement, the question remains. The action takes place at the end of an era, depicting the last gasps of a way-of-life that will soon be wiped out by advanced in military technology. Although it shares some of the characteristics of the western genre, The Twilight Samurai is not a victim of them. It is simply a great story well-told.

The title of this post, which comes from a review by Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times, is an excellent description of the film. If there is any chance you will see the movie, I recommend you do not read Mitchell’s review (for the reasons stated above), but if you must, you can find it here.