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Originally posted on the now long defunct DVDDebate.com on 19th November 2004, a few days before the disc’s release, and with Tartan having recently released The Hidden Blade (a review of which is elsewhere on this site), now seems like a good time to re-post the following review so it’s not lost completely in the mists of time...

Twilight Samurai, The

Feature


"I always thought he was strange. But I never thought he was a swordsman."

Set in the mid-1860s, towards the end of the Edo Period, The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) is an award-winning tale of a lowly Samurai set against the background of a changing Japan. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) spends his days taking care of business at the castle—which in his case entails looking after the dried food supplies—and his nights looking after his sick wife, senile mother, and his two children. His friends and colleagues invite him out every evening, but come twilight he always goes home.

His life is one of sacrifice, even to extent of foregoing personal bathing, and this leads to a moment of shame when His Lordship notices the strange aroma. Now a laughing stock, and without a wife as her illness has taken her to the great beyond, Seibei's Uncle decides to intervene and tries to repair the damage that has been done to the reputation of the family.

Seibei is a man of differing ideals to those around him—including his Uncle—believing that the time of the Samurai is coming to an end, and that the place of the woman in this new world should develop with it. Spurning his Uncle's plans to get him remarried so as to set him on the right track again, an encounter with Iinuma leads Seibei to reacquaint himself with another childhood friend—Tahoe (Rie Miyazawa), Iinuma's sister.

Twilight Samurai, The
Tahoe is newly-divorced. Her ex-husband, Toyotaro Koda (Ren Osugi), is a mean drunk, and having finally had enough of Tahoe's suffering and his own guilt at having set up the marriage in the first place, Iinuma arranged the dissolution. A case of bad timing leads to Seibei taking up a challenge against Koda on Iinuma's behalf, and it is not long before his reputation as a swordsman is all around the clan. With his relationship with Tahoe seemingly blossoming, even without him trying, it is a reputation that means he is called upon by the heads of the clan to take care of an unsavoury bit of business...

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th Academy Awards, and losing out to The Barbarian Invasions, the loss was overshadowed by twelve Japanese Academy Award wins. I'll take the easy way out and point you towards the IMDb page, but suffice to say that only nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor failed—although there were two for the latter category and Nenji Kobayashi (Choubei Kusaka) lost out to Min Tanaka (Zinemon Yogo).

The screenplay itself was adapted from stories by Shuhei Fujisawa, with Yôji Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama crafting a delicate study of a man that does not want to rise above his lowly status. Narrated by a much older Kayana—Seibei's oldest daughter, whose younger self is played by Miki Itô in the film—the film travels along at a sedate pace, but never seems to drag.

Twilight Samurai, The
The performances in the lead roles by Hiroyuki Sanada and Rie Miyazawa are top notch (another two awards there). Sanada plays the resolute Samurai perfectly, with the weight of the world hanging heavy on his shoulders as he just tries to get on with his life. Miyazawa comes across as bright and fun-loving—a stark contrast to our hero—but also shows the fear of her ex-husband well. The rest of the cast, from the children to Seibei's nemesis, Zinemon Yogo, just add to an excellent ensemble.

With Mutsuo Naganuma's stunning cinematography rounding out the package, where does this sit in the annals of DVD history?

Video


Having taken the Japanese Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, you might be hoping that the visual treat that the film undoubtedly is would translate well on the pitted platter known as DVD. Well, aside from some very minor haloing and a tiny bit of motion blur I couldn't really find anything wrong with this.

Twilight Samurai, The
Grain is nigh on invisible, and the detail on show here—while perhaps not astounding—is definitely up there with the best of them. From the blossom on the trees, to the textures on skin and rock, everything shows up nicely and the depth of focus is superb. Marry this with an accurate palette and it all looks quite lovely.

Another Japanese Academy Award for the lighting in the film also gives the transfer a chance to shine. The final showdown inside the confined spaces of a dimly-lit house still manages to show all the movement on the screen without anything disappearing into the depths of darkness, while blacks are still strong.

Not much else to say really, except that the optional subtitles are—for the most part—clearly visible, and the layer change is at the end of chapter nine (1h12m24s).

Twilight Samurai, The

Audio


Winning a couple more Japanese Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Film Score, we are given the chance to listen to the soundtrack in three flavours. Perhaps one of the reasons for the limited extras (see below), the DTS 5.1 Digital Surround track is slapped on here at the fullest bit-rate DVD has to offer—1536kbps. The dynamic range is excellent, letting the subtleties of the surroundings out whilst keeping the vocals clear and precise. Birdsong is as clear as you could hope, and the sounds of insects and frogs (at least I think they are frogs) come from all available points. Even with some very low-volume background music at around 1h34m each note can still be picked out.

At the low end of things, the normal channels exhibit an impressive amount of bass, with gunshots and a storm providing a nice thud. The subwoofer is used to enhance the mood only in certain moments, but with this being the sort of film that does not demand house-shaking effects it is not missed.

The atmosphere oozes from the surrounds, with the aforementioned wildlife backed up by the beating of the end-of-workday drums. The festival scene and the storm are the only real points where the volume goes above what you could call atmospheric, but in terms of sound design everything fits perfectly. The only problem I found during the entire 'experience' was that a loud vocal at 1h21m sounded a bit too harsh. This was also present in the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but how does that stack up against the DTS?

Twilight Samurai, The
At a comparatively miniscule 448kbps (although it is the highest bit-rate for a Dolby Digital track) it stacks up pretty well, but it does lack the depth of the DTS track. As an example, the end title song by Yousui Inoue heavily features a piano—the definition in the notes in the DTS is exemplary (to my ears anyway), but there is just something lacking when you switch to the 'lesser' cousin. It is a very good Dolby Digital track, but DTS is the way to go.

I suppose I should mention the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix of the movie. There you go—I just did. Seriously though, it is a good stereo track, but if you have only got stereo equipment then isn't it time to upgrade? The main two tracks on this disc would be a good introduction, and there isn't too much in here to have the neighbours banging on the wall.

Extras


Ah yes, the extras. Well, first off let me just say that contrary to popular belief—and the press release here—there are no film notes from Tim Robey. All we get are the theatrical and teaser trailers for the main event, and a set of trailers for other Tartan fare. All are presented with DD2.0 Stereo sound.

Twilight Samurai, The
The theatrical trailer (2m, non-anamorphic 1.85:1, burnt-in English subtitles) and the original teaser trailer (1m06s, anamorphic 1.85:1, optional English subtitles) both do a fair job of promoting the film, but are presented at nowhere near the quality of the feature itself.

The Tartan Trailer Reel consists of six separately selectable trailers for Respiro (1m38s), the political documentary Basque Ball (2m16s), Beijing Bicycle (1m25s), In The Mood For Love (3m19s), Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1m33s), and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...And Spring (1m48s). None of these could be called pin-sharp (all are about 1.85:1, but only two are anamorphic) or free from scratches or marks, but they might pique the interest of some of you film buffs out there.

Spend your precious time re-watching the film instead.

Twilight Samurai, The

Overall


If you want an 'all-you-can-eat' action-fest then you will have to look elsewhere, but this is an audio and visual feast backed up by a strong and well-told story.

After originally being announced as a two-disc edition, and then as a single edition that was to be released on the 23rd of August 2004, what we finally get is a very good presentation of an award-winning film. Unfortunately, there is nothing else here that could be called remotely substantial, and even the chapter selection is just a screen full of chapter titles. After the delays, I can only assume they were made to get the film looking and sounding as good as possible before release. Mission accomplished then, although I can't say that £19.99 is a good price for the amount you get, but some might feel that the film alone is worth the asking price.

Twilight Samurai, The

Addendum—1st May 2006


Having looked at the video with a slightly more mature pair of eyes, I have to admit that I would score the video lower than I did for the original review. The interlaced transfer appears to be better than the one for The Hidden Blade, and the colours and detail in the still shots still impress, but I’ll admit that the motion blur is married to some not-so-smooth panning that smacks of an NTSC to PAL conversion. In DVDActive terms, rather than giving it the ‘9’ (or ‘A’) I did originally, I’d have to put this at around a ‘7’. So I have.


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Media Copyright Acknowledgement (Fair Use) This review originally appeared on DVDDebate.com on the 19th of November 2004. It has been modified only to correct grammatical errors and to fit the formatting of DVDActive.com.