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April 8, 2008

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DVD of the Week – Twilight Samurai (2002), Considered in Connection with Open Range (2003)

by HELEN GEIB

The most fruitful avenue of Japanese and American cross-cultural film studies is the areas of intersection and divergence between the Samurai film and the Western. One of the similarities is in the ebb and flow of domestic popularity: saturation followed by a sharp drop in production leading to a modest resurgence of interest in on the part of both artists and audiences. Some of the best recent films are characterized by serious themes and a neo-traditional filmmaking style.

Open Range (2003) refers to unrestricted cattle grazing lands, or more precisely in the context of the film, to the end of the era of the open range. The physical fences going up all over the old open grazing lands are a symbol of the end of the “wild West.” They are also a concrete and immediate challenge to the heroes of the film, who have built their lives around years of driving herds through those open lands. They are clear sighted enough to realize the times are changing fast, the old way of life is ending, and the only options that will soon be open to them are to change with the times or be ended by them. Adapt, or perish.

As Open Range is to the Western, so is Twilight Samurai (2002) to the Samurai film. Twilight Samurai is set on the cusp of the Meiji Restoration, which brought the end of the feudal society that supported the samurai class. It is a setting roughly comparable in time and import to the late nineteenth century in the American West. The obsolescence of the samurai is already well underway as the film opens. The hero remains part of clan society, but is eking out a living by the pen as a clerk, rather than by the sword. He shares the Western heroes’ clear sightedness about the inevitability of change and the limited possibilities open to him in the new society. In both films, the struggle to continue living as the old world crumbles is both physical reality and existential dilemma.

There are other significant similarities between the films in plot and characters. The children the heroes love and care for (in Open Range, the younger drovers who are like surrogate sons; in Twilight Samurai, the young daughters). The romance with an intelligent and resolute woman where the main obstacle to marriage is the man’s feelings of unworthiness. The climactic duel with a warrior who refuses or is unable to adapt to the new social order.

All comparisons between the Western and Samurai film ultimately founder on the rock of cultural difference, and my choice of films is no exception. The most meaningful difference between these two films is that the ultimate fate of the characters in Open Range is determined by their personal capacity to change and adapt to new ways of living. The new world is open to people who are willing to accommodate themselves to its requirements. In Twilight Samurai, external forces are more powerful than internal accommodation. Old and new world alike leave few paths open.

New releases this week: The 11th Hour, Lions for Lambs, P2, Reservation Road, There Will Be Blood, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep


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  1. miriam
    Apr 17 2008

    Thanks for the nudge to rewatch this wonderful movie. It’s a sensitive portrayal of a society under stress; if we are lulled by the beauty of the countryside for a moment, the bloated corpse of a child in the river reminds us that these are years of famine and violence. In an early scene, the samurai encourages one of his daughters to continue studying because the ‘the ability to think gives you power to adapt’ to whatever changes come. None of the characters have complete freedom of choice, but some – like our two main characters – are able to see possibilities and choose some measure of happiness.

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