An Unlikely Samurai

Dr. Scott Miller discusses the highly acclaimed film Twilight Samurai and the story of a simple samurai hero.

PROVO, Utah (January 27, 2015)—The genre of samurai films usually connotes swift sword fighting, high-stake adventure and elevated traditional glory. It’s unlikely that a simple, impoverished man – opting to care for his sick mother and two young daughters instead of chumming up with samurai colleagues after work – would star as a fearless samurai. But, in Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai, that’s exactly the kind of samurai we meet.

Twilight Samurai

Describing the central character, Twilight, Scott Miller from the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages said, “We come to see that he lives a difficult life trying to get by on a small stipend, and he is shown working in the storehouse of the castle, spending his days writing ledgers in account books and literally counting beans.” At night, Twilight assembles insect cages at home by the fire to make ends meet during the difficult years before the Meiji Restoration.

“This is a far cry from the glorious and romanticized life of samurai we have come to imagine based upon the image of samurai in most films and media,” said Miller. “And that is one of the reasons why I think this film succeeds so well and why I like it so much.”

More traditional samurai films in Japan are often nicknamed chambara, which is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of swords clashing. This sort of samurai film is “long on swagger and bravado – often one samurai defeats a gang of 20 without ever breaking a sweat – and short on humility and reality,” said Miller. In fact, according to Miller, the impoverished daily life of samurai in the 1860s consisted less of sword fighting and martial training than of accounting and farming.

The word “samurai” in Japanese derives from an ancient verb, saburau, meaning “to serve.” According to Miller, samurai were servants of those in power, and because servants also acted as bodyguards and warrior culture emphasized loyalty, the term was eventually used to describe warriors. Miller noted, however, “warriors can often be motivated by the desire for glory, power or control, which are all antithetical to serving.”


Twilight Samurai, made in 2002 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, depicts various kinds of samurai, but it’s clear that director Yoji Yamada intended for audiences to view Twilight as the quintessential samurai, in his humble service and sincerity, without regard for glory or power.

“The film is set at a time of impending change, 250 years of Tokugawa shogunate rule has turned the warrior government into a byzantine world of clerks and bureaucrats,” said Miller. “The clear division between armies in battle is replaced with hazy, changeable alliances and castle intrigue. As Zen’emon Yogo remarks in the powerful conversation he shares with Twilight in the climactic duel scene towards the end of the film, the samurai are pawns whose lives are held in low regard by the leaders.”

Twilight Samurai revolves around the tensions between old and new, past and future, and tradition and modernization. The film, Miller hopes, helps viewers to appreciate some of the hardships of late-Tokugawa samurai life and enjoy what is a loving story about integrity and service.

For more information on future International Cinema showings, visit the International Cinema webpage.

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian / Women’s Studies ’15)