Movies about Samurai (and Zen) are not that hard to find in the West. Even my father-in-law in Japan loves watching jidaigeki (時代劇), or historical dramas, where such-and-such samurai is a hero as he cuts down 10 or more guys.* But this kind of romanticism is just that, romanticism. Just as Clint Eastwood romanticized the West, Zen/Samurai movies do the same for Japan.
That’s why I enjoy watching Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai so much. I watched it again tonight, probably the fifth or sixth time now, and it’s still my favorite samurai movie. What I like about this movie, is that it more accurately fits the lives of samurai toward the end of the Tokugawa Period. In college, I studied Japan studies for a while, and wrote a term paper about the samurai at this time, and research had shown that samurai were mostly bureaucrats, not die-hard warriors. They were locked into out-dated roles, badly in debt (many did sell their swords), and squabbled over power.
But what really I enjoy most about this movie is its strongly Buddhist theme. You see examples of it throughout. Seibei’s mother recites the Heart Sutra at a particularly fitting point in the movie, and at other times, you can hear the peasants reciting the nembutsu as they push a dead body down the river. Themes exploring the Pure Land and of Hell are touched upon as well. No cool attainments or witty Zen one-liners. Just everyday people being spiritual in their own way. This is everyday Buddhism, and speaking from experience, this is what I’ve see in Japan, not the exotic, romanticized imagery we Westerners aspire for. When you see this movie, you’ll know what I mean. It’s this kind of Buddhism that speaks to me more than meditation retreats and such.
The theme of the movie is definitely a Buddhist theme, both powerful and subtle. I won’t give it away, but please watch this movie, especially the very, very end and then read Miyazawa Kenji’s Unbeaten by Rain and you’ll really appreciate that poem more.
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. If you do watch the movie and try to listen to the Japanese, you’ll find it kind of hard. They’re using some kind of northern dialect, as well as older words. For example “desu” (to be), becomes “degansu”. Other words like “otōsan” (father) become “otōhan”, and so on.
* – My wife, not so much.