I woke today to two headlines, paired together: one about the execution of (Black) Troy Davis in Georgia, whose conviction appeared to be based on the flimsiest of evidence; and the other, about the execution of (White) Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas, the white supremacist who dragged James Byrd, Jr. by a chain from the back of his truck till he died. On the NY Times website, the Google news feed, and NPR’s 7am news roundup, these appear together. Does this pairing intend to tell us that the clear evidence of the latter case makes up for the lack of it in the former? That the execution of the White man makes up for the cries of racial injustice in the Davis case? That the execution of a white supremacist allows us to rally behind capital punishment even if we have questions about the Davis case?

It puts me in mind of Yôji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002), which has an amazing scene between Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada, left above) — who’s long been poor, overworked, and burdened by the death of his wife, such that he races home at twilight to care for his two young daughters and senile mother — and Captain Koda (Min Tanaka), who refuses to commit hara-kiri upon orders of the clan. That conversation about obligation, poverty, family, and social rank isn’t just grim and touching for its dialogue, but beautifully shot; Koda’s face is so cloaked with shadow that he almost has a green pallor, a near-skeleton surrounded by flies. These two men discover a twinned sympathy between them, as men who’ve had to make bad choices by necessity as well as hard choices by conscience. That conversation is evocative for me now because it seems the people with the most sensitive and intelligent things to say about crime and punishment are those with no power to change our system, like Seibei and Koda.

It’s no coincidence that The Twilight Samurai takes place during the dying days of the Tokugawa shogunate. I’m not trying to start an argument about capital punishment here — god forbid — but I find it apt that such virulent defenses of it are taking place during what feels like an era of serious economic and political crisis and decline in the US. Perhaps this nation’s conscience-driven men like Twilight Seibei are, similarly, so absorbed with the necessities of life and family that they have no voice in resolving the macro problems we face as a nation.

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