19th century Japan. Seibei, a just-widowed samurai, struggles to care for his senile mother and two young daughters. He holds back from a possible remarriage, self-conscious about his poverty. When ordered to kill a skilled rebel swordsman, he can't evade his dangerous duty.
The precise historical setting, against the upheavals that ended the traditional samurai way of life, prompts comparison with The Last Samurai, but the recent Hollywood movie this most resembles is Open Range.
Its a quiet, slow-burning drama with a sad-eyed, scruffy hero (Hiroyuki Sanada) who has sold his sword to pay for his wifes funeral and carries a bamboo fake to save face. Director Yoji Yamada spends far more time on Seibeis struggles to look after his bright young daughters (doing womanly odd-jobs that make his comrades sneer at him) than on the expected action.
Also affecting is Seibeis mature, rekindled romance with Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), a winsome childhood sweetheart divorced from a drunkard the hero has to duel without drawing the sword he no longer owns in one of the films two unusual fight scenes.
Meanwhile, political struggles Seibei is only dimly aware of mean that after a career mostly spent minding a warehouse full of dried fish he is ordered to fight to the death against a superior opponent. This finale delivers a wonderfully played dialogue scene as the doomed samurai recognise deep kinship, before trading sword-strokes that have a greater impact than the whole of the Tom Cruise film.
Tender, melancholy, suspenseful and, finally, uplifting, Twilight Samurai was huge in its home territory and deserves to do repeat business here.