If you thought The Last Samurai was a little overblown, a Tom Cruise vehicle that hogged the highway, then you might want to check out Twilight Samurai, which is also set in the waning days of feudal Japan, when swords and samurai were giving way to rifles and soldiers. Rather peaceful and quiet right up to the moment when violence finally erupts, Twilight Samurai gives us the small picture, not the big picture; a reluctant hero, not a zealous one; reality, not fantasy. And if you can put up with the film's lulling rhythms, its static mood, you'll be rewarded with a sense that this is how it actually was, in remote Japanese villages, as a whole way of life gradually, then suddenly, disappeared -- the twilight of the samurai.
Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) works for the Unasaka clan. Technically speaking, he's a samurai, but there hasn't been much of a call for killing people lately, so Seibei's settled into the comfortable, if low-paying, position of record-keeper. He's called Twilight because, at the end of the day, when it's time to go home, he actually goes home rather than out carousing with the other record-keepers. He's a family man whose wife has died, leaving him with two young daughters and a senile mother. Most men in Seibei's position would seek a new wife, a new life, but Seibei's stuck in a depression. Then the beautiful Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) comes back to town, her violent ex-husband in tow. Sparks fly, swords are unsheathed, and Seibei gets a new life after all.
Directed by Yoji Yamada, Twilight Samurai is like one of those Westerns about a retired gunslinger who learns there's no such thing as retirement if you're a gunslinger -- John Wayne in The Shootist, for example. And Yamada seems absolutely determined to keep it real, even in the fight scenes, which seem more like rehearsals for fight scenes, with all the hesitations and dodges, the almost comical miscues. In most samurai movies, the actors seem to have spent all their time at the dojo, perfecting their moves. Here, they seem weary, wary, reticent. As Seibei, Sanada is so receding, so self-effacing, that he's barely there at all. Minimal almost to a fault, it's a strangely brave performance -- the kind of bravery samurai aren't usually known for.