ANYONE WHO ever thrilled to Japanese-style movie swordplay, whether executed by Toshiro Mifune or Uma Thurman, may be bewildered by the first part of "The Twilight Samurai." Venerable writer-director Yoji Yamada's Oscar-nominated film seems to have misplaced all the swagger and flashing steel. But viewers who stick around will be rewarded with a complex, moving domestic drama -- and a couple of duels.
To put the movie's premise in contemporary terms, the man known to his peers as Twilight is closer to a low-pay-grade inventory clerk than a glamorous counter-intelligence operative. The unwashed, poorly dressed Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a samurai simply because his family is of samurai rank.
But by the 1860s, when this story is set, several centuries of shogun-enforced peace have left Japan's sword-wielding courtiers without anyone to fight. So they've become bureaucrats, sometimes barely earning enough to keep up appearances. Seibei is a classic type in Japanese cinema, going back at least as far as the protagonist of 1937's "Humanity and Paper Balloons'': a samurai who simply can't afford to maintain the requirements of his status.
The film opens with a somber procession of white-clad mourners in the snow, as Seibei's late wife is commemorated. Her medical and funeral bills have left the poorly paid clerk in serious debt, with two young daughters, Ito (Erina Hashiguchi) and Kayano (Miki Ito), and a senile mother (Reiko Kusamura) to support. A devoted, liberal-minded father who insists his girls learn the same classic texts as boys, Seibei is called Twilight because he vanishes at the end of the workday, rushing home to his family rather than joining his co-workers at geisha houses. (To earn a little extra cash, he makes bamboo insect cages in his spare time.) His brusque uncle insists that Seibei remarry, but that's financially impossible. Seibei is in love with childhood sweetheart Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), who's recently divorced and still utterly devoted to Seibei. He, however, considers the charming, empathetic Tomoe too aristocratic to ever become his bride.
It's Tomoe who changes Seibei's life, not only by cleaning up his home but by inadvertently involving him in a rare bout of combat. When Seibei sees his friend hit by her ex-husband, Koda (Ren Osugi), he challenges the cad to a duel. Private battles are forbidden by the local clan, so the bout is kept quiet. Word gets around nonetheless, and Seibei's co-workers treat him with new respect when they learn he easily defeated Koda. Then the prefecture's lord dies, and certain top retainers are ordered to commit suicide. One of them, Yoho (Min Tanaka), refuses to die, so the newly esteemed Twilight is ordered to kill him. Fighting for the clan is an honor that's roughly equivalent to a curse, but it's one that cannot be refused. Seibei reluctantly goes to confront Yoho, yet the most important part of their meeting is not their battle but the frank conversation that precedes it.
Based on the fiction of Shuhei Fujiwara, "The Twilight Samurai" combines novelistic detail with cinematic sweep. Its wide-screen compositions are impeccable and never flashy, characterized by shadowy interiors and an earth-and-moss palette. Set in storerooms, modest houses and scrubby exteriors, the film conscientiously depicts the wrong side of Shogunate-era Japan's tracks, the everyday places and people that Tom Cruise would never think to include. Sanada, Miyazawa and the rest of the cast play their roles assuredly and naturally, without the broad gestures of some samurai movies.
Yamada is best known as the director of 46 bittersweet romantic comedies about Tora-san ("Mr. Tiger"), an amiable traveling salesman who fixes unhappy families but invariably leaves with a broken heart. There's something of Tora-san in both Seibei and Tomoe, although the concluding narration -- by the grown-up Ito -- promises the couple some fleeting happiness before the 1868 Meiji Restoration destroys the entire system under which they live. By the time this masterly anti-epic concludes, even people who consider the samurai era the coolest period in action-hero history may be relieved to watch Japanese feudalism end its rigid, unforgiving run.
THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI (Unrated, 129 minutes) -- Includes several glimpses of corpses and brief outbursts of violence. In Japanese with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.