Think of "Twilight Samurai" as the equivalent of a late-'50s western.

I'd date it to about 1958, as the genre, after 55 years, is overcome by fatigue. It has worked through most of its permutations: It's been classic, it's been epic, it's been mythic, it's been comic, it's been melodramatic, it's been programmatic, it's been self-parodic, it's even been on TV. It's not quite to the last phase, which is ironic, but still, there's not a lot of big energy left. The only literalist wrinkle left -- and the only one there's enough budget for -- is something that might be called the domestic, which sets small-scale family dramas against the code of the West.

The directors are by this time old pros, many of them second-generation, and the stars -- strictly B-level -- know exactly what they're doing. I see someone like Delmer Daves behind the camera, or possibly George Marshall. In front of it, the hero would be Glenn Ford, the pretty gal Jeanne Crain, the bad guy someone like Dan Duryea or possibly Stephen McNally. And of course, it would be -- as it is -- superb, but superb in a small way: perfectly crafted, perfectly acted, unpretentious, stirring and utterly convincing to its last detail.

That's "Twilight Samurai." It's directed by Yoji Yamada, a 73-year-old man with almost 90 movies to his credit, and is small, domestic, focused, full of kids, obligations, worries about who's paying the bills, and built around two brilliant set pieces of close combat by sword. It means to be nothing special, which is why it's so absolutely special. Compared to a piece of bloated bombast like the mighty "Last Samurai" (which happens to be set in the same time period), it's smaller, smarter, tougher and richer.

It's about a samurai who's also a son, a dad, an accountant, a widower and a self-loather. In fact, I think only a handsome man with a sense of inner bleakness -- that's why Glenn Ford comes to mind, though Jimmy Stewart could do it, too -- could quite get at Seibei Iguchi. That's certainly a quality Hiroyuki Sanada conveys, that sense of a man who has little but thinks he deserves even less and wakes up each morning believing he will fail. He's a rarity: In a world rich in people with no talent and immense self-esteem, he's a man with great talent and low self-esteem.

He doesn't think much of himself. He's no swaggering swordsman, quick to anger, hungry to dominate, who needs to taste conquest once a week. He's the samurai as salaryman: a minor (very minor) relative on an offshoot of the clan's main family, who gets a paltry stipend, not enough to live on, particularly with a wife and two beautiful daughters. In fact, he has to take in piece work -- making cricket cages -- to make ends meet! But as the film opens in the memories of one of his daughters (it's formally all in flashback), the wife has just died -- of disappointment in her husband's lack of prospects, we learn -- and Seibei's lot has become even more desperate. Now he has no one to share the household duties with, no one to take care of his girls. He loses face at work, where his messiness and lack of hygiene make him a fool as much as his need to race home to be there for his daughters.

Of course what nobody knows or senses -- this is the really cool Glenn Ford part! -- is that under his miasma, Seibei is a superb swordsman, fast, deft, brilliant, as clever as they come. He has buried that life, put it away because it does not factor in the dreariness of his existence and the weight of his responsibilities. Life is grim, getting grimmer.

And then a miracle. It seems that his childhood sweetheart Tomoe Iinuma (Rie Miyazawa) has returned home, divorced from a brutal but highborn husband, who beat her. Suddenly, there's a fluttering of hope for Seibei and it seems that Miss Tomoe (as the daughters call her) still has feelings for him, for in a most direct and un-Japanese way, she simply inserts herself in his life and becomes the mother of his children (chastely, we might add; it's 1864), the caretaker of his house and the custodian of his senile mother.

Yet doubt occludes Seibei. He loves her, has always loved her, will always love her, but he feels he doesn't deserve her. Who is he? He can offer her nothing, he has gone nowhere, is going nowhere; he knows it will end in defeat and despair. And so he drives her away.

But not before a certain something happens. Her former husband has come for her, a fellow with a high sense of place and worth. When he drunkenly strikes her and shames her brother, Seibei interferes; a challenge is issued and, humbly, Seibei must accept. He meets the fellow by the creek and proceeds to -- oh, what's the phrase? Hmm, I think it's something fancy and Frenchy, or maybe Latin. Oh, yes, it's "kick his freakin' ass." Lord God, is there any cinematic pleasure richer than watching a bully get folded, spindled and mutilated?

Seibei's skills, it seems, haven't deserted him. He's fast, he's tough, he's clever, and with the sword in his hand, he absolutely knows what to do next. But once the fight is over, the old Seibei reemerges: uncertain, awkward, unworthy. He seems, in the conception of the old-pro director Yamada, still haunted by obligations of face and clan. Stardom reaches for him; he feels unworthy and withdraws. A powerful swordsman, enchanted by his brilliant victory, courts his friendship, and Seibei turns it down.

And, like a western hero's adherence to an internalized code, so too does the samurai feel an allegiance, and so truly does he feel it, he cannot deny it. It's what a man's got to do. A man does what a man ought to do. Get it? It's not hard, see. A man is what he does.

In this case, what a man does is obey the law of the clan. In ways that most westerners (especially this one) will find baffling, Seibei is obligated to enforce a rule that demands the suicide of a certain man, owning to certain political failures. But this man will not commit suicide. Instead, he holes up, chopping down whoever comes to him, bringing humiliation and lack of face to the clan. Of course, he is that fabled swordsman who visited Seibei. So in a clever cruelness of fate, Seibei is ordered by the clan to face and kill the man.

The construction of the story is all the more brilliant for its implacability. Now Seibei must kill or be killed for a system that has diminished him. If he disobeys, he's an outcast forever. But he may well die, and his kids will be orphaned, his mother outcast, his love for Tomoe forgotten. Agh. What's a fella to do?

Well, if he's Glenn Ford, he buckles on the gun belt a last time and heads out for that long walk in the dusty street where he faces a man who wants to kill him. If he's Seibei Iguchi, he combs his hair, puts on his best kimono, asks Miss Tomoe to help him groom, shoves his two blades into his sash and heads downtown to face that same man.

Am I making this clear enough? This is an absolutely brilliant film but in a quiet way. It shows us film artistry that depends on motive, performance and skill, not showy editing and digitally painted armies, and it shows us what so many can't these days, which is the human heart, pulled this way and that, lost and baffled and hurt, but ever brave.

Twilight Samurai (123 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is not rated but would probably merit a PG-13 for intensity and adult themes.

Life by the sword: Hiroyuki Sanada, left, as a samurai with no self-esteem, battles Min Tanaka.Erina Hashiguchi, left, plays one of Hiroyuki Sanada's daughters in "Twilight Samurai."