'Twilight Samurai'

For Westerners unschooled in the way of the movie samurai, the classic image of the loyal retainer doubtless looks something like Obi-Wan Kenobi — or the late John Belushi. A genial riff on the great Toshiro Mifune, star of such Akira Kurosawa masterpieces as "Seven Samurai," Belushi's satiric samurai perfectly distilled the image of the warrior as lethal enigma — a powder keg with a topknot and very short fuse. In the years since, the archetype has been tweaked and twisted but seldom to such pleasantly moving effect as in Yoji Yamada's "The Twilight Samurai."

Based on three Shuhei Fujisawa stories, the film principally takes place in the turbulent years leading to the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened its doors to the West. After losing his wife, Iguchi Seibei (touchingly played by Hiroyuki Sanada, a star of the cult "Ring" movies) struggles to raise his young daughters and care for his ailing mother. A low-level samurai, he keeps track of his master's stores of foodstuffs alongside half a dozen other worker-bee warriors. Most of Seibei's waking hours are spent tabulating figures while seated behind a desk; when quizzed by a superior, he knows exactly how many years' worth of salted cod are stashed on the shelves. Essentially a "salaryman" with a sword, he couldn't seem further removed from the warrior ideal.

Much of the slow-building pleasure of "The Twilight Samurai" comes from discovering just how far from that ideal Seibei actually is. One evening, after coming to the defense of a friend, the samurai finds himself forced to fight a duel with a higher-ranking warrior. Forbidden to fight by his clan, Seibei devises a fiendishly clever strategy — instead of a sword, he'll wield a cudgel. A model of precision choreography and contrapuntal pacing (each samurai moves to a different beat), the fight comes to its swift, pointedly anti-climatic conclusion not long after it begins. The first real fight in the film, it erupts almost an hour into the story and only after a fair amount of gentle buildup, much of it involving the samurai's tenderly doting relationship with his daughters.

As with any number of Japanese films, "The Twilight Samurai" concerns an individual caught between tradition and radical change. A vanishing breed, the samurais faced redundancy once Japan traded its warrior class for an imperial army. For Seibei, the transition from one way of life to another began with his wife's death, a turning point that led him to transfer his loyalty from his master to his two children. The struggle between these competing loyalties, a struggle that still plays out in larger Japanese society, reaches a climax once the samurai is ordered to fulfill one last violent obligation to his lord. How Yamada — best known for his dozens (yes, dozens) of "Tora-san" features — brings the samurai's crisis to a close emerges with the film's second, and final, superbly executed fight.

A commercial success in Japan on its release in 2002, "The Twilight Samurai" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year, making it the first live-action Japanese feature to be nominated in more than two decades. Although these nominations generally attest to the willfully pedestrian taste of the academy's nominators — "The Twilight Samurai" is far from an aesthetic triumph, much less the best non-animated Japanese feature in 20 years — the film creeps into your affections with admirable stealth. Much of its success rests with Sanada, who carries a world of heartbreak on his stoically squared shoulders. But the film's septuagenarian director deserves his share of the credit for bringing this human story to the screen with engaging B-movie modesty and no small measure of chops.

*

'The Twilight Samurai'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Swordfighting, some blood, dead bodies

Hiroyuki Sanada...Seibei Iguchi

Rie Miyazawa...Tomoe

Nenji Kobayashi...Hisasaka Choubei

Min Tanaka...Yoho Zenemon

Tetsuro Tamba...Tozaemon Iguchi

Released by Empire Pictures. Director Yoji Yamada. Writers Yoshitaka Asama, Yoji Yamada. Based on novellas by Shuhei Fujisawa. Producers Hiroshi Fukazawa, Shigehiro Nakagawa, Ichiro Yamamoto. Costumes Kazuko Kurosawa. Director of photography Matsuo Naganuma. Set designer Mitsuo Degawa. Editor Iwao Ishii. Sound Kazumi Kishida. Music Isao Tomita, Yousui Inoue. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles.

Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 475-0202, and Laemmle's Pasadena Playhouse, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

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