"The Twilight Samurai" is the anti-"Kill Bill." Fans of Quentin Tarantino's violent genre mix-mastery who get lured in by the new film's title will walk out in disappointment, bloodlust unsated. This is an old man's movie in all the good ways: gentle, humanistic, rich with observation, quietly aware of all that can't be solved by the sword.
Set in 1860s Japan, in the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled the country for two and a half centuries -- and of the samurai class that protected and supported the shoguns -- "Samurai" peers into a sleepy corner of the dying feudal bureaucracy.
In the castle of a country lord, the warriors are assigned various household posts, and Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is on the lowest rung of all, a 50-koku-per-year samurai who helps inventory the lordship's stores of food.
His wife dead of consumption, Iguchi rushes home each evening to care for his senile mother (Tetsuro Tamba) and two daughters, 10-year-old Kayano (Miki Ito) and 5-year-old Ito (Erina Hashiguchi), the film's grown narrator. His fellow samurai head to the geisha house for drink and sport. To them, Iguchi is a self-absorbed wet blanket they nickname "Twilight," for his gloom or the apparent state of his career. His robe has become tattered and even his lordship has noticed that Iguchi needs to bathe more often.
At home, however, Iguchi is a thoughtful, progressive pacifist delighted that his daughters are learning to read and think for themselves. ("If the world changes," he promises them, "you'll survive somehow.") Ahead of the curve, he knows his era is ending and has vague plans of tilling the land like the peasants at whom the samurai have sneered for centuries. His great-uncle, a macho power broker, wants to marry Iguchi off to a nice ugly girl with big haunches. Iguchi would prefer to watch his daughters grow, "like crops ripening."
Two events ripple this meditative drama. One is personal: his childhood sweetheart, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), returns home after divorcing her abusive samurai husband, and when Iguchi defends her we begin to sense what he is made of. The other is epochal: the country's political structure begins to unravel and Iguchi is asked to fight again. In many ways, he has moved on, but in the most unforgiving sense he is still a medieval warrior tied to a hierarchical society. The final scenes of "The Twilight Samurai" are pitched somewhere between battle and ballet, with contestants who understand that they're already ghosts.
Lead actor Sanada has been in this time period before, in last year's Hollywood epic "The Last Samurai" -- he was the hard case, Ujio, who beat up Tom Cruise time and again before grudgingly accepting him. Cult horror fans also know him as the costar of the 1998 Japanese film "Ring." Here, he plays Iguchi as unaccountably calm and accepting of the hand fate has dealt him. "Twilight," which was nominated for a 2003 best foreign-language Oscar, doesn't run all that deep, but you can feel the air rush through it and it has the sturdy bones of a classic, as if legendary director Yasujiro Ozu had taken on the task of directing "High Noon."
In actuality, the filmmaker is the 72-year-old Yoji Yamada, perhaps best known as the writer and director of many in the "Tora-san" series of popular Japanese comedies about a lovable bumbler. "Twilight" is Yamada's 67th film as a director, and it has the autumnal, economical perspective of a man with nothing left to prove.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.
The Twilight Samurai
Directed by: Yoji Yamada
Written by: Yamada and Yoshitaka Asama, from a series of novels by Shuuhei Fujisawa
Starring: Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa
At: Kendall Square, through June 10
Running time: 129 minutes
Unrated (mild samurai swordplay)
In Japanese, with subtitles