In a marketplace already glutted with Hero and The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, how's a samurai soap opera to distinguish itself? In the case of The Twilight Samurai, it's by playing down the action and playing up the romantic potential of two forward thinkers caught at a socioeconomic crossroads.
Title brooder Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a low-level samurai who spends his days working as a warehouse clerk for the clan he serves. He's also a widowed father of two, saddled with the extra burden of a senile mother who's always asking him which house he's from. Yet hardship hasn't dulled his sense of fairness: Seibei is quite interested in seeing that his two girls receive the same educational opportunities as any man not the most popular viewpoint in the Japan of the late 1800s.
It's no wonder he feels drawn to Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), a childhood friend recently divorced from an abusive husband. Tomoe's delicate-flower exterior belies an immense personal strength and a yearning to break free of society's restrictions. Made aware of Seibei's single-dad plight, she helps out in any way she can from performing simple household chores to providing his girls with an example of genteel self-determination. Yet Seibei's world keeps getting more complex, due at first to an angry altercation with Tomoe's bullying ex, and later when the death of his master raises the ugly prospect of a full-scale clan war. It's a hard time to be a samurai, in love or otherwise.
Based on three short novels by author Shuhei Fujisawa, director/co-writer Yoji Yamada's film has enough nice-guy self-sacrifice and shows of feminine pluck to fuel a Lifetime miniseries. Not that that's a bad thing, given the quiet power that emanates from Sanada's and Miyazawa's dignified performances. Their tender interaction is the unifying element in a film that emphasizes emotion over activity the violent clashes are few, with fatal sword hits often occurring outside the frame. The worst violence here is economic injustice, as denoted by the pointed mentions of the lousy stipend Seibei earns and the class disparity between him and Tomoe, whose superior station further impedes their union. Lest we miss the leitmotif, Yamada sets several scenes at the waterside, where the lifeless bodies of peasants float by in silent protest against a rotting social order. As metaphors go, it's enough to give class warfare a good name.