When I saw Yoji Yamada’s “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai),” a lyrical, low-key 2002 drama about a low-ranking, family-loving samurai forced to kill for his clan, it struck me as a throwback to the genre’s 1950s Golden Age. But this, I later discovered, was the first feature based on the fiction of author Shuhei Fujisawa (1927-1997), who was born and raised in Yamagata Prefecture and set many of his stories there.
It wasn’t to be the last: The critical and commercial success of “The Twilight Samurai,” including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, launched a cottage industry of films made from Fujisawa’s work, including two more from Yamada — 2004’s “Kakushiken Oni no Tsume (The Hidden Blade)” and 2006’s “Bushi no Ichibun (Love and Honor)” — and five by other directors, the latest being Tetsuo Shinohara’s “Ogawa no Hotori” (“On the Bank of the Stream”).
These films tend to be slow-burning, un-melodramatic affairs, with an everyman (by samurai standards) hero confronting a moral dilemma rather than hordes of attackers. The stories tend to have a sameness, but also a sturdiness, with fleshed-out characters whose problems have a contemporary resonance. They are also more showcases for actors than directors, though Yamada put his individual stamp on what has come to be known as his “Samurai Trilogy.”
The same cannot be said for veteran Shinohara, best known for his romantic dramas, including one based on a Fujisawa novel, 2008’s “Yamazakura” (“Mountain Cherry Blossom”). He and cinematographer Takahide Shibanushi have captured many beautiful shots of rural Yamagata, but his visual treatment of the dramatic heart of the story is conventional, if effective. Instead of flashy camera angles, he focuses on moments of emotional revelation, with tight shots and taut, unshowy performances. The film builds slowly, but with little wasted motion, while making its points about friendship and duty, old wounds and deep ties with unassuming precision.
Inui Sakunosuke (Noriyuki Higashiyama), a young samurai, is ordered by his clan’s chief retainer (Takashi Sasano) to execute one Sakuma Morie (Ainosuke Kataoka), who has been drummed out of the clan for opposing its leaders’ policies with a directness judged intolerably rude. But Sakuma is a close friend, as well as the husband of Sakunosuke’s sister Tazu (Rinko Kikuchi).
Both his mother (Chieko Matsubara) and wife (Machiko Ono) recoil at the inhumanity of this order, but his father (Tatsuya Fuji) reminds him that it must be obeyed, while Sakunosuke knows that refusal will destroy his entire family. Accompanied by his loyal subordinate (and former childhood playmate) Shinzo (Ryo Katsuji), he sets out for distant Edo to find Sakuma and cut him down — or be cut down himself.
Passing by children playing on a riverbank, Sakunosuke recalls a similar scene 18 years ago — and an incident involving him, Shinzo and Tazu whose undercurrents still roil his mind.
Not that he will ever abandon his duty. As played by former boy-band singer-turned-actor Higashiyama, Sakunosuke is a samurai to his core, unbending and unruffled. Instead of agonizing over killing a friend, he meditates and practices his sword technique. At the same time, he has a gentler, more human side that coexists with the warrior.
The film’s languid tempo, as Sakunosuke and Shinzo leisurely hike through scenes of unspoiled natural beauty with the sweetly melancholic score in the background, charges up immediately with the appearance of Tazu. Oscar-nominated Kikuchi (“Babel”) does not try, divalike, to overpower everyone around her; instead she has deeper reserves of sensuality and rage, welling up with unsettling force.
In fact, no one in the excellent supporting cast, with the momentary exception of Tokuma Nishioka as the hot-tempered clan physician, over-emotes in standard period-drama fashion. Instead, the performances and dialog are on the lean and pointed side. One example is when Sakunosuke and Sakuma finally meet.
Sakuma: “As I expected, it’s you.”
Sakunosuke: “It was an order — forgive me.”
Sakuma: “Of course. I’m ready.”
It doesn’t get much simpler — or better — than that.