Now a spry 84, Sadao Nakajima is one of the few directors from Japan’s studio era who is still active. After joining Toei in 1959 and making his directorial debut in 1964, Nakajima shot yakuza actioners and samurai swashbucklers (chanbara eiga) for more than three decades with Toei’s Kyoto studio as his base.

But Nakajima had not released a theatrical feature since 1998 before he made “Love’s Twisting Path,” which closed the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival’s fifth edition in October last year. Quite deliberately, the film is a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s glory days of the samurai period drama. It’s also an object lesson in filmmaking techniques and traditions now in danger of dying out.

One tradition — that swordplay films are primarily about action and that their main aim is entertainment — goes back to Daisuke Ito (1898-1981), a director known for his visual dynamism. Nakajima both dedicates “Love’s Twisting Path” to Ito and channels his distinguished senpai (senior) in sword-fight scenes that push the boundaries of the possible, while delivering realistic tension and excitement. More than splashy stunts and effects, Nakajima stages these scenes with subtle movements that signal an explosive clash and wave-like rhythms of attack and defense that build to a life-or-death test — a test the hero is by no means certain to pass.

Love's Twisting Path (Tajuro Junaiki)
Run Time 93 mins.
Opens April 12

Based on a script by Nakajima and Keiko Tani, the story is a genre standard: In the last days of the Edo Period (1603-1868), the forces of the shogun are battling rebels led by samurai from the Choshu and Satsuma domains who want to overthrow the shogunate and restore the Emperor to power.

In the middle of this turbulence is Tajuro Kiyokawa (Kengo Kora), once a master swordsman of Choshu, now an artist and drunkard in Kyoto who wants nothing to do with politics. Otoyo (Mikako Tabe), who runs a tavern that Tajuro frequents and, on one memorable occasion, protected from rowdies, has feelings for him that he, in his sodden state, is slow to acknowledge. He also rejects overtures from Choshu men who want to enlist him in their cause.

Inevitably, though, he is drawn into both love and battle. Then his naive, idealistic younger brother (Ryo Kimura) arrives in Kyoto eager to join the Choshu struggle — and adding another complication to his life. Forced to fight, Tajuro lays waste to his enemies so efficiently and fatally that the authorities mount a massive manhunt. But Tajuro, with more than himself to defend, is not about to submit quietly.

In his first lead role as a samurai sword-fighter, Kora does not have the animal physicality of a Toshiro Mifune. Instead, all his intensity is in his eyes, flashing desperation and determination in equal measure as he is being chased through a bamboo forest by a small army of pursuers. In contrast to top-knotted heroes in recent big-budget manga adaptations who cut through hordes of opponents while barely breaking a sweat, Kora strains every nerve and sinew.

True, the film is also old-school in its moments of melodrama, as well as in Otoyo’s self-sacrificing relationship with a guy who barely acknowledges her existence. But she proves to be as steely in her own way as Tajuro is in his, without ever picking up a sword. Another twist in love’s path. Destination: uncertain.

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