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'Samurai' good, if a bit too low-key

But Japanese film has good casting, some memorable moments

THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI — *** — Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Miyazawa, Nenji Kobayashi; in Japanese, with English subtitles; not rated, probable PG-13 (violence, gore).

In many respects, "The Twilight Samurai" has more in common with a "Masterpiece Theater" production or a Merchant-Ivory film than it does with the samurai legacy of Akira Kurosawa.

Not that Kurosawa, the grand master of Japanese filmmaking, was always all about hack-and-slash action scenes. But if it's possible, the makers of this handsome-looking — which is sometimes a bit too low-key for a drama — put more of an emphasis on the characterizations and story than even he did.

That's not necessarily such a good thing. Audiences who are expecting to see sword duels, as implied by the title, may find this decidedly different approach to be too stark a contrast. Still, you have to applaud the filmmakers for doing something so daring. (Along with the recent revenge-thriller "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," this film exposes just how shallow last year's would-be epic "The Last Samurai" really was.)

"The Twilight Samurai" refers to Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a widower who would rather take care of his daughters (Miki Ito and Erina Hashiguchi) and ailing mother (Reiko Kusamura) than raise his sword in battle. Consequently, he finds himself the target of scorn and derision from his clansmen, also because his hygiene has also suffered.

However, that all changes when his childhood crush, Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), comes back into his life. He's forced to defend her honor and, later, forced to clean up and go back into battle to defend the honor of his clan — even though his heart is clearly not in it anymore.

In adapting Shuuhei Fujisawa's samurai novels, veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada draws on 40 years of filmmaking experience (the film is very well-structured and the story is well-layered). However, he's made a pretty big mistake, one that is more common to less-experienced filmmakers — a clunky voice-over narration from the perspective of one of Iguchi's grown-up daughters. It's really not needed and becomes a distraction during otherwise quietly affecting scenes.

Still, that's a minor complaint. The film does have some very memorable moments. And Sanada's convincing performance as the world-weary former man of action certainly helps.

"The Twilight Samurai" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for some violent scenes of swordplay and some fairly restrained gore. Running time: 129 minutes.