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Seibei Iguchi, the title character in Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai, is a lover, not a fighter. Too bad the world doesn’t love him back. As the Meiji Restoration and modernization near, Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) struggles to support his two young children and senile mother on a mid-19th-century samurai’s paltry salary. And instead of earning respect for taking care of the kids and doing the housework when his wife dies of tuberculosis, Seibei is ridiculed for his ripped kimono and poor personal hygiene. His gruff great-uncle thinks he needs to remarry—perhaps a woman with big haunches. But Seibei has his eye on childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), whose marriage ended in disgrace on account of her husband’s drunken violence. So much for the Way of the Warrior: In both gestures and words, Sanada so convincingly balances between gallantry and timidity that Seibei’s awkward romantic fumblings can be painful to watch. Indeed, it takes all of this virtuoso performance—along with some memorable scenery, including a long procession that evocatively snakes through snow-covered mountains—to carry The Twilight Samurai through its first few plodding reels. Another weakness is the running voice-over from one of Seibei’s grown daughters, Ito (Erina Hashiguchi), which illuminates plot points clumsily enough to belie writer-director Yamada’s considerable talent as a filmmaker. But in the film’s final act, when Seibei must decide whether he has the fire to fight to defend his clan, everything is redeemed: In an incredibly powerful scene, Seibei confronts another samurai who has faced terrible hardship—years of unemployment, homelessness, a dead wife. With just one masterful conversation, Yamada portrays all the longing and suffering of an entire era. The only problem with this magnificent set piece is that it makes the rest of his arresting film feel like nothing more than a two-hour prologue. —Josh Levin