In early 18th Century Japan, a group of 47 samurai plotted and carried out an assault on a lord's estate in order to avenge the wrongful death of their own lord. Following custom, after the act, 46 of them commit ritual suicide, and are honoured as heroes by all samurai thereafter. The 47th samurai is selected to remain alive, in order to travel the land and succour the dependents of the 46, while bearing witness to their bravery. That individual is Kichiemon Terasaka (Koichi Sato), and as our story opens, he has just completed 16 years of travel, to find and aid those families whom he had been instructed to help. He returns to Kyoto, to stay with another lord while awaiting the 17th-year ceremony honouring the 46. While there, he thinks he spies the one disgrace of his group, the samurai Magozaemon Seno (Koji Yakusho), who ran away the night before the assault and who hasn't been seen since. He's living with a young woman, Miss Kane (Nanami Sakuraba) in a modest home on the outskirts of town, and he holds his secrets from everyone. But secrets can't always stay hidden, not after 16 years....
This is a marvellously subtle and beautifully acted movie; the audience might go in expecting great samurai battles, but there's really only one and that is told in flashback and is short-lived. No, rather than a study of warrior culture in Japan by viewing the code of battle, this is a study of the warrior's interior culture, the ways in which the warrior code creates and suppresses feelings, the great emphasis on duty and honour, and the determination to maintain one's loyalty and integrity above all. There's loneliness and loss, affection and guilt, threaded throughout this film, all rendered with deep emotion and depth by the actors, especially Koji Yakusho, who has such an expressive face that every moment that the camera lingers on it, we are entranced by the humanity shining through. An absolute gem.
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