One dark night sometime in the late 19th century, former samurai Saitō Hajime (Sato) brings his sick grandson to the local physician, Chiaki Ono (Takehiro Murata). On the doctor's mantelpiece, he spies an old photograph of a man he recognizes from the Boshin War, whom he knew as Nambu Morioka.
In a series of flashbacks, the two men recall the story of an Impoverished Patrician named Yoshimura Kanichiro (Nakai) who defied his lord and left his home and family to serve in The Shinsengumi, taking the pseudonym Nambu Morioka. Saitō's initial impression of Nambu as a money-grubbing coward is put to the test as the simple-seeming man from Nambu proves himself again and again a Master Swordsman.
The film was nominated for eight awards at the 2004 Japanese Academy Awards, and won Best Film, Best Actor (Nakai), and Best Supporting Actor (Sato). A trailer can be viewed here.
This film contains examples of the following tropes:
- Achey Scars: Saitou Hajime walks with a limp in the film's present day, which turns out to be a souvenir of a gunshot wound to the calf he sustained when he tried to follow Yoshimura on his Underequipped Charge. He's shown clutching at it when he recalls the scene.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Yoshimura puts on the air of a coward who's Only in It for the Money. Actually, he's sending most of his earnings home to his family and simply dislikes fighting, only doing it when he feels he has no choice (honorable or practical, depending on the situation).
- Dual Wielding: When the Imperial Army catches up with the Shinsengumi towards the end of the film and demands their surrender, Yoshimura's response is to draw both his katana and wakizashi, make a stirring speech, and charge into the guns.
- End of an Age: This film is set during the Meiji Restoration, which historically saw the downfall of the samurai class and shogunate as the de facto rulers of Japan, and the Emperor taking back direct rulership for the first time in several hundred years. After this, Japan rapidly industrialized and Westernized, ultimately becoming the dominant superpower of East Asia until World War II. This film is told from the point of view of the losing side of the revolution, framing it as tragic but largely inevitable.
- Framing Device: The film is told as a series of flashbacks of Saitō and Chiaki recalling their memories of Yoshimura.
- Gatling Good: One is featured briefly in a scene during the Boshin War.
- The Hero Dies: Yoshimura bleeds out from the gunshot wounds he takes in a headlong one-man attack on the Imperial army.
- Historical Domain Character: Several major figures of the Meiji Restoration period appear in the film.
- Saitō Hajime, naturally, being one of the more popular figures of The Shinsengumi. The film also features Hijikata Toshizo (played by Eugene Nomura) and Okita Soji (Masato Sakai).
- Among government figures, Ōkubo Toshimichi is played by Kanji Tsuda, and Hideaki Ito plays Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and final shogun.
- Honor Before Reason: Late in the war, Saitō tells Yoshimura to desert and go home: everyone knows the shogunate forces are losing, and Saitō doesn't want him to die for no purpose. Yoshimura refuses, shortly before suicidally charging a company of Imperial troops. He does return home afterwards, so badly injured he dies shortly after.
- Impoverished Patrician: As a samurai, Yoshimura is the Japanese equivalent of a knight, a retainer of the lord of Nambu, but he barely earns enough teaching at his lord's dojo to keep his family fed and housed. He initially asks his lord for permission to leave the clan to join the Shinsengumi for higher wages, then runs away in the night anyway when denied permission, which leads to his son being bullied by other students.
- Martial Pacifist: In the finest East Asian tradition, Yoshimura is a Master Swordsman who prefers the discipline of swordwork to actual fighting, only fighting when he feels he has no other choice.
- Master Swordsman: Yoshimura was a dojo instructor in Nambu, and though only a poor samurai from the northern backcountry, he's able to hold his own when a drunken Saitō draws on him outside a bar despite having a few drinks in him himself. Late in the film, he singlehandedly attacks a company-strength unit of the Imperial Army with only his katana and wakizashi, and actually survives long enough to make it back to Nambu before succumbing to his injuries the following night.
- Mistaken for Dying: Saitō isn't sure his grandson is dying, but he has a fever that won't go down. Shizu (Dr. Chiaki's wife, and Yoshimura's daughter) assures him it's not serious.
- Only in It for the Money: As Nambu Morika, Yoshimura cultivates the impression of a greedy coward. He actually sends most of the money he earns in the Shinsengumi home to his family in Nambu.
- Romancing the Widow: A close variant. Chiaki married Shizu after her father Yoshimura came home mortally wounded, and her older brother Kaichirou left to take his father's place fighting in the Boshin War and didn't come back.
- Security Cling: Having lost both her father and her older brother to the Boshin War, Shizu clings tightly to her husband Chiaki in her sleep.
- Yoshimura first shows his true skills when he acts as kaishakunin for a Shinsengumi who had been ordered to commit seppuku. The man chickens out and tries to run, but Yoshimura catches and kills him with two blows.
- The children of other samurai bully Yoshimura's son Kaichirou after his father defies his lord by leaving the clan, telling Kaichirou to commit hara-kiri. Chiaki defends Kaichirou.
- Yoshimura's lord orders him to kill himself when he returns home after the battle, but he succumbs to his injuries first.
- Underequipped Charge: Late in the film, Yoshimura and Saitou's Shinsengumi unit are cornered by a musket company of the Imperial Army and ordered to withdraw from the area or be killed as rebels against Emperor Meiji. As his comrades flee, Yoshimura draws his wakizashi (he already had his katana out), and yells to the Imperial troops, "I do not wish to raise my arm against His Majesty the Emperor, but my conscience bids me to fight!" He then charges alone into the guns with only his two swords, disappearing into the smoke as Saitou tries to follow but goes down from a gunshot to the ankle.
- Wrecked Weapon: After beheading the seppuku runaway, Yoshimura falsely claims to have incurred a chip in his katana's blade in the process in order to extract more money from the Shinsengumi officers (ostensibly to replace the sword). When he returns to Nambu badly wounded after fighting the Imperial Army, his sword is so badly bent his lord gives him one of his own to commit seppuku with.