Directed by Yojiro Takita, starring Kiichi Nakai, Koichi Saito, Yui Natsukawa, Takehiro Murata, Miki Nakatani, Yuji Miyake and Ayumu Saito.

In the last days of the samurai, two very different warriors must try and put aside their differences and serve as members of the Shinsengumi clan, the guardians of Kyoto. Yoshimura (Nakai) is a good-natured penny pincher from the north who'll take on any job for money, behaviour which disgusts the taciturn and brutal Saito (Saito). As the Shogun era draws to a close, both men realise that they aren't made for the times to come and decide to make a stand. But their full story isn't told on the battlefield, but years later in a doctor's surgery, when Saito comes for medicine for his grandson and sees a photograph of Yoshimura on the table.

Winner of Best Picture - with Nakai and Saito taking the acting prizes - at the Japanese Academy Awards, 'When the Last Sword Is Drawn' is a festival favourite that mixes history and melodrama to create a film rich in both style and sentiment. It takes some time to get going, but stick with it because once you become accustomed to its flashback structure, this is a story that will reward you for your patience. With just a few action scenes, director Takita focuses instead on the shifting power base and how the wandering Yoshimura finds himself a long way from home with Saito for company. As suspicion ebbs and an uneasy rapport forms between the two, each man comes to reassess the other - a process which for Saito will only reach its conclusion many years later.

Tender when it needs to be, tough when it has to be and a welcome alternative to the Christmas movie fodder.

Harry Guerin