Take one look at Judge Erick Harper's dossier, and you'll see he was the perfect person to review this flick.
To know life in every breath,
The Last Samurai is an impressive spectacle of a film, capturing Japan in its growing pains as it shifts from an insular, tradition-bound feudal society to a modern industrial state. Along the way, we are treated to some amazing photography, some rousing action sequences, and excellent performances. However, once the shooting and slashing is over, there are nagging questions of subtext and context that can (or should) interfere with some of the pure cinematic enjoyment of the film.
Facts of the Case
Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise, Top Gun) is a dissolute, dissipated shell of a man. Late of the infamous Seventh Cavalry, Algren is a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg and a veteran of the genocidal campaigns against the Plains Indians. Algren proved his worth on the plains as more than a mere Indian fighter; his detailed studies of the tribal cultures and languages became dreadfully effective intelligence, allowing his superior—one George Armstrong Custer—to be an even more effective killer of innocents. When we meet up with Algren, he is drunk and disillusioned. His sins on the plains weigh heavily on him.
Luckily for Algren, in Japan it is the time of the Meiji Restoration. The Emperor of Japan has decided to unify his country under the rule of law and to introduce Western technology and methods to his armed forces. When the opportunity to go to Japan and teach their army how to function as a modern fighting force comes along, he takes it, more out of indifference than anything else. Algren's assignment will involve training Japanese recruits how to be professional soldiers, something completely new to Japan. He will teach them how to march, how to drill, and how to use firearms.
The wave of modernization hitting Japan has its detractors, however. The samurai, the traditional warriors and feudal warlords of Japan, see that a modern, unified Japan under the rule of law holds little place for them. They have rebelled against the Emperor and his new army, seeking to preserve a way of life that they have known for a thousand years. The leader of this revolt is Katsumoto (Japanese star Ken Watanabe), who once served as teacher to the Emperor Meiji himself. Katsumoto is a deeply wise and spiritual man, utterly devoted to Bushido, the way of the samurai. He believes in the warrior's life he has inherited, and sees his every action, even his rebellion, as ultimately in the service of the Emperor.
When circumstances force Algren to test his untrained, ill-prepared troops in battle against the fearsome samurai, the results are a predictable slaughter. The new Imperial recruits break and flee, suffering massive casualties. Algren himself is left on the field of battle to be slain by the samurai, but his intense fighting spirit piques the interest of Katsumoto, who claims him as a prisoner.
Algren finds himself stuck in Katsumoto's village for the winter. As he lives among Katsumoto's people, he begins to understand the simple, unyielding philosophy by which they live their lives, and it presents to him a possibility of internal peace that he has not known as a long time. Algren finds a home among the samurai, and joins them in what he sees as their noble fight to preserve their honor and way of life.
The Last Samurai is an epic in every sense of the word, immersing the viewer in the culture and sights of Meiji Japan for over two and a half hours. The film received Oscar nominations for Art Direction/Set Decoration and Costume Design, both of which were very much deserved. The look and feel of every minute of the film is amazingly accurate and finely textured, creating a believable facsimile of Japan in the 1870s. Of course everything looks beautiful on film, due to cinematography by the ever-excellent John Toll (Braveheart, The Thin Red Line).
Our window into this nicely reproduced Japanese world is Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren. Algren starts the film as a flawed, unsympathetic character and is gradually transformed by the Bushido philosophy of Katsumoto. The Cruise of this film is not the glib poster boy with the famous grin. He doesn't hesitate to play Algren at the outset as a pathetic, tortured, dislikable soul. As the character progresses through the film, Cruise tempers the transformation by retaining a measure of jaded cynicism almost until the end. Here, as in Minority Report, Cruise shows that he is capable of a more complex performance than most would have expected based on the movies that initially made him a star.
The cast includes a number of Japanese actors who are likely unfamiliar to western audiences. The most prominent role is that of Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe. Watanabe was already quite a respected actor in Japan before this film, and hopefully we in the West will get to see more of him. Director Edward Zwick points out in his commentary track that Katsumoto is the moral center of the film and that not just any actor could simultaneously convey the gravity and wit that are so essential to the character. Watanabe, who spoke minimal English before taking the role, is simply excellent. He earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his work here. Katsumoto is a warrior, to be sure, but he is also by turns a politician, family man, Imperial advisor, and poet, and Watanabe understands how to play all of these different roles while still maintaining the overall persona of Katsumoto.
Also deserving mention is the Japanese actress known only as Koyuki. Koyuki plays the woman known only as Taka, Katsumoto's sister-in-law who must house and feed the American prisoner Algren. She becomes an almost-but-not-quite love interest for Algren, but her contribution to the film goes far beyond that. Koyuki plays the character with such reserve and dignity, such grace and attention to every movement and gesture, that she becomes a living poem, a part of the very fabric and culture of Japan that Algren experiences. She is one of those gifted actresses who understands subtlety, and can communicate unspeakable depths of emotion with the smallest facial expression or movement of her hand.
In an epic period adventure such as this, it is important to get the action sequences right. The action scenes in The Last Samurai received quite a bit of attention from director Zwick and the rest of the crew. There are a number of thrilling setpieces, from the first encounter of the untrained Imperial Army against the samurai, to a nighttime confrontation between Katsumoto's villagers and a squad of ninja assassins, to an showdown between Algren and a number of Ronin on the darkened streets of Tokyo, and finally to the massive spectacle of the final battle between Katsumoto's forces and the forces of modernity. The larger battle sequences that bookend the film are well shot and well edited, but seem like a rehash of every period battle piece that has been done since Braveheart. The real brilliance and skill shines through in the smaller fight sequences, such as the battle against the ninjas, or even the sword training vignettes scattered throughout the film as Algren learns the way of the samurai. Cruise, Watanabe, and the rest of the cast had to spend a lot of time in training for this film, learning the authentic sword arts and fighting styles of the period. The results are magnificent, some of the best Japanese-style combat that has been seen on the screen in quite some time. Cruise and the rest use real sword techniques and moves when they fight, and the combat carries a real feel of authenticity, even if some of the thrill factor has been augmented a bit for Hollywood purposes.
Of course, some sword-related errors deserve mention as well. Now, I'm a swordsman myself. I handle swords all the time, and I know a thing or two about them. Based on this knowledge, I can point out two very annoying things about the film. First off, most swords of this nature are kept in a scabbard made out of highly polished lacquered wood. Swords do not make the snicker-snack "ka-ching" sound when drawn out of a wooden scabbard. When drawing a sword, it should come out of the scabbard smoothly, and as silently as possible; no sense in tipping off an enemy with your noisy sword. They also don't make that sound when merely brandished or swung through the air. The sound effects guys who worked on The Last Samurai obviously don't know any of this, because they stuck in so many over done sword clashes, clangs, and scrapes that it becomes downright comical. Swords clang like they are being struck against frying pans every time a samurai draws or swings, with an extra dose of metallic stinger when he cuts through a person, although people in the Meiji period generally had very few metal components. Also, awesome weapons that samurai swords are, there are still some things though which they just won't cut. One of these would be a steel rifle barrel and wooden stock and the guy holding the rifle all in one swing. These are swords, not lightsabers.
The image quality on this disc from Warner Brothers is first-rate. The image has brilliant clarity, with just the right amount of film grain. Colors are rich and lifelike, from the deep blue and crisp gold of Algren's Seventh Cavalry uniform to the vibrant orange of the Emperor Meiji's hakama pants. The tricky reds and blacks are dead on. Shadowed and tone-on-tone areas show some of the best detail I have seen on any DVD release. The audio, presented in Dolby 5.1, is also quite nice, filling the room and creating a nicely immersive environment. Directionality and channel separation are quite pronounced, especially in action sequences. If the audio has one drawback, it seems that Hans Zimmer's score is a bit overmixed, but that would be a problem with the overall sound mix of the film itself, not the DVD.
The Last Samurai appears on DVD as a two-disc special edition. The first disc contains only the film and the commentary by director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Siege). Zwick laid down this track just days after the film's initial U.S. release. This is both good and bad, but mostly good. The film and its making were still very fresh in his mind, and so he is able to fill almost the full two and a half hours with insightful discussions of his filmmaking style and techniques, the evolution of the script and story, the importance of the characters, Japanese culture, and a host of other fascinating details.
Disc Two is packed with more extra content than you can shake a bokken at. There are featurettes galore, dealing with several different aspects of the production, from production design to costumes to weapons and armor. There are also a couple of nice, long conversations with Zwick, Cruise, and other key players in the making of The Last Samurai, which gives them sufficient time to really relate their thoughts on the film, the lifestyle it depicts, and the overall message of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice espoused in Bushido. There is also a video journal with various behind-the-scenes shots and extensive commentary from Zwick. There are also a couple of deleted scenes available, also with optional Zwick commentary.
One piece of extra content that came up a bit disappointing was the History Channel program, "History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai." For high-profile Hollywood films, a tie-in with The History Channel or Discovery has become almost mandatory. Usually, they wind up being both entertaining and informative, while giving a harmless plug for the movie. This time, they only got one of those elements. For a program that purports to examine the historical reality of the film, we get a lot of screen time of Tom Cruise talking about his role in the movie, and precious little else. A real historian gets about five seconds to hint that things in Meiji Japan might not have been exactly as they are depicted in the movie, but that is about as close as the program gets to any sort of balance.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Taken as a straight adventure film, The Last Samurai is a satisfying, skillfully made film with intriguing characters and great action sequences. On the other hand, the film is probably more interesting for the comments it makes (intentionally or not) about Western attitudes towards "exotic" cultures.
The Last Samurai has often been compared to the Kevin Costner epic Dances With Wolves. While this is a tempting connection to make, and there is some superficial resemblance between the two, it is easy to exaggerate the similarity. Referring to the newer film as "Dances with Samurai," as some wags have done, is less perceptive than it seems. Yes, Cruise's Algren and Costner's Dunbar are both disillusioned Civil War veterans experiencing a culture that is foreign to them. Yes, each film tries to depict a flattering portrayal of an "exotic" culture, but feels the need to rely on a token Euro-American viewpoint character as its hero. Beyond these surface-level similarities, however, the two films could not be more different. The ideology of The Last Samurai, far from Costner's attempt to sympathize with the Lakota people, is surprisingly patronizing in its outlook. Dances with Wolves memorializes a people fighting for the right to determine their own destiny; The Last Samurai rejects the idea of self-determination, decreeing instead that the people should behave according to Western romanticized notions of their way of life.
Algren winds up fighting against the legitimate Japanese authorities to maintain what his Western eyes perceive as the "right" version of Japanese culture. The modernization that the Emperor and government have chosen to pursue does not fit with Algren's romanticized vision of what Japan should be, and so, like an adult slapping the hand of a child caught stealing cookies, he fights to maintain what he sees as the "true" or "real" Japan. The truth is that by the time of the Meiji Restoration, the samurai that Algren so passionately embraces were not fighting for honor or to maintain some sort of elusive cultural integrity; they were fighting to maintain an entrenched feudal system of noble family privilege from which they had benefited for centuries. The samurai lords, up through the Shogun, had usurped the power of the Emperor, the legitimate locus of sovereignty in the Japanese state. Algren fights to maintain this corrupt and illegitimate power structure because the values that it purports to serve better suit his romantic fancy than do the ideals of modernization and industrialization that the Emperor and his advisors have chosen. His patronizing attitude that the Emperor and his government, the legitimate authority in Japan, are only free to choose their own course to the extent that is suits his idealized notion of what Japanese society should be, is probably the most insulting idea to come along since Gene Roddenberry's Prime Directive. The conflict into which Algren injects himself is emphatically not a fight between East and West. It is a fight between the legitimate powers who want to unify the country and improve the standard of living and education for all Japanese and those who would deny such progress in favor of their own privilege. Algren stands with the reactionaries against the ideals of self-determination and the rule of law, favoring instead a Japan that remains mired in the past.
The film would have us believe that modernization according to the Emperor's plans will destroy not only the way of life, but the code of ethics that the samurai hold so dear. It would have us believe that there is no place for a man like Katsumoto in the new Japan. This too ignores the historical reality; the more enlightened and forward-looking samurai saw the need for change if their nation was to survive contact with the industrialized powers. Even The Last Samurai unwittingly tips us off to this in the character of General Hasegawa (Togo Igawa), a noble samurai who has joined the Emperor's new army. In fact, the movie takes great pains to show the respect that Katsumoto continues to hold for Hasegawa, and emphasizes that Hasegawa, though he serves the modern army and wears a modern uniform rather than armor, continues to be samurai through and through. With this realization, the audience should question why Katsumoto is fighting at all. Is it just because he believes that there should be a class of people entitled to wear swords in public and cut off the heads of offending commoners at a whim? Hasegawa is a very minor character, with perhaps five total minutes of screen time, but his very existence gives the lie to all of Katsumoto's professed reasons for rebelling against the legitimate power of the Emperor. The fact that he can survive in the modernized system without sacrificing his ideals reduces Katsumoto's struggle to merely a battle to maintain a privileged status. Indeed, it is Hasegawa, rather than Katsumoto, who understands that the samurai ethic requires unconditional service, not just service so long as the samurai thinks it serves his interests. A film about Hasegawa, or one of his real-life counterparts, would have been a much more fascinating and rewarding film than the one we ultimately got.
As a caveat to all of this, it bears consideration that The Last Samurai was very well received in Japan, where it was seen as a sincere and fitting tribute to a bygone era and the samurai ethic of duty and honor.
The bigger question as regards The Last Samurai is the very presence of Tom Cruise as Captain Algren. After watching the film a number of times, I came to realize that this character is entirely superfluous. The story being told here is a completely Japanese story of an important moment of Japanese history; having Algren there is actually just a distraction from the real story. Perhaps the Hollywood types figured that they needed at least one all-American white guy for the audience to relate to in order to sell tickets; who knows, perhaps they were right in that respect. In terms of narrative and storytelling, rather than commercial concerns, however, Algren's greatest sin is not that he is a tissue of clichés, but that he is there at all. The Last Samurai does by accident what Big Trouble in Little China does for laughs: it presents us with a sidekick who thinks he is the hero. Throw in a highly unlikely and poorly thought out quasi-happy ending sequence, and he very nearly manages to sink the movie. Just to be clear, this is not a reflection on Cruise's excellent performance, but on the writers who thought his character was needed in the first place.
The Last Samurai is a beautifully shot, expertly made movie. It is an action film that at least tries to be something more. It tries to celebrate a philosophy and a way of life that many Western audiences find romantic and appealing; I know I do. I love the romantic vision that this film tries to celebrate.
The problem with such romanticized notions is that they are generally a betrayal of historical reality and tend to reinforce the natural Western tendency to require foreign cultures to conform to our ideas of authenticity.
On balance, I like The Last Samurai, but I know better than to take it too seriously, and I have to work to suppress thoughts of the bigger issues it stumbles onto by accident.
Not guilty! The Last Samurai at least tries to be a thoughtful, grown-up action film that manages to actually pay attention to little things like character and plot. Yes, there are some problematic issues dwelling just below the surface, and there is a really bad tacked-on ending, but for the most part it is a solid piece of filmmaking.
The DVD from Warners is acquitted as well, based on a strong technical presentation and a load of quality extra content.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Edward Zwick
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