The Last Samurai

January 18 2004, 0 Comments

The culture of the Orient has been fashionable for quite some time in the West. Sushi, Tai-Chi and Feng-Shui are all part of the English lexicon nowadays. Isn’t it ironic then that over a century ago that Western civilization did its best to marginalise and even stamp out the rich Eastern cultures it encountered?

The Last Samurai is a film rich in irony. It’s ironic that the very introduction of modern weapons of war to Japan by the U.S.A. would ultimately culminate in the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbour a century later. It’s ironic that the emissaries from the West try to bring ‘civilisation’ to a culture that has been civilised for thousands of years. And it is ironic that should Tom Cruise win the Oscar for Best Actor his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, will present the statuette to him by virtue of her being last year’s Best Actress winner.

Cruise’s performance is a landmark – possibly the best of his career to date. It seems as if all the other films he has appeared in have prepared him for this character and it’s fascinating to watch those former roles surface in this movie: the disillusioned former soldier he portrayed in Born on the Fourth of July; the muscular martial artist he was in Mission: Impossible 2; and even a bit of the tortured soul he exposed in Vanilla Sky. But in The Last Samurai he brings an extra-dimension to the character that isn’t part of his acting technique. Tom Cruise is an embodiment of the all-American hero – he has been ever since Top Gun. And in this film that aura is used effectively to emphasise yet another of the movie’s ironies: it is this American hero who is the first to realise the wrongfulness of the American involvement in Japan.

The story follows an American Civil War hero, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) as he goes to Tokyo to train the Japanese army, who are embroiled in a battle with a tribe of Samurai. The Americans are there simply for the money, and that money is happily offered by the Emperor’s Westernised advisors who want the Samurai out of the picture so that they may continue to pull the Emperor’s puppet-strings unhindered. In an early battle however, Algren is captured by the Samurai and held by them for the winter. During this time, he learns the way of the Samurai and eventually ends up fighting alongside them – breaking his allegiance to the country he once fought for.

The obvious comparison to make is to Dances with Wolves, where Kevin Costner’s character similarly defects to the side of the natives. Indeed, Cruise’s Civil War hero fought with Gen. Custer against the native Indians, witnessing first-hand the atrocities of that war. However, Costner’s love interest in Dances with Wolves was a white woman and that shared ethnicity formed the basis of their bond to one another, whereas the bond between Algren and the Japanese woman he comes to love is far more heartrending. I won’t reveal the details of that relationship, but the woman is played by Koyuki, and her performance is accurate in its portrayal of a woman who is just as scarred as the warriors she cares for – but she wears those scars on the inside.

It is Ken Watanabe in his performance as the samurai leader Katsumoto who dominates the cast though. His introspective and thoughtful warrior is a sharp contrast to the ill-disciplined American captive. Their initial encounters bristle with an energy that lies beyond the spoken dialogue. It is chiefly through Watanabe that the samurai are depicted as noble and intelligent. The movie wants the audience to wonder about which side it is that is actually the civilised one. During the movie, individuals from both sides refer to the other side as ‘barbarians’. Certainly, the fighting that is vividly dramatised in the movie is violent to the point of barbarism, but who can judge whether it is more barbaric to lop off a soldier’s head (as the samurai do on plenty of occasions) or to mow down an enemy that is armed only with swords using a machine gun?

The movie reminded me of Kurosawa’s classic, The Seven Samurai, especially in its depiction of war as a duty that the samurai must fulfill – almost as if it was as much their place in society to be fighting as it was for the farmer to be sowing his crops. In Kurosawa’s film, the samurai are loners who band together only under a banner of war and who are always separated from civilian life by the duty of war. In ‘The Last Samurai’ however, the warriors live in towns with wives and children – a sense of community is depicted in the scenes when they leave for and return from battle. I sense that this difference has less to do with our history of the samurai being revised and more to do with the fact that Kurosawa was influenced by the old Westerns and their loner cowboys, whereas Zwick is far more familiar with family values on screen.

The screenwriting credit that Zwick and producer Marshall Herskovitz are awarded is evidence that the director tinkered with the screenplay during filming. This tinkering seems most obvious in the movie’s final scenes, which seem awkwardly different in tone from two hours of film before. It’s almost as if Zwick was so aware of the many messages the film had to convey and the deep ironies present in the story, that he couldn’t help himself from hammering those ideas home a little more.

I think that it’s only a minor misstep at the end of a glorious film though. If you enjoyed the passion and ferocity of Gladiator and Braveheart, but seek a little more mental than visceral stimulation I highly recommend The Last Samurai. It’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen over the past summer.

Leave a Reply

©2018 Tyron Hunter.