Last Samurai, The

Reviewed By W. Scott Gordon
Posted 08/23/08 12:14:18

"This Flick has Cruise Control, but Watanabe's Horse Power Carries the Day"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Samurai has been called everything from a flattering "grand epic" to a far more cynical "Dances with Samurai" that merely cookie-cutters Kevin Costner's earlier efforts. Epic or not, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be considered for more than a few awards in 2003--despite it's flaws, those it earned were well-deserved.

Aside from a bloated CGI rendering of Mount Fuji, the New Zealand/Kyoto-filmed Samurai looks cool and packs a wallop. As for the Dances with Wolves parallel, I can't say I entirely disagree, but this is a case where story originality does not concern me. As someone who speaks fluent Japanese and has lived in the country as a teacher and graduate student for almost ten years, I can't possibly evaluate this film with typical Western eyes. My concern is whether the source material, i.e., Japan, Japanese history, and the Japanese themselves, are treated with respect and care.

The story, as I have already alluded, is far from a mind-bending first. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a post-Civil War captain whose numberless days of slaughtering Native American enemies he couldn't hate have turned him into a washed-up alcoholic plagued by horrible memories of atrocities he helped to commit. These days he makes a living telling his trumped-up war stories as a Winchester salesman; he is a ruined soul.

Just when it seems his life will end in a drunken haze, Algren is given a chance to salvage his career. A Japanese bureaucrat, one Mr. Omura (a smallish man with one of those twirly moustaches that just screams, "Villain!"), offers to pay him handsomely if he will train Japan's modernizing army in the ways of Western gun fighting and soldiering. The plan is to quell a rebellion being led by the legendary Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, also of Batman Begins, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Letters from Iwo Jima fame) and his samurai army. Although the samurai originally existed to protect the Emperor, the sweep of Meiji-era Western influence has rendered them obsolete. The ultimate goal: Crush them, remove the last barrier between Japan and the West, and join the modern world.

To say that Algren arrives, trains the Emperor's army, fights, is captured by the samurai, and through them begins to redeem not his career, but himself, goes without saying. If you think I'm giving away plot points here, then you haven't seen the aforementioned Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man or the handful of other pictures where the "Western"(white) male meets "Native" (non-white) tribe/army and begins to rethink his position in the world. But it is not the originality of the material, but the treatment of it, that I am focusing on. And this where things become interesting.

For example, even as Algren is gaining the trust of his captors (particularly Katsumoto and his lovely sister Taka, played with quiet grace by actress/model Koyuki), he confesses in his diary something to the effect of, "They (the samurai) are an intriguing people. Although I'm sure I'lll never fully understand their ways, I can certainly feel the power of this place." Algren is a man unsure of himself, who wonders at the well of complicated emotions hidden behind every polite bow and smile. Among the many mistakes made during his capture is an incident where Algren neglects to remove his muddy boots before stepping on tatami mats. This foreign faux pas has been raked over the coals so many times that almost everyone in our globalized world knows not to do it today, but thankfully it never becomes a cliche--it happens only once, and it feels strained and sloppy rather than amusing. The expression, "Dosoku no mama de hairu," literally, "To enter with one's shoes on," also means, "To make things worse by bursting in unwanted." Algren is less than a guest and worse than a hostage, a bothersome gaijin in over his head.

Director Edward Zwick illustrates the uneasy truce developing between Algren and the village through his gradual foray into sword-fighting, which any frequent movie-goer knows will lead to a spectacular (if not ridiculous) future dual with some baddies. He fails a great many more times than he triumphs, gradually creating a visceral bond with his captors. Writer John Logan creates in Algren a character who, in striving to better himself, at once admires the samurai while also realizing his inability to become "one of them." Thus, absent is the insulting, silly presumption that one can become more native than the natives themselves. Also absent is the Hollywood folly known as perfect linguistic fluency in exotic foreign language in 6 months; Algren learns basic Japanese conversation, but nothing that would knock your socks off. As someone who still struggles with the finer nuances of Japanese, I respected Logan's honesty and restraint here. All told, Tom Cruise does a solid job. If ever there was a model situation for the old Japanese proverb, "shimpai wa seiko no moto" ("Failure is the root of success"), Algren's exemplifies it. I've never had to don sweaty armor and charge into battle, but I've often felt as Algren did. Recent Scientology-related tripe aside, I enjoy watching Cruise on film.

You might conclude that I have positioned Cruise as the star of this epic, but you would be entirely wrong. The honor this time goes to a man who has been a staple of samurai jidai gekki (period dramas, the equivalent of our Westerns) for years: The incomparable Ken Watanabe. As I have already mentioned, he plays "the last samurai" for whom the film is named. His Katsumoto is a calm pool underneath whose surface lie complex waves of emotion and paradox. His rebellion is meant not to topple, but in fact, to serve the Emperor (samurai in fact literally means, "to serve") and protect Japan from the onslaught of harmful outside influence. To do this he must, ironically, learn everything about the West in general and wartime strategy in particular. This is ultimately the reason for Algren's capture.

But what could be a standard story of capture and interrogation is made sweet by the gradual development of a brotherly bond between Algren and Katsumoto, driven primarily by Katsumoto's sometimes cryptic, often amusing remarks. Welling with frustration at his own capture, Algren shouts at Katsumoto, "What the HELL do you want with me?!" Katsumoto replies levelly, "I'm just trying to have a conversation. Maybe I want to practice my English with you. Don't your people enjoy having conversations?" Whether he is kneeling quietly in a garden, lecturing about Bushido ("The Way of the Samurai"), or roaring into the heat of battle, Watanabe is totally convincing. Even his too-perfect English is explained away by context--language is yet another tool one can use to understand the enemy.Watanabe overshadows Cruise with his presence.

Algren and Katsumoto's friendship forms the basis for mutual redemption, Algren for himself and Katsumoto for his way of life. There are other, smaller relationships along the way, most notably that between Allgeren and Katsumoto's sister Taka. The circumstances of their meeting would make any real-life love story absurd and dishonorable in this context, so what evolves instead is a kind of cautious, understated affection. Hats off to Zwick for staging a scene where the sexual tension actually radiates from clothes being put on rather than taken off! Almost everything about this relationship, with one exception, seemed to me reminiscent of a Japanese director's more subtle approach. Many other characters are lovingly-crafted stereotypes; an epic picture requires that the main characters be well-lit at center stage, the others dimly visible in the wings.

The battle scenes also bear mentioning. Neither as up-close-and-bloody as Braveheart nor as fast or empty as Gladiator, Samurai's climactic clash is made all the more harrowing due to how much you have grown to care about the small samurai village and how little of a chance you know they have of winning against gun-toting legions. As the new Japanese Army and the samurai gear up for battle, the East vs. West, tradition vs. technology idea is unmistakable and poignant. The scene is inspired by the final battle of Takamori Saigo, the actual samurai upon whom Watanabe's character is based; no costume or weapon detail was spared. Painstaking choreography and cinematography make every moment both visually and emotionally satisfying. Algren and the samurai fight with honor; as the pink sakura blossoms shimmer in the sun, their spirit lives on.

After viewing the film, you'll know which line I would edit out of the final battle scene, and why I would cut the last fifteen minutes entirely. These final moments are what lead me to finally characterize The Last Samurai as a good film rather than a great one, a Hollywood picture rather than a thinking one. Driven in Cruise control by its main producer and star, it attempts to paint an allegory for the present state of US-Japan relations, never mind that French and German influence was much more prominent then. Also, the film needlessly glorifies Algren at the expense of the Bushido honor code it seeks first to impart. Nonetheless, all the primary actors with the exception of Cruise were Japanese, Japan advisors were utilized on the film, and Watanabe himself pointed out various historical inaccuracies in the script. All told, I felt they got it right.

If The Last Samurai can inspire a few souls to take even a passing interest in Japan, then Tom Cruise and Edward Zwick have succeeded beyond their roles as Hollywood bigwigs.

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