The Last Samurai

cast: Tom Cruise, Aoi Minata Shichinosuke, Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Koyuki

director: Edward Zwick

144 minutes (R) 2003
Warner NTSC VHS rental

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib

Though cynical viewers and critics might be quick to dismiss The Last Samurai with the waggish slogan ‘Dances With Wolves meets Shogun’, experienced director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends Of The Fall, The Siege, among others), has helmed and co-scripted a historical epic homage to Kurosawa that dazzles and, in a pleasant surprise for a Hollywood production, respectfully conveys a sense of Japan’s Bushido martial arts’ code and Zen spirituality amidst rousing (but not excessively bloody) action and spectacle. These just-mentioned positive qualities and excellent performances from the leads, transcend a rather far-fetched and predictable plot that presents a flawed distillation of real 1876-77 period events: the Satsuma Rebellion led by the respected Saigo Takamori, the model for the invented character Katsumoto.
The Last Samurai, also set in 1876-77, concerns Civil War and Indian Wars’ veteran Captain Woodrow Algren (Tom Cruise), now disillusioned and alcoholic, who gets a chance at a new beginning with the opportunity to leave his vaudeville-like grind promoting Winchester rifles. Algren accepts an offer to journey to Japan where he will get paid well to be a military advisor for the Meiji Emperor’s (Aoi Minata Shichinosuke) generals who wish to train their armies in the use of modern weaponry in order to quell rebellious samurai traditionalists. Sent to face an uprising too soon, ill-prepared government troops get scattered and the samurai capture the wounded Algren.
They take him hostage to their remote mountain stronghold. Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the rebels, curious about Algren’s previous combat experiences and impressed by his prisoner’s feisty resistance, permits the foreigner to recuperate from his injuries in order to get to know his ‘new enemy’ better. Healing gradually physically, now sober but still troubled mentally by post-traumatic stress disorder, Algren learns to appreciate living in this new environment with its different culture and mindset. He develops a friendship with Katsumoto – learning swordsmanship (kendo, iaido) from the samurai second-in-command Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada). Algren also forms a chaste relationship with Katsumoto’s widowed sister Taka (Koyuki), befriends her two pre-adolescent boys and Katsumoto’s young-adult son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) in training to become his father’s heir.
When hired ninja assassins unexpectedly attack the samurai village, targeting Katsumoto, Algren’s heroic help fending the villains off, earns him solid standing among his hosts. Fully recovered, Algren returns to Tokyo where he intends to quit working for the Meiji and to depart for the US. Upon seeing how, in the meantime, the government forces have been upgraded to a formidable degree, Algren reverses course and re-unites with his samurai friends to help them prepare for a climactic showdown pitting fully-trained imperial soldiers fielding the latest in firearms, artillery and Gatling guns in an ultimate encounter against clever strategy directing the use of millennia-old traditional skills of archery, sword-wielding and horsemanship.
The Last Samurai’s most obvious fault lies in its simplistic view of historical change and its romanticised attitude toward the traditional versus modernisation, although the film does touch on the necessity for the Japanese to adapt to resist colonialism without losing their identity. The picture’s compensatory virtues lie in the dazzling visuals that include: gorgeous New Zealand locations convincingly mimicking rural Japan; beautiful and accurate-looking sets, costumes, props and hairstyles; believable CGI recreations of 19th century Yokohama Harbour and San Francisco; and spectacular battle scenes. More plusses – fine acting from the principal performers with Cruise in shape to handle equally well his role’s emotional and physical demands, although Ken Watanabe stole every scene with his dignity, conviction and subtle, dry wit. Supporting players Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shin Koyamada and Timothy Spall – all stood out memorably. Hans Zimmer’s atmospheric score blending Japanese instruments with Western orchestral sounds provided splendid accompaniment to everything.
The martial arts, pleasantly surprisingly for a Hollywood production, equalled in excellence anything done in Asian counterparts. Training scenes; samurai practicing swordplay, judo-like throws and archery on the ground and from horseback; the thrilling ninja attack sequence; minor skirmishes; and the riveting, heart-wrenching final battle were all superbly staged, full of graceful, dynamic movement that’s exciting without excess gore.
Although The Last Samurai avoids the complexities of history in favour of sentimental themes about redemption and honour, the film does succeed admirably in respectfully depicting Bushido. It draws on that Japanese philosophy to portray positive ways of coping with the conflicts brought by outside pressures to change. Indigenous Japanese period pictures dealing with The Last Samurai’s subject offer superior and more subtle versions of same, nevertheless, director Zwick’s Hollywood take on it still does the job credibly, surrounding the big-name star with ‘unknown’ but equally if not more talented and wonderful-looking Asian actors and using subtitles. Let’s hope that the eye-candy appeal of The Last Samurai can, in the future, beguile Western audiences into accepting and welcoming many more accurate and nuanced cinematic portrayals of the people and cultures of Asia. How lovely it would be if this film were not the last but the first of numerous more of its ilk.