Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Koyuki, Shin Koyamada, Scichinosuke Nakamura, Hiroyuki Sanada
Rated: R for strong violence and battle sequences.
Parental Notes: This is an intensely violent film at times, although not as gory as some slasher flicks. Both its intensity and its main themes make it unsuitable for youngsters, although teens with an interest in military or samurai films may enjoy it.
Edward Zwick’s new film “The Last Samurai” co-stars Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise as warriors from very different cultures who find that, in the ways that matter, they are very much the same. One is in the process of finding himself, the other in the process of losing everything he holds dear. This is a military epic saturated with the poignancy of modernization and the sadness of old ways being supplanted by new ones.
Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a great hero of the Civil War, reduced to drinking to escape his memories and doing sideshow advertising for the Winchester Rifle company. He’s spent his life putting down tribal rebellions, and although he’s painfully good at it, he has lost his taste for it. He is approached by an old friend who wants them to pair up and go to Japan to help the Emperor’s army put down a samurai rebellion. The pay is excellent, so Algren takes the job.
The Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) is a tentative young man, and he is being driven by his money and power hungry advisors to adopt western ways and western armament contracts. The samurai class isn’t entirely against modernization, but Lord Katsumoto (Watanabi) feels it is too much too fast and that the Emperor’s advisors are in the wrong. He has been leading a rebellion against the changes, destroying train tracks and generally being a nuisance. Although he is ostensibly fighting , he would gladly lay down his life if the Emperor asked him to; but the Emperor, whom Katsumoto once tutored, cannot bear to do so.
Algren trains the Japanese as best he can, but they are conscripts who have no idea how to use a rifle, and when he is ordered to lead them against Katsumoto, he warns everyone involved that the troops aren’t ready. The samurai may be, as one of the military commanders says, “savages with bows and arrows” but his soldiers, Algren warns, aren’t ready. They are indeed terribly inept in combat, and when his troops retreat in panic Algren is captured by Katsumoto.
Katsumoto takes Algren to his son’s village and houses the American with Taka (Koyuki), his sister-in-law and the widow of a man Algren killed in battle. She starts off disliking everything about him, from his smell to his looks, but comes to first tolerate and then admire him. Koyuki is full of repressed emotion in this role, and handles herself perfectly. The shift in her feelings for Algren is shown through the look in her eyes, the way she casts her eyes down and touches her hair when he looks at her. Although nothing is said and they never act on their feelings, the way they feel is clear. The Wachowski brothers could learn a great deal from this ‘show, don’t tell’ method of emotional storytelling.
Staying with Taka and her children, Algren learns Japanese, has philosophical discussions with Katsumoto, and finds his first untroubled sleep in many years as he begins living the way the samurai do. The simplicity of the village and the directness of the samurai philosophy give him a new center within himself, and eventually he finds himself fighting back to back with Katsumoto to defend the village from attack, first by assassins, then (after a failed attempt to negotiate with the Emperor) by troops armed with canon and hand-cranked machine guns.
It’s refreshing to see a film in which the “savages” are neither primitive nor stereotypically noble. Watanabi is stunning as Katsumoto, bringing a finely tuned subtlety and restrained emotion to the role. Although comparisons to Toshiro Mifune are inevitable, and just, Watanabi is more accessible to Western audiences, and he has the potential to be a world star. He brings a watery stillness to the role, showing immense depth of emotion in only small ripples on his surface.
Cruise plays Algren a great deal of sincerity, showing the immense emotional and physical pain his character endures through stillness rather than screaming. Algren drinks himself into oblivion because his despair and internal agony are too deep for words, and Cruise is able to convey that without going over the top. He simply becomes Algren, and it’s a pleasure to watch him make the shift from a man mired in his own emotions and drifitng to a man with clarity of mind and internal peace.
Although “The Last Samurai” is very much a war epic, it has a great deal of poignancy in it. Change, we know, is inevitable. Still, it is terribly sad to see a way of life which has existed for centuries destroyed maliciously. Here it is the modern world, with its machine guns and canon, that is savage, not the samurai. Finally even the soldiers under the Emperor’s command are sickened and overcome with respect for their enemy.
Although the ending does smack somewhat of Hollywood sentimentality and requires viewers to suspend their disbelief, it is ultimately satisfying. The biggest flaw here is in the music. Hans Zimmer is known for composing big music for big movies, but here his dramatic score is at odds with the internal peace Algren finds. One cannot help longing for the silence of a classic samurai movie during some of the battle sequences.
Overall, however, “The Last Samurai” is a thoughtful, well-written military epic. There is a great deal of testosterone saturating the picture, and it’s clear that Japan is a land where glowering is a centuries-old art form, but the attention to detail and the art direction are stunning. It is worth seeing at least once if only to admire the set, costume, and makeup design. This is a beautiful film, surprisingly moving, and filled with very natural performances.