If you’re like most people, you likely performed a double take when the first trailers for The Last Samurai began popping up. Tom Cruise as a samurai warrior? What’s next then—Kevin Costner as a sumo wrestler? Despite straining credibility, Cruise’s cinematic Samurai for Dummies combined with touches of television’s Kung Fu series results in a formulaic flick that works well enough to entertain mainstream audiences. With no pretensions of approaching Kurusawa’s masterful The Last Samurai or Zhang Yimou’s visually dazzling Hero, Edward Zwick’s epic sincerely takes on themes previously explored in Glory. This time the minority are samurai, whose honor will be saved by another great white hope.
Beginning in 1876, Antietam hero Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) continues to be haunted by his unwitting participation in a Native American massacre (possibly Sand Creek). Accepting the Japanese government offer to train its neophyte troops in modern weaponry only brings Algren different headaches. The Japanese army isn’t even close to being prepared for battle, so they are easily cut to shreds when prematurely facing off with samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and his warriors. The surviving soldiers shamefully retreat, leaving Algren alone to face the samurai.
For a man so tortured, you’d think that Algren would eagerly accept his apparent death sentence, yet he amazingly wards off half a dozen skilled samurai through sheer guts and will power, even killing his appointed executioner. Algren’s courageous spirit recalls the visions Katsumoto has had of a tiger, and Algren is spared—a prisoner of war (so to speak), confined to the care of Taka (Koyuki), who ironically turns out to be the widow of a man Algren has just killed.
Nursed back to health, Algren begins a hands on crash course in Japanese language and samurai culture, endearing himself to the locals through his courage and refusal to quit—a personal code very much in tune with the samurai. While some critics find Algren’s conversion too quick, that’s not exactly a fair shot, given the parallels drawn between Algren’s guilt ridden empathy for Native Americans and the samurai minority who are attempting to carry out their traditional lifestyle in their remote mountain community. Essentially Algren has become a lonely entity without connections to country or culture. Despite their different backgrounds, Algren and Katsumoto bond quickly since they share common warrior experiences and values.
Besides, Katsumoto wants to “understand his enemy,” and he realizes that his greater enemy lies within his own borders—namely modern Japanese politicians who are rapidly forsaking the Medieval ways of the samurai to favor western capitalism. Currently in transition, Katsumoto remains a spiritual leader treading a tricky path. Fiercely loyal to the young emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura), a conflicted former student of his, Katsumoto swears that he would sacrifice himself without hesitation if the emperor asked. There is no doubting his word, either—it stands more solidly than any written contract. It doesn’t take long for Algren to realize that the stories relayed to him about the samurai being savages are pure fabrication.
It’s a story we’ve seen before, whether a great one like Lawrence of Arabia or an overwrought cheesy rendition of Dances with Wolves. Zwick’s film lies somewhere between those two extremes, and would be even better had the film ended 10 minutes earlier. Unfortunately, Hollywood thinks mainstream audiences are too stupid to fill in the blanks—hopefully this will be a case where the Director’s edition DVD will actually be shorter than the theatrical version.
No one can accuse this film of pretentiousness or subtlety, but its high production values and beautiful photography alone are worth the ticket price. Shot largely on location in both Japan and New Zealand, cinematographer John Toll paints the scenery as beautifully as he did in Legends of the Fall, and captures the battle scenes as actively as he did in Braveheart, and combining both these aspects with the same visual poetry as his The Thin Red Line. Toll also acknowledges Kurosawa’s trademark looks with similar camera angles and numerous rain soaked images. Wide angled views of lush greens, snow capped mountains, cloud filled skies, and pastel cherry blossoms assure Toll of another Oscar nod for his work. A good thing, since the story itself remains pretty thin.
That said, viewing a professionally crafted samurai-lite vehicle can be as enjoyable as a lighthearted Kill Bill, and Zwick’s narrative actually has more substance than Tarantino anime spoof. The pleasure lies in the details, starting with the photography but also with competent acting by Cruise and some powerful supporting work by Watanabe, whose authoritative presence recalls Toshiro Mifune’s persona. He plays the ultimate samurai—a fierce fighting spirit, combined with great courage, wisdom, and honor. Cruise may be the marquee Hollywood actor that draws the fans, but viewers will exit the theater remembering Watanabe and seeking more of his films.
Others in the ensemble are also well cast. Also especially notable is Koyuki, who truly practices restraint naturally throughout the film. Initially when repulsed by the idea of caring for Cruise’s character, she hides it quite well beneath polite bowing, service, and slight smiles. It’s only through her deadpan Japanese insults comparing Algren’s odor to that of a pig that her feelings are blatant—a nice touch as the entire household (sans Algren) laughs at the put down without communicating its true meaning to the non-Japanese speaker. After Cruise mends fences, Koyuki subtly demonstrates her growing love for the American captain, yet her restraint effectively holds her natural passions in check, retaining the intended tension.
Even though the story is completely predictable, the narrative contains many worthy touches. Given the close connection between Algren and Katsumoto, the reference to the classic battle at Thermopylae adds depth to the scene, just as the layers of samurai philosophy lend credence and poignancy to their final stand. Not striving to be definitive, The Last Samurai does honor traditional Japanese culture and ideals and make them accessible to a wider audience.