(2003) Action (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Masato Harada, Togo Igawa, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Sosuki Ikematsu, Aoi Minato, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Scott Wilson. Directed by Edward Zwick
Over the lives of those who devote themselves to the art of war and a life of dealing death, a question of honor must always hover. For what cause does one fight, kill, die? What can be worth the moral choices of taking another human life?
For Nathan Algren (Cruise), the morality of being a warrior has become murky. A hero of the American Civil War, he has grown disillusioned and bitter, having seen carnage inflicted on women and children by cowardly officers bent more on making names for themselves than fulfilling their mission during the Indian Wars. Algren has become an alcoholic, a shell and a parody of himself, shilling the Winchester rifle and using whiskey to medicate his emotional pain.
For Katsumoto (Watanabe), the morality is clear. A samurai whose life is given in service to his emperor, the world is becoming a colder, crueler place. As Japan moves reluctantly to modernize and traffic with the rest of the world, the changes that are brought into that country are sometimes painful, and Katsumoto can clearly see the end of his way of life approaching. However, his unwavering devotion to his country and the emperor makes him and his kind targets of those who seek to create a new Japan, one that will profit them above all.
Algren is invited to Japan by his former commander Bagley (Goldwyn) and a Japanese railroad magnate Omura (Harada) to modernize the Imperial Japanese Army and teach it to use the weapons of Western war. Emperor Meiji (Nakamura) is enamored of the West and is a little weak, but his mentor, Katsumoto, still has his ear, making him dangerous to Omura and those like him. Katsumoto is trying to get the emperor to rethink his plans, but is ultimately forced from court and into rebellion when Omura’s assassins fail.
Algren at first is little more than a hired hand, but after being captured by Katsumoto, he is brought to a remote mountain village which is Katsumoto’s home, and is exposed to the samurai life and code, and begins to heal, not just from the wounds inflicted in the battle, but also in his spirit, where his pain has been festering for so long. Hired to destroy the samurai, Algren at last joins them, despite facing terrible odds.
The shadow of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, is evident here. Director Edmund Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, Legends of the Fall) was heavily influenced by the man in the director’s chair for such classics as Ran, Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact, a screening of Seven Samurai when Zwick was 14 provided the young man with a lifelong interest in Japan and in movies as well. In the battle scenes, particularly, Zwick pays the master a great deal of homage in the way he sets his scenes up, although not nearly as poetically and poignantly as did Kurosawa.
This interest in Japan led Zwick to read Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” the account of Saigo Takamori, a real-life samurai in the Meiji court who at first embraced but eventually renounced the modernization of Japan. The roots of The Last Samurai can be found here.
Zwick succeeds in creating a rich landscape of intrigue and honor, as the loyal, honorable samurai are faced with the treacherous, scheming industrialists. There is a love interest as Algren falls for the widow (Koyuki) of a samurai he had slain, and it is there that the two cultures meet most poignantly, and most awkwardly.
Cruise does a difficult job nicely here. In a role that changes from a washed-up, alcoholic, bitter man into a courageous, honorable warrior, Cruise carries both of these facets of the Algren character nicely, and allows us to see the progression from one to the other. Seeing this again reminds me that although he is best known as the charismatic movie star, Tom Cruise can really act when he gets the right part.
Although Cruise is the center of the movie, he is overshadowed by the spectacular performance of Watanabe. Katsumoto is a wise man, a beloved leader and a magnificent tactician, but also melancholy, knowing the life he has loved is slipping away and that he is unlikely to survive its passing. Watanabe is subtle, which is not something Japanese actors are traditionally known for. He creates a character rich in contradictions and complexities, and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance and even though he didn’t win, the movie established him in Hollywood where he would go on to roles in major films including Batman Begins.
Character actors Billy Connelly and Timothy Spall also put in solid performances. The battle scenes are truly memorable – this is where the Kurosawa influence most obviously comes into play. Zwick is also very good at establishing a good sense of period. Although the visual Kurosawa references can be a little heavy-handed at times, Zwick wisely chooses to put his own stamp on The Last Samurai, and that’s what makes for a good movie. Sure, there are elements of Ran but there are elements of Glory in the battle sequences as well.
The film has epic, sweeping landscapes, wonderfully staged battle scenes and allows us to view a culture very much misunderstood even to this day, and gives us a chance to see how Japan started on the road into becoming the mega-commercial technological giant it is in the 21st century.
Still, what ultimately makes this an excellent movie is that it is about the journey of the people in it. It is much harder to comprehend the journeys of nations; we can’t relate to them as easily. It is far easier to relate to the growth of individuals, something we are (hopefully) all doing throughout our lives.
WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely staged battle scenes. Watanabe gives a searing, career making performance. Beautiful Kurosawa-esque cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Probably about 20 minutes too long.
FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are fairly realistic and might be disturbing for some. There is plenty of bloodshed and some implied sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although the film implies the Americans trained the Imerial Army, historically it was the Prussians who actually did.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD contains a feature comparin the film to the actual historical events at the time. There’s also footage from the film’s Japanese premiere. The Blu-Ray adds a text piece onbushido, the code of the samurai.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456.8M on a production budget of $140M; the movie was a big hit.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shogun
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Piranha 3DD