Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)


Hana Sugisaki points out the logical flaws in the plot; Takuya Kimura just doesn’t care.

(2017) Martial Arts (Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yôko Yamamoto, Ebizô Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Seizô Fukumoto, Renji Ishibashi, Shun Sugata, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Jon Iles (voice), Philip Hersh (voice), Libby Brien (voice). Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s intensely lonely – particularly when everyone you know and loved was already dead. Immortals would be likely to become hermits as the pain of getting close to anyone would outweigh the comforts of companionship. Being immortal, in other words, sucks.

Manji (Kimura) is a samurai who loves only his little sister Machi (Sugisaki). Manji kills his corrupt lord and takes Machi on the run with him after the lord murders her husband and drives Machi insane. The two are cornered by ronin after the bounty on his head; after he agrees to disarm himself so that Machi might get safe passage, the ronin leader kills the girl anyway out of spite. Manji then slaughters every member of the ronin before collapsing to the ground, mortally wounded.

He is approached by an 800-year-old witch (Yamamoto) who infuses him with sacred bloodworms that will heal all his wounds and render him immortal. Rather than being a blessing however, he quickly realizes that he has been cursed and must wander around as a rogue samurai himself, alone and friendless.

A half century later, he is approached by another young girl, Rin Asano (also Sugisaki). Her father, a dojo sensei, has been murdered by the ambitious Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) who has plans to unite all the dojos in Japan into a kind of super-dojo under his control. He has also kidnapped Rin’s mother, although her head shows up mounted on the shoulder plate of the armor of one of Anotsu’s lieutenants. Rin wants justice and the witch essentially led her to Manji to get it. Manji realizes that this might well be his opportunity at redemption that would break the curse and allow him, finally, to die.

Taking on Anotsu who has some secrets of his own is no easy task, even for a guy who can’t be killed. Also there’s the nearly insane Shira (Ichihara) whom Manji has exacted a terrible price from and who means to get his revenge on the immortal, even if it means killing Rin.

Miike is a visual stylist who has the poetry of violence that Scorsese utilizes. He is artful with his gore and mayhem; the fights carefully choreographed to be almost ballets of carnage. Severed limbs fly through the air in graceful parabolas while jets of blood fountain from fatal wounds but this is no Grand Guignol. It’s most definitely Art.

This director is definitely an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. He has a connection with Japan’s collective id and knows how to tap into it so that even audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture can relate although it’s much easier if you’re at least conversant with Japanese cultural norms. He also, like Scorsese, is superb at shot composition and knows how to frame the action, often with the most bucolic and idyllic of backgrounds.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this; at more than two hours there are plot points that go nowhere and characters leap into the story wildly from nowhere, careen about the plot a bit like a pachinko machine and disappear, never to be seen again. I’m not one for saying that a master should be edited but this could have used some brevity. Also, Sugisaki just about always shrieks her lines; I get that there are some cultural differences between what is acceptable acting practices between the States and Japan but godamighty she gets annoying very fast and she’s in most of the scenes.

This isn’t for the faint of heart nor should it be. As I say, Miike is an acquired taste and like sushi, there are plenty of those who will resist acquiring it. Those who can appreciate the delicate tastes and textures of sushi can enjoy it as a favored dish the rest of their lives; so too those cinephiles who appreciate the different and the unique will discover Miike and be able to enjoy his work for the rest of their lives.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are intense and satisfying. Miike is a master of shot composition and utilizes some beautiful cinematography. The costumes are magnificent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie runs a little too long. Sugisaki is nearly unwatchable as Rin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Miike’s 100th film in a 22 year career…he has since filmed three more (and counting).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Assassins
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coco

Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible

Rashomon


Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

(1950) Drama (RKO) Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Kato. Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the grand masters of cinema and the greatest director to come out of Japan ever, possibly from all of Asia as well. Rashomon is one of his masterpieces, a movie that is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

It is based on two short stories; one, the titular Rashomon is used as a framing device; a priest (Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Shimura) are taking shelter in the half-ruined Rashomon Gate during a deluge of a rainstorm. A commoner (Ueda) joins them. The first two are feeling a little depressed and mystified after witnessing a trial earlier that day. The commoner asks them to explain what is bothering them.

The second short story, In the Grove (both were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by the way) depicts a nobleman (Mori) and his wife (Kyo) set upon by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) who lures the nobleman into a trap with the promise of swords he’d discovered, surprising him and tying him up. He then lures the wife to the same grove by telling her that her husband has fallen ill. Once he has her there, he rapes her in front of her husband.

That’s when things get interesting. All we know is that the husband gets murdered but during the course of the trial, the story changes significantly depending on whose telling it. The bandit, who proudly proclaims that he did the nefarious deed, has a reputation as a fearsome killer to uphold. The wife, shamed by her actions but even more so by her husband’s reaction to her dishonor, claims she did it. The husband, speaking through a medium (Honma) has his own version which makes him look truly victimized. And there is a surprise witness at the end who has a completely different story, albeit one possibly tainted by their own self-interest.

This is a story about the human condition and asks the basic question asked by philosophers and theologians from the beginning of time – is man basically good or intrinsically evil? Kurosawa uses an ingenious method of storytelling in order to explore the question and refuses to spoon-feed the audience a definitive answer. You are left to decode the truth for yourself.

The acting is over-the-top in places and is definitely more in the Eastern tradition. Mifune stands out as the arrogant bandit who becomes inflamed by desire for the beautiful young noblewoman. Mifune, one of the most respected actors to ever come out of Japan, was better known for his samurai persona in films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai as well as the American television mini-series Shogun but most experts agree that this is one of his most compelling performances. Mifune modeled the body language and movements of Tajomaru on that of lions, footage of which he studied intently before taking on the part.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer for the film, developed with Kurosawa several lighting techniques that made the forest look incredible with diffused lighting through the trees as well as the pouring rain which was made more visible by adding black ink to the water in the rain machine.

Kurosawa also used different styles of filmmaking for the three distinct portions of the film. For the framing narrative at Rashomon Gate, it’s fairly standard straight-on camera angles. For the trial sequences, the camera is set low, looking up at the actors. For the grove sequences, the camera is often high, looking down on the action and turning the audience into observers.

This is one of my mother’s favorites and one of mine as well. It is a movie that bears up under repeated viewings – it is so rich in detail and so amazingly layered and full of depth that you are constantly discovering new things each time you see it. Rashomon has appeared on a number of best lists, including 22nd on Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema of all time and has influenced directors from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Simply put, it is an amazing achievement that everybody who considers themselves a film buff or even a casual film junkie should see at least once, if not more often.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the great classics of cinema. Is the kind of movie you’ll be thinking about for days after seeing it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You don’t like foreign movies or you don’t like movies period.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes may be a little bit more than the youngsters can handle. There is also a depiction of a rape and a murder.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is often cited as the reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. The category didn’t exist when Rashomon was released so the film was given an honorary award instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The recently released Criterion Collection includes interviews with director Robert Altman on the influence of Kurosawa on his own films as well as with surviving members of the cast and crew talking about the film and it’s impact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outrage (1964)

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Looking for Palladin

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Last Samurai


The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise teaches modern warfare tactics to the Scientologists.

(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