Release Date: December 5, 2003
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Ken
Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shun Sugata, Shin Koyamada, Seizo Fukumoto,
Schichinosuke Nakamura, Koyuki, Masato Harada, Sosuke Ikematsu, Aoi Minato
Genre: Action, Drama
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and battle sequences)
Official Website: LastSamurai.com
Plot Summary: After examining the
ravages of 19th century America in his Academy Award-winning Civil War drama
"Glory", director Edward Zwick explores the birth of modern Japan in
"The Last Samurai," a sweeping epic set in Japan during the 1870s. Tom
Cruise stars as Capt. Nathan Algren, a respected American military officer hired
by the Emperor of Japan to train the country's first army in the art of modern
warfare. As the Emperor attempts to eradicate the ancient Imperial Samurai
warriors in preparation for more Westernized and trade-friendly government
policies, Algren finds himself unexpectedly impressed and influenced by his
encounters with the Samurai, which places him at the center of a struggle
between two eras and two worlds, with only his own sense of honor to guide him.
Review by Peter Veugelaers © 2004
- Take a
pot shot but be warned.
The American Government, as with any government, should be
made to look at itself through a cinematic lens. Whether it has any impact is
another story; the point has at least been raised in the public arena.
The Last Samurai is a confrontational film; in this
case the American Government is targeted for their so-called profit motive in
interfering with the interests and business of other countries.
Whether we disagree or not with what the American Government
is doing today or in the past, the style of Samurai’s political point
is bold and brave. Samurai is serious, like those who voiced their
vehement opposition to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq last year - these kinds of
films are the meat of American cinema although the execution is potentially
off-putting and unremarkable.
Satire does a similar job in challenging the status quo, but
because of the flippant humour in satire the message might not be as powerful as
something like this. Samurai is assertive – when the central character puts
down Colonel Custard it’s bold, and sticks in the memory because the idea
behind the comment is relevant today. Custard got proud, which is what America
Set during the 1870s, a military adviser called Nathan Algren,
played by Tom Cruise, is assigned to train Japanese soldiers under Emperor Meiji
who is negotiating with American interests in the modernisation of Japan into
Western technology. The soldiers will fight against a rebellious faction – a
village of samurai intent in keeping with tradition – and when they do
conflict Nathan is taken hostage during his men’s defeat. Nathan immerses
himself in samurai culture and may find his purpose in life there, and so when
its time to confront the army he once fought for, his sympathies lie in a
For an historical action movie this is quite sentimental in
that it moves along in a tone of gentle reverence and curiosity for Japanese
life, depicting them without blemish and negation, and is reserved towards the
This is not a homage to those historical epics of recent time
although Samurai seems like a smorgasbord of good films rolled into one.
It fuses elements from epics of the last fifteen years, such as Dances with
Wolves - the American soldier assimilates into another culture where he is
on a journey of enlightenment; Glory - vast and well mounted, with
striking cinematography and production design, set among the times of the Civil
War; Saving Private Ryan - the code of honor in battle, the tradition of
the samurai warriors, is an ethic that is reminiscent in principle of how the
D-Day soldiers were regarded as heroes in Steven Spielberg’s homage (without
the American patriotism); Braveheart - the unflappable heart of the hero
fighting for a cause; and, Seven Years in Tibet - eastern spirituality is
encountered by an American. The result in The Last Samurai is mostly
unremarkable all the same.
Most of the aforementioned films worked because of their
compelling and convincing drama. Samurai flows through the clichés in
almost every scene. Like when Nathan has a personal vendetta against his Colonel
and wishes he could kill him. The Colonel (Tony Goldwyn) is thinly sketched as
villainous – a gung-ho American headstrong patriot who is more caricature than
character - because he murdered innocent red Indians during warfare, a rather
manipulative development because of its brevity and skimming over the
complexities of character motivation.
Or when Nathan, rather wisely, so it is depicted, has
foresight into the lack of readiness of the platoon he’s heading. Of course,
Nathan is wise enough to know the difference and his superiors don’t. This
mars Nathan’s otherwise interesting characterisation, inflating him as a hero
when put alongside his superiors who are merely cardboard cut-outs.
There are moments of strength, however, but also scenes that
strain hard to squeeze significance out of them and you’re left with film
making that is formalised and overly deliberate. It’s as if the filmmaker is
in the excruciating labour of giving birth to this wonderful creation he has in
mind and you get a still birth.
The experience of Samurai is not moving, either. The
few, but long, violent samurai battle scenes are not only unwatchable for their
violence but are rudimentary, nothing to write home about in a cinematic age of
bigger action and special effects and better stunts. There are several set-ups
for audiences to get a lump in the throat – like the conclusion of Nathan and
Katsumoto’s (an impressive Ken Watanabe) relationship – but I was only
touched by the films’ finality, feeling empathy for Nathan.
He’s a man disillusioned with the American dream, a John
Dunbar from Dances with Wolves, described by himself in voice-over as
beset by the ironies in his life. His voice-over provides a telling glimpse into
his mind, and his journey into Japanese culture is a point of connection away
from the battle fields of American soil. His restlessness is evident, his search
for that elusive catharsis, maybe redemption, unvoiced but dormant. This is the
strongest part in the film, played like the star Tom Cruise but also
transcending it. The breaking down of walls between him and Katsumoto, and the
sensitively handled developing reconciliation with the wife of a samurai he
killed, are also solid portraits.
In spite of the pretence that paints a biased picture
historically and ideologically, there are several, what we could call,
transformative moments, moments that when reflected on can potentially be
life-enhancers that transcend cultures because of their universal applicability.
Samurai is anti-war, anti-aggression, and pro-inner and community peace,
and the samurai’s are portrayed as defenders more than aggressors. The
anti-war sentiment in film is always unrealistic yet hopeful about humans to
resolve conflicts diplomatically because everyone shares the same basic
humanity. The final scene of Samurai, the attempted on going
reconciliation between victim and offender (Nathan), and the climax, evoke
strong images of humanity’s deepest aspirations.