The Last Samurai

Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a disillusioned army captain, who signs a contract to go to Japan to train the army of Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura) to defend against Samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who’s living in the hills with his band. Algren feels guilty about his part in a dastardly Indian attack as a part of General Custer’s army, hates Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), who was his superior officer in the attack and who accompanies him to Japan, and has a death wish. The death wish comes in handy for Algren when he goes to Japan, however, because, as a result of his fatalistic outlook, he fights fearlessly. When a man doesn’t care about life, what’s to lose?

Japan is in the throes of the clash of a society that’s coming out of a long period of isolation, mired in a medieval mindset, trying to westernize, a period that has come to be known as the Meiji Restoration. Thrust into this volatile environment, with the Japanese government fighting to modernize and the samurai fighting for survival, Algren is fighting to save his soul. When he meets his enemy by contract, Katsumoto, a man of rigid values and non-negotiable standards, Algren is given the fuel with which to determine his destiny.

Although the film expertly shows of how Algren is affected by Katsumoto, it clearly takes the side of the samurai against the Meiji Restoration. The big losers in the Meiji Restoration were the samurai, who lost virtually all their power and influence. To understand the dominance of the samurai, at one time only samurai could own a sword.

Telling the story of the Meiji Restoration by zeroing in on two opponents like Algren and Katsumoto, the film is interesting, even though it’s 2-1/2 hours long and spoiled by some silly Hollywood scenes.  Like one where the samurai, armed only with bows and arrows, are fighting soldiers, armed with rifles. Straining our credulity, despite this technological inequality the samurai emerge pretty much unscathed while soldiers drop like flies.

Another; for a movie that’s been so meticulously researched, Algren tells a very tall tale to Katsumoto about the battle of Thermopylae where, according to Algren, 600 Greeks held off one million Persians.  One million? There were only 100 million people in the entire world in 480 B.C.  Do you think that one percent of them were in the Persian army attacking Sparta? Actually, the truth is that 300 Spartans held off about 7,000 Persians at Thermopylae. That’s a good enough story that has the added virtue of being almost the exact odds facing Katsumoto’s samurai. Why ruin the credibility of a movie with a really bad fact?

Every time Katsumoto opened his mouth, he sounded like Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956). But Yul was playing a king of Siam, not a Japanese. Either Yul had it wrong or Watanabe does. Since Watanabe is, after all, Japanese, it must have been Yul. In any event, Watanabe’s Yul Brynner similarity didn’t fit in with his character as far as I was concerned. I kept expecting him to break out into a chorus of “Shall We Dance?”

These are relatively minor complaints, but when authenticity is important, they are points that detracted from the film for me.  Despite these faults, the story is good, the battle scenes realistic, and this is Cruise’s best performance to date.

 December 3, 2003

 The End