The Last Samurai
Copyright © 2003 by
(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.