This is a movie where the conversations are as important as the battles.

The Last Samurai is an underrated movie. I know that it isn’t exactly maligned but I do think that people, especially film geeks, have some rather unfair perceptions about it that keep it from being considered the pretty fucking good movie that it is. I mean, it’s no Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut but it rates a lot higher than the superficially similar movies that appeared around the same time. It is head and shoulders above the likes of Troy or King Arthur, for example, and I actually like Troy.

It’s unusual for me to review a movie that isn’t new, on Netflix, or something I just saw for the first time. I’ve seen The Last Samurai like a dozen times, have owned it on DVD since like 2004, and so on. I love it and that’s fine and dandy, but beneath my subjective affection is a level of critical regard that I believe provides me with some communicable reasons to defend this movie against the specific critiques I don’t think fairly apply. I may do other reviews like this in the future (Troy might deserve one!), or just get around to eventually reviewing movies that I have watched a bunch of times but never ever wrote about. Writing about movies is fun and I suspect that writing about The Last Samurai will be as fun for me as it is annoying/educational for you to read!

No one would have expected Tom Cruise to pull this movie off. And while some people think he didn’t anyway, they are wrongful.

First let’s talk about the world’s most infamous Scientologist. I’m pretty sure this movie came out before everybody decided he was nuts. That said, I doubt that most people would readily imagine the guy in a role like this. Even if they did, I think the expectation would have been far different from the surly, alcoholic, and blisteringly fierce character Cruise creates here. Nathan Algren is one of his best characters, abandoning all the smarmy teeth and manic energy. Cruise shows a different, more internal intensity that is shared by his assassin Vincent in Collateral. Unlike Vincent, Algren is not very chatty. He’s a man of action, wracked with inner turmoil and searching for meaning. This role let’s us in on Cruise’s ability to go introspective, subtle, and dark. It’s interesting to me that all his best roles have fairly significant existential subtext (Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky, etc).

Of course, people often superimpose their expectations onto their experiences and the same is true here.  I think a lot of people fail to be impressed or at least affirmed by Cruise’s chops in The Last Samurai and that’s really too bad.

Algren’s journey is one toward meaning and a kind of inner peace. They aren’t trying to be subtle about this, but it flies in the face of claims that this is just about a white guy saving non-white guys.

Of course, he isn’t helped by the popular notion that his character is the titular last samurai. In fact, the title is meant to refer to all the samurai in the film. The word is the same whether singular or plural. The marketing materials, showing armor-clad Cruise under the big bold words “The Last Samurai” don’t help, but this is just marketing reality. You have to use the big name to sell the movie.  A cursory search will also show that there are a great deal of character posters and all of them except Cruise’s show the Japanese cast. The people who made this movie were not trying to make this the Tom Cruise Show Feat. Japan and my further comments will go some way toward demonstrating that point.

I’ve often thought of it more specifically as being about Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe in his first American, English-speaking role). Either way, while the film does give Algren a pretty high degree of influence and White Savior type of shit, he is not really the focus of the film but rather the audience’s gateway into the insular and unfamiliar setting, people, and ideas that populate it. Algren is also a creation that pays respectful homage to Kevin Costner’s Dunbar in Dances With Wolves in particular and the overall themes and plot of that movie in general. They aren’t the same guy, or movie, by any stretch, but close enough to see the intent.

Some people dismiss the movie exactly because of the White Savior thing. Ed Zwick, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, is sort of known for movies where a white guy gets plopped amidst peoples from other countries (and of other colours) and gets caught up in whatever struggle. He made both Blood Diamond and Glory (which I haven’t seen). I don’t think Zwick or his writers mean to imply that it takes a white guy to “save the helpless orientals” (or blacks or whoever). I think that is an oversimplified reading that derives more from the commentator’s personal (overly politically-correct) sentiments than from anything The Last Samurai is trying to say. In fact, it’s a movie that is fairly critical of American and, by extension, Western policies toward both their own aboriginal populations and the “primitive” cultures they encountered during their imperialist phases.

The film flat out tells the story of a Westerner who has something to learn from a different culture, not the other way around. This is not cultural bigotry but derived from an impulse to be inclusive and embracing of the good, wherever you find it.

Indeed, anyone who knows anything about Japan knows that they were not helpless primitives at any point of Western contact.

In the movie, America is poised to be the exclusive arms dealer for Japan and Algren is brought along to train soldiers to stop the rebellion of samurai, led by Katsumoto, who are resisting the modernization of their deeply, rigorously traditional society. If some of that sounds familiar it’s because American companies do sell arms to troubled regions around the world. I’m not sure I’d say The Last Samurai is being exactly topical, but it was released into the climate of the Middle-East invasions and is a precursor to the reflexive self-loathing and “anti-American” sentiment that surrounded much of the years since the invasion of Iraq and still registers significantly today.

Algren himself is a haunted man, suffering from what is obviously (in modern parlance) post-traumatic stress syndrome. The reason he feels this way is that there was a purposelessness in the slaughter he was asked to perpetrate, something he could recognize beyond the blind resolution to simply follow orders. Algren is a man of deep conscience and the film explores this in a variety of ways. One of which is the love story, which is handled so deftly and against type that it can barely be called such. Taka (beautiful Koyuki) is the wife of a man Algren kills during the battle that leads to his capture. Already that is an extraordinary problem for any kind of romantic subplot. There’s also the complication of Taka’s two children. Some amount of the fatalist philosophy of this period and culture offsets these challenges, but that the movie never asks you to believe more than is fair about the growing attraction between these two is well done. It develops in small ways, especially for Taka, and never rises to the level of abandon or consummation that is more or less stock for just about any movie. Instead, it maintains the reservation, control, and even harmony so highly prized by Japanese tradition as depicted.  The reason why all of this is important for Algren’s development is that his achievement of peace and his affinity for the culture he eventually adopts is personalized in his relationships, not just to Taka and her sons, but to Katsumoto and Ujio, and Nobutada.

The Last Samurai deserves major points for the effort taken to respect Japanese culture rather than falling back on the same old obligatory romance, whatever this picture might suggest. 😛

I figure that’s enough apologia for what I have taken to be the most misguided critiques of The Last Samurai. To talk about all the elements that really work, I shouldn’t need to be very convincing for anyone who’s seen this movie. The first such element is the acting, which I have touched on. Even though Tom Cruise gives a career-best performance here, the movie is stolen by Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. He is a fucking ocean of grace, intelligence, wit, and charm. He can also be ferocious when need be and blankets it all, every emotion and motivation, in effortless control. The crazy thing is that he and Tom Cruise work so well together that you really buy them as friends, they do not feel like America’s big thing and Japan’s big thing thrown together for grins. The work these two actors put in as well as the effort from a directing and writing standpoint might be one of the better examples in showcasing the amount of thought and care that went into this movie.

The rest of the cast are no slouches. Koyuki is excellent, playing a character unfettered by the mood swings and jarring melodrama so prevalent in Japanese films (and especially their women). She embodies poise and dignity, as well as ridiculous beauty. She has to be one of the most beautiful women on the planet, for my money. Then there’s Hiroyuki Saneda who you may have seen in Sunshine or Speed Racer or Lost. He is a high-profile Japanese actor who the press have compared to Tom Cruise in terms of fame in his own country. Here he channels Toshiro Mifune as Ujio, a consummate badass and the best swordsman out of Katsumoto’s close retainers. Ujio is that character that has a tense relationship with Algren, who would rather kill him than learn about him. At least at first.  Hiroyuki  Saneda is a great actor in general, and here a crowd-pleaser in whom most of the more visceral and violent traits of samurai are infused.

This is my favorite promotional image from the film. Although it isn’t strictly a screenshot, it’s too great not to include.

Ujio and Algren’s friendship develops out of mutual respect, grudging on Ujio’s end, of each others’ martial skill. It is a nice mirror to Algren and Katusomoto since those two bond over ideology and existential inquiry (see: cherry blossom scene). Of course, Algren does save Katsumoto from a bunch of fucking ninjas, which has to help. Among the samurai, Algren also befriends Katsumoto’s son, who is less stolid than the others in his youth. Nobutada is a minor character, but one that is immediately likable and most obviously positive toward Algren.

On the gai-jin side of things, there’s Timothy Spall being his reliable jovial self and Billy Connolly in a small role as an Irish-American soldier who has worked with Algren before. Both actors bring in a sense of globalism, as do the several extras who play foreign emissaries interested in the development of a modern Japan. Spall plays British translator Graham with childlike affability and hobbyish interest in Japanese culture. He seems, to me, to represent the clueless Western fetishist, who glosses over the realities of his pet subject in favor of the exotic, exclusive elements he can basically geek out over. I think Graham is both a criticism and an affectionate rendering of the overall Japanophile type (and there is this type, definitely… I used to be one!).

On the villainous end is Tony Goldwyn, who is actually a bit stiff as Col. Bagley, Algren’s former commanding officer who he hates fiercely for his role in the atrocities they committed against aboriginal tribes during the Indian Wars. Then there’s Omura (Masata Haruda) who is a slimy bastard and part and parcel with the film’s politics. Omura is Japan’s premiere tycoon and entrepreneur, his fingers so deep in every aspect of Japan’s modernization that he wields immense power and influence by the end of the film. Omura is the real villain, but he is also a representative of the forces of economism and imperialistic “progress” that this film is critical of.

The aforementioned ninja-fight. The whole sequence is pretty great.

One of the big draws for movies like this is the battling. The Last Samurai doesn’t disappoint, either. All of its battle scenes are expertly shot and choreographed. They scale interestingly too, beginning and ending with big battles involving hundreds of extras, special effects, and rife with the award-winning costume designs (which are awesome). These battles are really the bookends of the story, showing first the semi-superstitious awe invoked by the prowess of the samurai and then finally their inevitable inferiority to impersonal weapons technology. When those horses ride into that wall of machine-gun fire, it’s obvious that the age of the samurai is over. The smaller fights, particularly the solo battle Algren faces against a group of thugs hired by Omura, showcase the swordplay and Japanese martial arts in a much more intimate way, benefiting from the contrast with bigger battles which, aside from cosmetics and a few tactics, play out similarly to how such big battles usually do. It’s not that they aren’t excellent, they simply aren’t as singular.

Buncha hooligans!

One of the other draws for movies like this is the historicity. I don’t say history because, though you always have people harping about inaccuracies, The Last Samurai is even more a work of fiction than any given history. It’s based on a real guy who led a real rebellion and Nathan Algren is based most likely on a few Westerners who were immersed in Japanese culture prior to modernization. Other than that, it isn’t event-accurate and probably not as culturally accurate as it is culturally romantic. What I mean is, as it’s sometimes criticized for, The Last Samurai portrays samurai and other elements of traditional Japanese culture in a romantic light. That isn’t to say there isn’t a romance there, because there is and as even Omura says, there is much that appeals. Given the specific story that this movie wants to tell, it isn’t really a problem that it isn’t a full expose on the good and bad of samurai culture. The movie isn’t remotely about that, after all.

Know what else has appeal? Those fucking helmets.

Hans Zimmer delivers yet another great score here too. The main theme, can’t remember what it’s called, is particularly rousing. The sound design is excellent though it’s a bit weird to hear the trademark cinematic “shinnnng” sword sound being made by steel sliding out of wooden scabbards. It doesn’t bother me in “European” flavored historical epics for whatever reason, but I’ve seen a lot of samurai movies and it remains a nitpick about The Last Samurai. On the flipside, they managed to create a pretty unique sound effect for arrows, especially during the rescue scene at Katsumoto’s Tokyo estate.

There are a few jarring bad lines, some instances of weird condescension from Algren to Katsumoto that are confusing, and certainly a tendency to overdo Algren’s eventual role in the samurai war effort. He becomes a sort of general, using his expertise on Western-style warfare to mitigate his side’s disadvantage. This makes sense and is not a problem, but Katsumoto presenting Algren with an inscribed sword definitely is. It’s just a bit much and I can see people who have jived with the movie to that point suddenly rolling their eyes. I still roll mine. The moment is meant to be triumphant, some kind of formal declaration that Algren is a samurai as much as they are, but it comes off like the reigns are being handed over and Algren is being given pride of place. This may be earned by the character through his experience and deeds, but it’s too much in this movie and counteracts some of the sensitivity and care that in turn counteract the general claim of white superiority supposedly present.

In addition to those issues, there is also an unfortunate tendency to underline the fidelity the movie has to its value themes. The values the movie is espousing include honor, self-sacrifice, and tradition. This is fine and well, but not the source of the depth this movie does have which I think is quite overlooked. In fact, a lot of the time the value themes are on-the-nose, particularly in the opening and closing voice-over. The depth, which I have already spent a significant amount of time discussing, is more to be found in the existential themes. The politics aren’t particularly deep, but Algren’s characterization is. As is the film’s complex exploration of the redemption offered by creating bonds with people, even unlikely ones.

This type of movie is rarely done better than The Last Samurai. It deserves to be appreciated.

So does Ken Watanabe. And his headgear. Oh yes.