The Last Samurai (2003)

last-samuraiThis elegant love letter to the samurai and to the old world Japanese culture takes place in the late 1800’s, the civil war era, an ex-confederate soldier Captain Nathan Algren, a drunken has been is tortured by his past after being forced to slaughter an Indian village during Custer’s last stand is now a has been who advertises guns for the Winchester company until he’s approached by friend Zebulon Grant played very poignantly by Billy Connolly who makes an offer to Algren to re-claim his respect as a soldier and take a job from the Japanese government to modernize their army to fight against the rebels, an army of Samurai’s, a dying breed from the old world, who are being led by a mysterious leader known as Katsumoto.

The training for the army is rushed and Aldren and his cavalry are basically ambushed upon first contact with the Samurai army. Aldren is ambushed by a group of Samurai and manages to fight them off pretty well but is nonetheless knocked out cold, and taken prisoner in Katsumoto’s son Nabutada’s village. He is greeted with less than welcome graces by everyone, but as he becomes more and more exposed to the beautiful culture he soon learns the way of the samurai and soon must choose sides between his love for the Samurai culture and his allegiances with the United States. Two names came to mind when I finished watching this beautiful film: David Lean and Akira Kurosawa. What relevance do they have to this film? Easy. Director Edward Zwick whose previous film credits include the acclaimed and praised “Glory” creates a magnificent work of art on a grand scale, much of what director David Lean specialized in with films like “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and the epic with a very similar storyline “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Zwick mimics Lean’s directing style but not to where it’s obvious. I was in awe while viewing this masterpiece; there were so many aspects of this film that kept me engrossed and wide-eyed it was hard to watch it all end. Zwick creates an incredible piece of art that showcases the Japanese countryside and beautifully re-creates 19th century Japan without flaunting the visuals and using computers but presents the lush beauty of the terrain and vistas with the help of skillful cinematography by John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) and the two create an immaculate living painting. He also succeeds in creating some truly incredible epic and exciting battles. Then there’s Akira Kurosawa. Any movie buff within their right hears his name and instantly there’s a shudder of awe. Akira Kurosawa was a pioneer of filmmaking who created and directed such film classics as “Seven Samurai”, and “Hidden Fortress” (just to name a few), and Zwick manages to create a love letter and a magnificent homage to the innovative director by paying tribute to the art of the samurai, a dying art that intertwines with the tale of one man’s redemption.

After being nominated with four Academy awards, it’s no wonder why “The Last Samurai” should be on top as a contemporary classic film. With beautifully choreographed battles, solid acting, and echoes of Kurosawa’s storytelling, “The Last Samurai” tells the tale of the evolution of cultures and the clashing of two. The Samurai represent the rapidly deteriorating old world culture of Japan that is dying out with the modernization of the Japanese cultures who become increasingly adapted to firearms and less towards swords and armor. The Samurai are struggling to stay alive and do through warriors who still live by the code of the Bushido, but then there’s the evolving state of the culture, and the struggle for the old-fashioned thinkers to keep their heritage alive. Algren, a character whose seen many battles witnesses both but falls in love with one. Zwick and screenwriter John Logan manage to make the Samurai culture very appealing and very fascinating with glimpses into their lifestyle, their training and brutal scenes of their strategies in battle.

Zwick creates a romantic and exciting view into the Samurai as Algren slowly falls in love with the code of honor and attempts to find some redemption in his past sins. With the stunning view into the ancient world of the Bushido there are also an array of truly incredible performances, especially from that of the dominantly Japanese cast of actors who all give great performances. First off, Tom Cruise, who spent a number of years training for the film, gives an intense and solid performance as the conflicted Algren who can’t help but grow fond of the Samurai. I’ve never been much of a fan of Cruise and his choice of films, but a spade is a spade and Cruise is very likable and powerful as the reluctant confederate hero who finds himself in the middle of a civil war between the old and new ways of the Japanese. He struggles to keep his allegiances to both parties of his homeland and Japan despite his conversion into the Samurai and Cruise lets us root for him and his eventual evolution as a warrior with honor.

Cruise also manages to pull off some very well choreographed and amazing battle scenes including his first encounter with actual ninja warriors who ambush the village, and an amazing sequence featuring a confrontation against assassins in the towns square which serves as a landmark in his character’s turn into the samurai’s way of life. Cruise manages to become outshined by some incredible performances by the Japanese cast including the beautiful and stunning Koyuki as Taka, the silent maiden who cares for her children and must tend to Algren despite the fact he killed her husband. She gives an innocent and humble performance as the beautiful Taka, and there’s also Shin Koyamada who gives a great performance as the son of Katsumoto, the leader of the village and noble warrior who is very devout in the ways of the samurai. Ken Watanabe, a seasoned Japanese actor, who earned himself a supporting Oscar nod, manages to steal most of the film with an incredible supporting performance as the admirable and wise leader of the Samurai Katsumoto who is very rebellious towards the council of Japan and intends on keeping Japan in touch with the ways of the Samurai refusing to give into the modernization.

His scenes and chemistry with Cruise’s character are very powerful and his performance very stoic with mixtures of intensity and humility which make it hard for the audience to focus on Cruise at times. The beautiful script makes for some very philosophical and intriguing storytelling into honor and the search for a place in the world through Algren’s eyes and some very memorable sequences including Algren’s training as a samurai, his first fight as a samurai, his unveiling in his awesome armor, the final exciting tragic battle, and, my favorite, his first confrontation with a real samurai in which he’s beaten to a pulp in the village square; obviously a scene influenced by “Cool Hand Luke”. Then there’s the final war between the old and new armies of Japan which serve as basic symbolism with the final stand of the old culture dying beneath the new culture of modernization of Japan and its army. And with the combination of the excellent direction, the beautiful screenplay, and solid acting by the great cast, it’s hard for the audience not to fall in love with the Samurai culture as well.

I’ve always been intrigued by their way of life, and Zwick gives us a solid and unflinching  glimpse into their methodology and culture by focusing on their ways of honor and battle, thus creating one of the most breathtaking movies of 2003, and pays homage to director Kurosawa with a beautiful ode to the samurai and an epic story. Truly a work of art. “The Last Samurai” is never really what it wants to be, cops out in the end, and presents an ultimately one sided view of a culture. Is it a war epic? A tale of redemption? Romance? A tale of betrayal? A movie about Samurai? What, exactly? It never really verifies what it intends to be, so every aspect of the story feels scattered and mixed upon the canvas Japan.
There is a lot of plot aspects that pull the audience in many directions: the friendship between Katsumoto and Algren, the hinted romance between Taka and Algren, the conflict with Algren’s lives, a lot of it felt so haywire I was never really sure what to make of the true intent the screenwriters wanted to give the audience.

And with that they present a one-sided and rather cruel view where the Samurai are depicted as honorable noble and the modern Japanese characters as despicable sell-outs. True, the modernization of cultures would in fact be a hard aspect to swallow, but it’s presented in such a mean spirit. The emperor is depicted as a coward, his assistant as sadistic and cowardly, the Japanese general as a sell-out, and the Americans as monsters in a sense. I’m not a patriotic American and am never one to preach about America and its values blah, blah, but the Americans in here are shrill, annoying and rather cruel as depicted by the under-used Tony Goldwyn who is a basically one dimensional cliché caricature of a smug and rather mean American general who is at war with Cruises character. We never really get a view of the conflicted Japanese civilians forced to struggle with converting to the new ways or staying with the old ways.

We only get a view into the character played by Cruise who is never really convincing as a Confederate soldier to begin with. His clean and polished look works against him making it rather hard to buy his demeanor and impression as a soldier of the 1800’s. The climax cops out with keeping Cruise’s character alive rather than killing him in the final showdown which would have been much more dramatic, but instead he’s given a final scene along with the cliché send off and the narration of his final days and the fact that no one ever really knew what happened to him. The movie tended to echo too many films including “Braveheart”, “Glory”, “Cool Hand Luke” to the point where none of the aspects of the story and scenes felt authentic, but only derivative of many other films. There was much that felt like hybrids of different films rather than an original product which defeated the purpose of viewing the film. Despite some reservations with the story, nonetheless this is a stunning, incredible, well-written, well acted piece of filmmaking, a lovely homage to the days of Kurosawa and Lean, and one of the best films of 2003.