Sunday, April 28, 2013
LAST SAMURAI, THE
(December 2003, U.S.)
Well, here I go again...a Tom Cruise movie...a guilty pleasure...you've heard it all before. This time he stars in an epic drama that matches the plotline concept of DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) with just about every samurai film of the legendary Akira Kurosawa you've likely ever seen before. There's no denying, though, that director Edward Zwick (GLORY, LEGEND OF THE FALL) gives us some intense drama mixed with some real spectacualr action sequences.
Cruise portrays American Captain Nathan Algren, whose personal and emotional conflicts from having served in the massacre of Native Americans in the Indian Wars brings him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in 19th Century Japan. The film's plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and on the westernization of Japan by colonial powers, though this is largely attributed to the United States in this film for the purpose of American audiences who very likely wouldn't be interested in it from any other point of view. It's also based on the stories of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War and Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped Westernize the Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army. In other words, we have many different points of world history mixed together for the sole purpose of a great Tom Cruise film to give it that right amount of Hollywood fun! I suppose I can't complain about that because it IS fun to watch! Captured during a bloody massacre and taken to a samurai village, Algren is treated by beautiful widow Taka and recovers from his trauma and injuries. He begins conversations with village leader Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) and also begins a study of swordsmanship, dicipline and deep spirituality under the samurai code and tradition. Growing closer to Taka and her children, he later helps defend the village from a night attack by ninja sent by the less-than-scrupulous businessman Mr. Omura (played by (Masato Harada) to assassinate Katsumoto. As mentioned above, like DANCES WITH WOLVES, Nathan slowly begins to side with the community that the Americans and Japanese have come to see as the enemy and will eventually go to battle against his own American people. Hell, the man even keeps a preciously-detailed journal just like Kevin Costner's character.
More than Cruise himself, the character of Katsumoto is quite complex. As a a warrior-poet who was once the great Emperor's most-trusted teacher, he's very displeased with Mr. Omura's bureaucratic reform policies of Japan, which leads him into organizing a revolt against the Imperial Army. The conflict between modern western influences and technologies, particularly those of lethal weaponry, and keeping with the honored traditions of Japan's ancestors is very clear. Regardless of who's right and who's wrong, it's almost tragic to watch soldiers of both sides, who are at heart good men, slaughter each other in battle. However, we expect to enjoy spectacualr scenes of battle and it's only natural that our hearts and minds side with those of honor and tradition, and of course, Tom Cruise!
THE LAST SAMURAI is beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with true conviction and a genuinely-thoughtful epic. It's also a film that's a vast improvement over previous American attempts to portray Japan and her history. The director has clearly researched Japanese history, cast well-known Japanese actors and consulted dialogue coaches to make sure he hasn't confused the casual and formal categories of Japanese speech. The portrayals of the samurai can be accused of being idealistic and storybook-like and it's impossible to know without great research on my part whether or not that portrayel is truly accurate. Other films, even those of Kurosawa, portrayed the samurai as selfish and corrupt. History knows the real truth, but when you're watching an epic film of performance and thrilling action, absolute historical accuracy can feel free to bend itself a little bit.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Nathan lgren: "This is Katsumoto's sword. He would have wanted you to have it. He hoped with his dying breath that you would remember his ancestors who held this sword, and what they died for. May the strength of the Samurai be with you always."