The Last Samurai
review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 5 December 2003
by a sword
say Japan was made by a sword." The "they" who say
this are not identified in Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai,
but this initial voiceover conjures -- briefly -- a certain gravity.
This will be a film about violence and legend, about national origin
and mythic history. The camera sweeps over mountainsides and
meditating men, warriors weighted with a sense of mission and fate.
The film cuts to Tom Cruise, and now you know: this is no splendid
saga of a people or a culture. It's a star vehicle, straight up.
a grand vehicle, to be sure, with horses, martial arts, and vast
armies, not to mention Cruise's shiny shoulder-length hair flowing
just right, in snow or mud as well as in wind. As Civil War veteran
Captain Nathan Algren, he's introduced in 1876, depressed and drunk,
literally a sideshow act selling Winchester rifles and raging at
atrocities he was ordered to commit, in particular under the command
of one General Custer.
last memory -- which trauma recurs in various slow motion images,
and leads Nathan to describe the General as "a murderer who
fell in love with his own legend" -- grants Nathan a semblance
of self-righteousness, underscored when you meet his former
commanding officer, the aptly named Colonel Bagley (typecast Tony
Goldwyn). Chillingly mercenary and not a little smug, Bagley shows
up with Nathan's friend, the bighearted Sgt. Zubulah Grant (Billy
Connolly), with an offer of seeming redemption. The new gig entails
training soldiers for Japan's anxious Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke
Nakamura), besieged by rebel samurai warriors (still endeavoring to
serve the Emperor, they are hard put to understand his decision to
demolish them). Nathan is skeptical but also desperate, and so he
agrees to teach this newly conscript army to shoot Winchesters (this
contracting is supported by the U.S. government).
Bagley makes a crucially bad decision when he sends forth the troops
when Nathan says (and quite ably demonstrates) they're not ready.
Following a bloody battle with the samurais (during which Bagley
characteristically retreats to the rear), Nathan fights valiantly,
killing a Warrior in Red Armor before he is wounded and taken
prisoner by the unspeakably charismatic samurai warlord Katsumoto
(Ken Watanabe, who would steal this film completely if not for its
incessant worship at the shrine of Cruiseness).
Katsumoto has been dismissed as "another tribal leader,"
Nathan is soon convinced otherwise. Carted back to Katsumoto's
mountain village, Nathan is subjected to a Dances With Wolves-ish
recuperation and reeducation, nursed back to health by the widow of
the Red Armored fellow. Taka (Koyoki) is visibly unhappy about this
arrangement (in fact, she spends most of her onscreen time in tears,
her flawless face framed in tender close-ups), but does her duty as
assigned by Katsumoto. Nathan, being the crass American, is slow to
realize the precise nature of the pain he's inflicting by his very
existence, and remains determined to demonstrate his manly fortitude
under the most trivial of circumstances.
he's not eating meals with the widow and learning Japanese from her
adorable young children, Nathan finds himself led about the village
by an elderly guide he nicknames "Bob" and mocks
mercilessly ("You're angry because they make you wear a
dress"). "I continue to live among these unusual
people," he writes in his diary (and speaks in helpful
voiceover). "I'm treated with a kind of benign
negligence." At the same time, thanks to a series of
"conversations" with the conveniently English-speaking
Katsumoto, Nathan gradually comes to revere Bushido, the Way of the
Warrior, especially as it's not so foreign to his own way of
honorable man's thinking.
by his hosts' discipline and perfectionism, as well as their
hand-to-hand combat skills, Nathan trains to fight like a samurai:
here, his epiphany comes (ironically, considering who's playing the
part) when he learns not to perform for an audience.
"Too many mind," observes a teacher. He needs to stop
minding, stop thinking, only to serve, to feel. Eventually, he's so
sharp that he comes to the defense of Katsumoto when the Emperor
sends deadly ninjas to attack him in his village.
Nathan must eventually come to terms with his part in the serial
decimation of ancient ways of life, he must also return to his
"people" (and those who originally hired him) back in
Tokyo. But as he finally recognizes the absolute destructive power
of "modern" U.S. industry, weaponry, and international
contracting, Nathan is also the means for the film to undermine its
own carefully constructed respect for this very traditional culture.
not only decides to throw in with Katsumoto against the unscrupulous
Japanese general and Bagley, he also reminds Katsumoto of his own
vital values and time-honored codes. Seppuku is not helpful here;
stand and fight, urges Nathan, even if it's only another form of
ritual suicide. That the white man becomes the most ferocious,
respected, and committed Samurai in sight is odd, and not a little
inevitable climactic battle scenes (which seem a long time coming,
since the film, so unsubtle, moves glacially) incorporate images and
ideas familiar from director Zwick's other march-into-certain-death
war movie, Glory. The valiant Samurais follow respected
rituals and even engage some cunning subterfuge, but are no match
for mechanical weapons, big guns wheeled in and aimed directly into
their ranks. The sheer scope of the brutality surely indicts the
West and Bagley as its representative, as well as the Japanese
officers who purchase such power rather than earn their men's
respect or enter into battle alongside them.
politics are simplistic in the way that Dances With Wolves
was simplistic -- greedy men are bad, no matter what race or nation
claims them. But The Last Samurai's veneration of old-school
principles is just as surely undercut by its lack of nerve, namely,
its use of Nathan as that most familiar icon, the grandly galloping
hero, hair flying.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult