The quiet of an early morning forest is broken by the clatter of troops, hurrying to form firing lines and fix bayonettes. They have superior numbers and more advanced weaponry, yet, to a man, they are terrified. And with good reason, for out of the mist rides the very embodiment of elegant power. The samurai, cloaked in fog and ancient armor are beautiful and terrifying. It is no surprise, therefore, when the greater force begin to drop their guns and scatter. If this gorgeously shot, indelible scene were all that The Last Samurai had to offer, it would still be worth the price of admission.
Luckily, there is quite a bit more to the film, an historic epic that succeeds on almost every level. Tom Cruise, playing, essentially an amalgam of Tom Cruise characters you've seen before, is Capt. Nathan Algren, Civil War hero and veteran of the Indian Wars. We first meet Capt. Algren some ten years after the end of the war, he diving to the bottom of a bottle while shilling for Remington rifles. It seems that Algren feels he is somewhat less heroic than he is made out to be, a fact brought home be frequent flashbacks of an Indian massacre he participated in. When the opportunity arises to go to Japan and help modernize their army, Algren accepts with an air of cynical indifference. It is soon revealed, however, that it is exactly his experience with the American Indians that has marked him for service to the Japanese Empire. They too, are attempting to put down uprisings, though of a somewhat different nature. Though filled with misgivings, Algren agrees to lead the newly armed Japanese army into battle with the insurgents, holdout Samurai warriors who feel the rapid modernization of their country will destroy their culture and leave them at the mercy of the greed of more advanced nations. It is in this beautiful and terrible battle that Algren first meets and understands his enemy, eventually becoming their captive. It is here that the movie hits it's stride, as Algren spends a long winter examining his life through the eyes of this vastly different culture, to the point of refuting everything he's ever known for an elusive, purer ideal.
The Last Samurai, as directed by Edward Zwick, strives to make a connection between the plight of the American Indian, and that of the Samurai. Algren uses this idea to gain sympathy for the Samurai, and eventually join their cause. In the end, however, the correlation isn't really accurate, and is unnecessary. Though it isn't really to the detriment of the film, the attempt to make this connection feels forced at times. It is certainly true that both groups saw their beliefs and their way of life obliterated, but the real culprit is the encroachment of the modern world, a theme that should have taken precedence. The Samurai were much more politically involved in their downfall, at least according to the film, than the American Indian, and was not quite as much a victim. Slight criticism aside, Samurai raises some interesting questions about the international world's role in the modernization of Japan, a country that remained strictly isolated for much of it's long history.
While it is not apparent that Samurai is based on fact, it is not unlikely that an American soldier might have been of assistance to Japan at this time. It is also certainly true that the Empire of Japan experienced the same growing pains as the rest of the world did, moving into the Industrial Age. More than an attempt at historical accuracy however, the film is the story of a man trying to find peace within himself, and absolution for his sins, themes addressed in at least two of Zwick's other films, the equally beautiful, and ultimately superior Glory and Legends of the Fall. Samurai holds it's own in the fields of production design, acting, and action, but hasn't the emotion of either of the aforementioned films. It does have, however, an excellent supporting cast, especially in the persons of Ken Watanabe, as the noble Samurai leader Katsumoto, and his right hand man, Ujio, played with bitter intensity by Hiroyuki Sanada. Watanabe, especially, is a standout and gives the role of the Samurai the respect it deserves without creating a caricature.
The Last Samurai is beautiful and exciting, and lands just this side of heartbreaking. Though the Samurai are tragic heroes, the very intricate detail of the production design, the powerful familiarity of Cruise's performance, all come together to make this feel like a Hollywood epic, and thus just a little removed from real life. This, however, will be the last thing on your mind as your heart pounds watching those incredible warriors emerge from the fog to thunder down upon their enemies, beautiful and brave to the Last. Grade: A-
The Last Samurai is rated R for graphic battle scenes.
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