It is said that the only thing constant is change. Old ideals die off,
new technologies replace the inefficiencies of yesteryear. The young
have little trouble adjusting to change, but traditionalists are often
dragged into the new era either kicking and screaming or silently
to remove themselves completely.
"The Last Samurai" manages to capture a little of both, with Japanese men living in a world in transition from ancient bushido rituals of honor into a more modern empire of industry and trade. A sweeping historical epic that hints at the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa's finest work while also invoking the melancholy of a Shakespearean tragedy, the movie is a reminder of the cost of high ideals and danger of industrial conformity.
It's 1876, and Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is an alcoholic wreck of a man. A veteran of the Civil War as well as General Custer's Indian campaigns, he drifts from one situation to another ostensibly looking for work but really seeking refuge from his inner demons of slaughtering innocent women and children.
Opportunity knocks in the form of an old Army acquaintance Colonel Ben Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), who has accepted work with a Japanese businessman named Omura (Masato Harada). Omura has been charged with recruiting American war vets as military advisors to the new Japanese Army. Emperor Meiji, under advise from Omura and other parties, is interested in modernizing his nation's military with rifles and other armaments.
In order to unify the nation, the powers that be must first take care of civil dissidence within Japan. The samurai, led by charismatic chieftain Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), are violently opposing the invasion of Western culture into their islands. Bagley foolishly sends his ill-trained soldiers into combat against the samurai, and during the resulting massacre Algren is captured and taken to the samurai's village.
During the course of the winter, Algren slowly gains the trust of his captors and in turn is given free roam over the village. He fights with Uijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), who dislikes the American from the beginning, and is given food and shelter by Taka (Koyuki), the wife of one of samurai he killed during battle.
Katsumoto meanwhile seeks to learn about his enemy, and begins to respect Algren as a fellow warrior. Also interested in the American is Katsumoto's son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada), intrigued by Western culture. Algren finds the first peace he has known in a long time, and begins to adapt to the ways of the samurai. He acts as a surrogate father to Taka's children, learns to sword fight with a kitana blade and begins to respect the culture that he originally sought to destroy.
But during Algren's absence the Japanese Army has had better opportunity to prepare themselves, and time is soon approaching that will determine the fate of the samurai and the future of Japan.
"The Last Samurai" is beautifully filmed by John Toll, the same cinematographer who worked on "Braveheart." The comparisons are obvious with moments of silent reflection and loud explosions of fury, both powerfully captured on film.
Director Edward Zwick brings the same determination to the screen that he did more than a decade ago with "Glory." The attention to period detail is near flawless and the movie never releases its grip on the audience.
As Algren, Cruise grows from suicidal depression to driven idealist quite realistically, drawing on the standard dishonored warrior archetype while giving him touches of humanity. Cruise's only shortcoming is his lack of dramatic range, and as such it never seems like Algren has any sinister intent even when acting selfishly. Never for a moment is there a doubt that he's destined to be a hero.
Cruise is also overshadowed in every scene by Watanabe, who makes Katsumoto a honorable man who is shocked by all the dishonor threatening to overthrow his country. Philosopher, poet, family man and warrior - Katsumoto wears many hats, and is realized through Watanabe perfectly.
Other smaller roles are captured by strong performances as well, including Goldwyn who brings class to the standard villain role as Bagley, Koyuki who plays Taka with quiet sadness and torn loyalties between her fallen husband and his killer who she is growing to love, and Koyamada who makes Nobutada young and headstrong but still sympathetic and honorable.
"The Last Samurai" only suffers during a protracted finale that screams of studio interference. The ending smacks of being safe, clean and Hollywood, something that almost betrays to whole film.
The movie is still strong enough to become a modern day classic. Like "The Wild Bunch," it speaks to those curious of what became of warriors who outlived their time. Timeless issues of honor, loyalty and redemption as well as the clashing of ancient culture versus new technology remain omnipresent. To remain in the past in foolish, but to forget it entirely is disgraceful.
Nine out of ten stars. Destined to be remembered for some time, this movie honorably deals with its subject matter.
The Last Samurai
Action / Drama / History / War
The Last Samurai
Action / Drama / History / War
In the 1870s, Captain Nathan Algren, a cynical veteran of the American Civil war who will work for anyone, is hired by Americans who want lucrative contracts with the Emperor of Japan to train the peasant conscripts for the first standing imperial army in modern warfare using firearms. The imperial Omura cabinet's first priority is to repress a rebellion of traditionalist Samurai -hereditary warriors- who remain devoted to the sacred dynasty but reject the Westernizing policy and even refuse firearms. Yet when his ill-prepared superior force sets out too soon, their panic allows the sword-wielding samurai to crush them. Badly wounded Algren's courageous stand makes the samurai leader Katsumoto spare his life; once nursed to health he learns to know and respect the old Japanese way, and participates as advisor in Katsumoto's failed attempt to save the Bushido tradition, but Omura gets repressive laws enacted- he must now choose to honor his loyalty to one of the embittered sides when ...
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July 28, 2012 at 10:17 PM