The Last Samurai (Warner Bros./Cruise-Wagner Productions, 2003)
The Last Samurai is very loosely based on a minor episode in Japanese history, the Satsuma Rebellion, in which some samurai rebelled against the emperor and his embrace of modernity and Western values. It has now been showcased in a movie starring Tom Cruise.
Yes, that quintessential white-bread white boy with a mouth of all-American flashing white teeth is at the center of a movie about Japan. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. A number of excellent stories have been written about strangers in a strange land and foreigners finding their true homes across the sea.
This isn't one of them. The Last Samurai has significant virtues, but they exist despite the presence of Cruise, not because of him.
Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a Civil War hero traumatized by serving with General Custer and witnessing the slaughter of Native Americans, for whom he has a suspiciously modern sympathy. He becomes a depressed, self-hating booze-hound, who is nonetheless hired by a representative of the Japanese emperor to teach their army the methods of modern warfare.
The samurai lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is leading a rebellion intended to teach the emperor by demonstration that the old ways are the best. To prove this, he and his samurai warriors fight only with sword and spear, refusing all firearms. The question which immediately arises is, why aren't those guys dead already?
But in Japan, Algren finds a rag-tag crew of conscript peasants who have never even seen a rifle before, let alone fired one. When he and his armed but unready soldiers finally face Katsumoto and his men, the latter appear as terrifying figures out of legend, out of dream, archetypal warriors charging from a misty forest.
The emperor's army is routed, and Algren is wounded and left for dead. But Katsumoto is so impressed with Algren's courage and skill that he takes his enemy back to his mountaintop home. There Algren and Katsumoto bond, and Algren learns bushido, the way of the warrior. But the war waits for winter's end, when Algren must choose a side.
There is much to admire in The Last Samurai. Katsumoto is splendidly portrayed by Ken Watanabe as urbane, heroic, and witty by turns, and always believable as a man of his time. The action scenes are uniformly wonderful but are all of different tone and texture, from the mythic wonder of the samurai in the mist to a thrilling ninja attack to the grand tragedy of the final battle. Katsumoto's men have few lines but are all believable, individual characters. While only the attractive aspects of samurai culture are shown, those are skillfully and accurately portrayed.
The trouble with the movie is Tom Cruise. And I don't mean that his acting is bad; it's O.K., though he seems to have time-traveled in from 2003. (Russell Crowe, who has repeatedly proven his ability to convincingly portray period characters, would have been a far better choice for the role.) But a more significant problem is the character Cruise plays.
Stories of strangers in a strange land are most interesting when they present real differences between cultures, and when the foreign characters don't slip into the ways of another country as easily as a cormorant into a river. Algren hates himself and his culture from day one, so there's no tension over whether or not he will go native, and no real clash of cultures between him and Katsumoto.
A romance between Algren and a Japanese woman, though blessedly understated, is completely implausible and adds nothing to the film. On the other hand, his relationship with her children is funny and touching and believable.
The Last Samurai has been compared unfavorably to Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai, respectfully to Shogun, and sneeringly to a film once hailed but now fallen from critical grace, Dances With Wolves. But it reminds me more of another movie by the same director.
Edward Zwick's Civil War drama Glory, about black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, garnered Denzel Washington a well-deserved Oscar, but the performances by Andre Braugher as a brittle and brilliant freed man and Morgan Freeman as a born leader suffused with inner peace were just as good.
Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of screentime was devoted to Matthew Broderick and how he learned that all men are created equal. The problem isn't that Broderick is bad; he's O.K. It's that everyone else is so much better. A deeper issue is that in a movie about black men, a white man has inexplicably been cast as the lead, thus shortchanging the better actors, the more interesting issues, and the historical basis for the film.
Now, Glory is still a good movie. But, as an old boss of mine once said, "If you could take a pair of nail scissors and snip Matthew Broderick out of every frame, it would be a great movie."
If you could take a pair of nail scissors and snip Tom Cruise out of every frame of The Last Samurai, it still wouldn't quite be a great movie. It has too idealized and uncomplicated a view of Japanese society for that. (The samurai, who had the legal right to kill peasants with no questions asked, were upholding a far more brutal and repressive society than the one portrayed in the film.)
But it would be a near-great movie. As it is, it's only a good one. But if you happen to be fascinated by Japan and the samurai, you can bump it up to "very good with some excellent bits."
But if that's the case, you might want to leave after the final battle, which makes an excellent Japanese ending. Trust me, you do not want to see the inappropriate and embarrassing Hollywood ending which concludes the film.
[Rachel Manija Brown]