The Last Samurai tells the story of Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a Civil War hero reduced to earning a paycheck by hawking rifles with a travelling salesman. Algren has a taste for the booze, and his bitterness over atrocities committed during the war only drives him to drink more. Not long after he gets fed up with the sales business, he is approached by Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), a former colleague who committed said atrocities. Algren burns with hatred for this guy but agrees to listen to a job offer.
The U.S. Army is working in conjunction with several wealthy American business owners to open up trade in Japan. In return for a lucrative trade agreement (as well as exclusive rights to sell arms to the Japanese), the Army must help quash a potential uprising being led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), one of the last remaining Samurai. Katsumoto does not believe the Emperor is acting in Japan’s best interest by allowing such an agreement, which is the reason behind his revolt. Algren is asked to train legions of Japanese soldiers in the art of combat, a task for which he is paid handsomely. He does his job as well as he can, but an attack on Katsumoto is ordered before the troops are ready. It turns into a slaughter during which Algren is captured.
Impressed by Algren’s do-or-die fighting style, Katsumoto decides not to kill the American. Instead, he holds him as a kind of P.O.W. He requests that his sister Taka (Koyuki) care for Algren; she reluctantly agrees, despite the fact that her husband was killed at her houseguest’s hand. During his months of semi-captivity, Algren bonds with Taka and her son. He also becomes fascinated by the way of the Samurai. Realizing that they are not the cold-hearted barbarians they’ve been made out as, he finds himself starting to respect the lifestyle that Katsumoto and his people live. Algren eventually joins their side. He later winds up on the battlefield, staring back at the very same men he trained.
The Last Samurai dedicates a lot of attention to the Samurai lifestyle, which involves “a devotion to perfection in everything they do.” We clearly see that their way of living revolves around strict discipline and structure. Tradition is of the utmost importance, with honor being its equal. The movie shows the Samurai going about their daily rituals: perfecting fighting styles, preparing food, raising children. No matter what they do, their actions are guided by a belief that they are acting honorably. It’s rare that you get to see inside a historical culture like this. I can’t really speculate about whether the film is 100% accurate, but I do know that what it presents is extremely fascinating. You get a real feeling of being in a time and a place, immersed in a culture from long ago. This is truly The Last Samurai’s most special quality.
All the performances are solid, and Tom Cruise gives yet another dependable turn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the guy be bad in a movie. My favorite performance, though, is from Ken Watanabe, who deserves Oscar consideration for his portrayal of Katsumoto. It would have been easy for the character to be either a heinous villain or an overly-noble saint. Instead, the actor (and the screenplay) paints him as someone who simply lives by the code in which he believes. Watanabe makes the character three-dimensional, and we fully understand why Algren grows to respect him. In fact, while Algren is the main character, I would argue that Katsumoto is the more crucial one.
The battle sequences constitute a sizable portion of the movie. The size and scope of them is astonishing. I was reminded of the battle scenes in Braveheart because of the elaborateness and realism. Watching these battles, I felt like I gained an understanding of the varied combat techniques used by both the American military and the Samurai. A good movie can recreate such things, helping us to visualize more clearly the kinds of events we’ve only read about in history books. Director Ed Zwick (Glory) gives all the battles a sense of grandeur, as well as an underlying weightiness; we feel that lives are at stake, but also something more, something having to do with personal honor.
There is a lot to like in The Last Samurai although I don’t believe the film is quite the Oscar-caliber epic it is being sold as. The problem lies in the screenplay, which incorporates many too familiar “movieish” elements. For instance, we get that old cliché in which the hero and the villain (in this case Bagley) somehow manage to find each other on a battlefield of thousands. Despite the fact that people are dying left and right, they both get through unscathed. This allows them to have their final face-to-face for a predictable revenge. Here’s another example: the relationship between Algren and Taka never becomes overtly romantic, but the overtones are there just as you would expect. Also, having the Americans portrayed as either greedy or corrupt is kind of a washout. A little more complexity there would have strengthened the film considerably.
I still believe The Last Samurai is worth seeing, even if it fails to be the masterpiece it might have been. It’s rare for a film to deal with the subjects and issues that this one explores so thoughtfully. There are undeniably a few minor flaws, but the movie gets enough right to make it enjoyable. The Samurai ethic is explored in the kind of detail that kept me involved even when the plot hit some bumps.
( out of four)
The Last Samurai is rated R for strong violence and battle sequences. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat