The Last Samurai

Robin Clifford 
The Last Samurai
Laura Clifford 

Captain Nathan Algren is a Civil War hero and Medal of Honor winner whose past involvement in the Indian Wars has left him emotional numbed by his memories of their horror. It is 1876 and the troubled captain is the main attraction of a traveling sales show hawking Winchester rifles. One day, his fortune changes when his former commander, Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwin), and two representatives of the Japanese emperor approach him with a proposition - to train the soldiers of the Imperial Army in modern warfare and weapons. But, once in Japan, he learns that he is also expected to lead the novice army against a real warrior leader in “The Last Samurai.”

Director Edward Zwick has always impressed me with his ability to handle battlefield drama with such films as his epic “Glory” and more introspective “Courage Under Fire.” And, while I didn’t really care for his “Legends of the Fall,” his recreation of a World War One battleground was impressive. With “The Last Samurai” Zwick shows, once again, that he has a talent approaching Akira Kurosawa in his ability to stage large scale battle scenes with hundreds of warriors or beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Unfortunately, that is the only real attraction to his latest work.

While “The Last Samurai” is a beautifully crafted film – cinematography, production design, costume, makeup and the rest are exemplary – it is a big budget, high profile Tom Cruise vehicle. Don’t expect a recreation of true events or a history lesson on Japan’s emergence as a world power. Expect Tom to be the noble, tortured American warrior whose behavior and honor make him an idol to all of Japan’s Samurai warriors. There is a little of a stranger-in-a-strange-land element to “The Last Samurai” as Algren must cope with such things as observing a ritual suicide, but noyt much else. Of course, the good captain soon learns the expert ways of being a Samurai warrior and leader and the right hand man to Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the last leader of a centuries old clan that has upheld the code of Bushido, the way of the warrior.

Nathan first arrives in Japan, with Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), as part of deal being brokered by the US government to trade modern military training and strategies for a huge and lucrative trade agreement. Captain Algren begins the task of preparing his men, conscripts drafted from the Japanese peasant class, and turning them into a fighting machine. As the training progresses, Nathan learns the true nature of his presence in the country – he is to take his new army and hunt down the renegade Samurai leader Katsumoto. The rebel warlord defied his young emperor’s edict that all Samurai must give up their swords and join the progressive world. He and his men would rather die with honor than forsake the code that teaches strength compassion, loyalty and the commitment to honor.

When the two forces clash – the not-ready-for-battle conscripts and the highly disciplined and trained Samurai warriors – it is a rout. Algren, leading the draftees, tries to turn his men back to action but is left, alone, on the battlefield where he fights as fiercely as a tiger (the symbol of Katsumoto’s clan) against incredible odds. The warrior notes Nathan bravery and skill and leader takes Nathan prisoner rather than kill such a valiant man. They head for the isolated rebel enclave and injured Nathan is put under the care of Katsumoto’s sister Taka (Koyuki), the widowed wife of the last man that Nathan had killed in his desperate fight to survive.

Of course, and as you would expect, Katsumoto and his men accept Nathan as the American perseveres to learn the ways and language of the Japanese warrior. A warm friendship develops between the warlord, who speaks remarkably good English, and Algren as they learn from each other. Also as expected, Taka is initially repulsed by the presence of the man who killed her husband but Nathan’s kindness, willingness to learn (and take a bath), and the fact that he looks like Tom Cruise changes things. A chaste love develops. Katsumoto’s son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada), who admires the brave soldier, also befriends Nathan. All of these warm friendships are rife with noble sentiment as Taka, Nobutada, Katsumoto and, eventually, Nathan, shed a single noble tear down their noble faces at poignantly noble moments.

Tom Cruise can be an actor of some achievement, but not here. Cruise is cruising through “The Last Samurai,” trading a look of consternation (almost constipation) for actual acting through the first half of the film. This is tempered somewhat as Nathan becomes accepted by Katsumoto and the rest. The actor excels in the fight and battle sequence and has obviously worked hard at the physical part of the role. Ken Watanabe gives a dignified performance as the wise rebel warrior leader. Koyuki is delicately lovely as Taka and succeeds in developing her attraction for Nathan through subtle movement and look.

The supporting cast is likable on the good guy side and unscrupulous and wicked one the bad guy side. Shin Koyamada is suitably reverential of father and foreigner. Seizo Fukumoto is the strong, silent elder Samurai tasked as Nathan’s bodyguard, the kind that would “take a bullet for ya.” Tony Goldwyn, a master of giving a slimy performance (think of “Ghosts”), is suitably arrogant and unbending as Col. Bagley so you hope he gets his just deserts. The conniving, greedy arms negotiator, Omaru (Masato Harada), gives a good moustache twirling bad guy perf as the instigator of the war against the Samurai rebels, who want nothing but to be loyal to their emperor. Timothy Spall has a small role as Simon Graham, a member of the British trade mission who has spent 20 years in Japan that acts, at first, as Nathan’s interpreter and guide. Billy Connolly is given far too little time as Algren’s faithful sergeant, Zebulon Gant.

Zwick and his behind the camera team do a terrific job of capturing the look and feel of the Meiji period in 19th century Japan. The west was just making inroads into that foreign culture and the Emperor’s decry to adopt things Western shows in costume design (by Ngila Dickson) combining bowler hats and western dress with traditional kimono and queues. John Toll does an excellent job in capturing the heat of battle, whether on the grand scale of the showdown between modern and traditional armies or one-on-one with Nathan taking on Ninja assassins. Production design, by Lilly Kilvert, is on par with the rest of the techs.

As I watched “The Last Samurai” I could not help but keep comparing it to a far superior Hollywood-style look into Japan’s past – the TV mini-series “Shogun” starring Richard Chamberlain. It told a very similar story with a foreigner stranded in Japan and becomes the ally of a powerful warlord who is fighting for his life against huge odds. Where “Shogun” differs from “The Last Samurai” is in its true ensemble nature that helped to immerse the viewer in a whole new world. The Cruise film holds him in the limelight with its wash only occasionally hitting one of the other characters. (I highly recommend renting “Shogun” if you are interested in a pretty accurate depiction of feudal Japan.)

“The Last Samurai” is entertaining Tom Cruise fodder done in a highly competent way by Ed Zwick and company. I was a little disappointed that this is all that it is, especially after seeing the well-made trailer, and I give it a B-. 

In 1876 San Francisco, Captain Nathan Algren tries to poison his memories of Custer's last stand and his participation in the massacre of native American Indians with alcohol, but he's roused from his torpor by former colleague Zebulon Gant (Billy Connelly, "White Oleander") with an interesting proposition - training the first modern army for the Emperor of Japan.  The cynical and soulless Algren takes the monetary bait but he's unprepared for the spiritual rebirth he will undergo in the hands of "The Last Samurai."

Director Ed Zwick ("Glory") combines his love of Kurosawa and the militaristic lost cause in this epic adventure tale.  An overly actorly Cruise derails the picture at its start, but when the action moves to Japan things get back on track.  An inability to call an end to the proceedings at the appropriate time, however, makes the film's wrap an unfortunate bit of Hollywood hokum.

After being presented to the Emperor (a delicate Shichinosuke Nakamura), Algren begins his job in earnest.  Discovering that the army's first job will be to quell a rebellious Samurai, Algren finds the irony in the situation - 'I've been fated to repress another tribal leader.'  When news comes that Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is approaching, Algren is insistent that the new army is not ready, but his hated former Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn, "Abandon") will not budge.  The terrified band of farming peasants goes up against Katsumoto's warriors and their guns prove no match for the seasoned swordsmen.  Algren fights valiantly, even killing the red-armored Samurai who was about to execute him, and so impresses Katsumoto that he is spared and taken prisoner.

The film's midsection will be familiar to anyone who watched the 1980 miniseries "Shogun." Algren is initially boorish and wary of his captors, but comes to find incredible beauty in their way of life.  Housed against her will with Katsumoto's sister Taka (Koyuki), Algren is bemused by what he views as her kindness.  The beauty is also the widow of the red-armored Samurai and the mother of two young boys seeking a father figure.  Katsumoto tells Algren that he is being held because Katsumoto wishes to know his enemy, but by the time enemy ninja invade his camp, Algren is clearly loyal to the Samurai leader.  When an attempt at political resolution to Katsumoto's conflict with the Emperor fails, Algren masterminds his escape and rides with the Samurai against the Emperor's army.

After an overly earnest and politically correct bout of excessive suffering, Cruise characterizes Algren as a physically adept soldier both honorable and humorous.  His initial, uninterpretted ramblings to a bodyguard he names Bob are amusing takes on his situation and his hesitant admiration of Taka simmers.  Cruise works very well with Watanabe, the highly educated warrior and leader of men.  Watanabe's early request for 'con-ver-SA-shuns' with Algren are uncomfortably close to Yul Bryner's portrayal of a Siamese King, but the man brings such stature to Katsumoto that that affectation is quickly forgotten.  Watanabe is equally compelling looking for the perfect cherry blossom or fiercely in battle and a heroic and touching figure.  Hiroyuki Sanada ("Ringu") is imposing as Ujio, Algren's enemy and Samurai instructor.  Goldwyn cuts a fine figure to despise, not overdoing the villainy.  The terrific Timothy Spall ("Nicholas Nickleby"), however, is wasted in the role of interpreter Simon Graham, a character who is used as a Western touchstone in foreign Japan.

Through Algren, Zwick and his cowriters John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz pair the American Indian with the Japanese Samurai as noble warriors being eradicated by the West (the Japanese Emperor has been encouraged to Westernize by greedy businessman Omura (Masato Harada), who wishes to profit by trade).  When Katsumoto’s son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) is shorn of his topknot by a Japanese soldier, the image is supposed to evoke thoughts of scalping, although the comparison is backwards.  Algren's description of the Indians to the Emperor, 'They were very brave,' is a foreshadowing of the final fight of the Samurai.  The weapons of the Samurai and Indians are eventually crushed by the white man's mechanical firepower.

Zwick stages terrific battle sequences with his physically demanded upon actors.  Even Algren's training scenes have tension and excitement.  Zwick knows the importance of conveying military strategy to the audience and the 'David vs. Goliath' nature of his final confrontation is dissipated by the intelligent trickery employed by the underdog.  Cruise is 'Easternized' by his wearing of the red armor (costume design by Ngila Dickson, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), and, lest I give away too much, all I can say is that was some armor.  Production values, save one obvious matte of late nineteenth century San Francisco, are what one would expect from such a high profile film.


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