The Last Samurai


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Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren
Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto
Koyuki as Taka
Billy Connolly as Zebulon Gant
Tony Goldwyn as Colonel Bagley
Masato Harada as Omura
Masashi Odate as Omura’s Companion
John Koyama as Omura’s Bodyguard
Timothy Spall as Simon Graham
Shichinosuke Nakamura as Emperor Meiji
Togo Igawa as General Hasegawa
Shin Koyamada as Nobutada
Hiroyuki Sanada as Ujio
Shun Sugata as Nakao
Sosuke Ikematsu as Higen
Aoi Minato as Magojiro
Seizo Fukumoto as Silent Samurai
Takashi Noguchi as Kyogen Player #2
Sven Toorvald as Omura’s Secretary
Scott Wilson as Ambassador Swanbeck
William Atherton as Winchester Rep

The Last Samurai is Dances With Wolves set in Japan. With good acting, cool battle scenes, and an enchanting setting, it fortunately ends up being more than a retooling of a familiar tale.

Nathan Algren is a washed up U.S. soldier and a veteran of the wars with the Indians. After having seen the horrors inflicted upon innocent Native Americans by his commanding officers, he has left the service and is now a drunkard haunted by nightmares. One day his former fellow officer Zebulon Gant comes by with an offer. The Japanese government is looking for someone to train their soldiers in the ways of Western warfare. They want Algren to lead the modernization of the army. Seeing nothing to lose, Algren agrees to go to Japan. The catch is that he must work with his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley.

When Algren arrives, he finds the Japanese soldiers completely untrained in using firearms. Despite a lack of time and training, he’s ordered to lead the troops into battle with a rebellious Samurai warrior by the name of Katsumoto. Katsumoto and his fellow Samurai warriors remain loyal to the Emperor, but they are violently opposed to the Westernization of the country. They have resorted to guerilla tactics to get their point across.

When Algren and Katsumoto face off for the first time, the Japanese soldiers are easily defeated. After a vicious last stand, Algren is also captured and taken back to the remote village of the Samurai. There he is stranded through the winter as his wounds heal. He begins to learn more about the Samurai and their simple, honorable way of life. He also begins to learn their unique form of combat. However, when he’s eventually free to leave, will he stand with or against the Samurai when the Emperor again sends his forces?

The Last Samurai is rated R for strong violence and battle sequences.

What Worked:
I’ve always been interested in Japanese history and the Samurai, so this film was right up my alley. The Last Samurai does a wonderful job of recreating this pivotal point in Japanese history and culture. The fine attention to detail is impressive and you quickly become immersed in this unique world. The plot is so wrapped in the unique environment that only after it was over did I realize how similar the movie was to Dances With Wolves. Both movies have burned out Civil War era soldiers. Both have men pulled into a strange society. Both come to respect this new culture and despise their native culture. The plots are almost identical, but they are both wrapped in such different packages that the similarities are not immediately apparent. If you liked Dances With Wolves, then chances are you’ll enjoy The Last Samurai.

The most memorable things about The Last Samurai are the battles. They are incredible. The opening fight where the Samurai are revealed is beautiful, scary, and haunting. It really sets the tone for everything to come and establishes in short order what the Samurai are about. However, that scene is upstaged halfway through the movie when a group of ninjas attack the Samurai village. If you ever wanted to see Samurai fight ninjas, this is one you’ll want to check out. It amazing to see what would otherwise be martial arts garbage presented in a historically accurate setting. It doesn’t come across as cheesy or out of place. Rather it is one of the most intense, emotional scenes in the movie. The final battle between the remaining Samurai and the modernized Japanese army is also quite impressive.

The initial thought of mega-star Tom Cruise in a Samurai movie seems ludicrous. He doesn’t seem to fit it at all. However, Cruise does a great job. He brings his character to life and you really believe his transition from burned out soldier to full fledged Samurai. Not only is his performance emotional but he handles the action very well. His sword fights are quite impressive. He is supported by a group of Japanese actors whom you’ve probably never heard of. Ken Watanabe plays the lead Samurai Katsumoto. He is excellent as a stern leader with a hidden softer side. His relationship with Cruise is entirely believable and he also handles the action well. Koyuki is also memorable as Taka, the widow of a Samurai warrior who Tom Cruise killed. As she is asked to take care of the wounded Cruise, you can tell underneath her polite, quiet exterior she’s thirsty for revenge. This inner conflict makes her one of the more compelling characters of the movie. Her eventual transition from hatred to love for Cruise is entirely believable (though a little hurried in the interest of movie running time). Billy Connolly rounds out the excellent supporting cast in a brief role as Zebulon Gant. He brings the right amount of humor in early on to balance out the otherwise dark tone of the film.

New Zealand substitutes for old Japan. Like in The Lord Of The Rings, the settings are simply stunning and they should help boost tourism to the country. The music by Hans Zimmer (with Blake Neely and Geoff Zanelli) is memorable with a definite “Gladiator” feel to it.

What Didn’t Work:
I was a bit disappointed with the ending of the film. I didn’t think the story concluded in a way consistent with the rest of the movie. I can’t say too much without spoiling it, but suffice it to say they went with the Hollywood ending rather than the logical one. A concluding speech by Cruise’s character also came across as particularly cheesy.

I also have to wonder what the Japanese think about having an American being inserted by Hollywood into one of their most crucial periods in history. Having Cruise lead not only the Japanese army but the Samurai seems almost disrespectful. It’s like having Jabba the Hutt added into Star Wars – A New Hope. He shouldn’t be there. Errr…wait a second.

The film also has some distinctly anti-Western undertones. As if the world didn’t have enough reasons to dislike the West, this offers a few more reasons. They come just short of saying out loud that the U.S. was responsible for the modernization and corruption of Japan, the shift in cultural mindset of the Japanese, and thus World War II. Whether or not this is true is a point for historians to debate, but I wonder how it will play out in front of American audiences.

The Bottom Line:
Overall The Last Samurai is an epic film that is truly impressive. With romance, action, drama, and more, it has everything you could look for in a movie. Expect it to be an Oscar contender.