The Last Samurai [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #12]

A couple of months ago, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which cam out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #12.  Spoilers ahead.  

The Last Samurai

Directed by Edward Zwick

Release Date:  December 5, 2003
My age then:  43 old

What it is about:  In the 1870’s, US army Captain Nathan Algren, an embittered alcholic, is hired to train the imperial Japanese army for battle with insurgents led by Samurai warrior Katsumoto. Though they are outgunned and outnumbered, the Samurai prevail, but Algren has impressed Katsumoto enough by his fighting prowess to be taken home alive. The two men develop a friendship and Algren is won over to Katsumoto’s side. In a final conflict that represents the tension between traditional Japanese identity and the lure of Western modernism. In the end, Katsumoto is killed, but his death convinces the Emperor of Japan to reject American involvement in his country. Algren returns to Katsumoto’s village to make a life for himself.

Starring Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren and Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. Also starring Koyuki Kato as Taka, the emperor’s sister, whose husband Algren killed, Shin Koyamada as Katsumoto’s son, Tony Goldwyn as Algren’s commanding officer and ultimate enemy, Timothy Spall as a British interpreter who becomes Algren’s ally, Billy Connolly as a sergeant that Algren is friends with at the start of the film, Masato Harada as a Japanese industrialist pushing for modernization, and Shichinosuke Nakamura as the insecure Emperor of Japan.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’d seen one scene from the movie (where Algren tries to demonstrate that the soldiers he is attempting to train are not ready by having one of them fire a gun at him), but that was it. I knew it had Tom Cruise, and of course that it had to do with Japan. If I’d thought about it, I might have suspected it was going to turn out to be a bit like Dances with Wolves, but in Japan.

Reality:  Dances with Wolves, but in Japan? That’s pretty close to the mark. Tom Cruise plays a disaffected soldier with something of a death wish who ends up falling into the hands of a “less civilized” enemy and is eventually won over to their point of view, even fighting alongside of them against his “own people”. Both films take place in the mid-late 19th century and are narrated in part by journal entries written by the main character. There are lots of similarities…but the problem is I didn’t like Dances with Wolves back in 1990, and I’m not crazy about it today.

Algren’s emotional journey is sumptuously told, but obvious and predictable. It’s definitely the sort of story people are referring to when they accuse movies of adhering to the “white savior” structure. Algren isn’t quite the “best” Samurai in the story, but he comes pretty close. He’s obviously moved by his experience with the Samurai and there is a sincere honoring of Japanese culture, but it does so through Tom Cruise’s character’s very American perspective. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is tired, a little shallow, and just a tad self-important.

Actually, this is the third movie in this series that could be accused of following a “white savior” storyline (along with Quigley Down Under and Gran Torino). I’m surprised by that and not completely sure how to react to it–it’s the sort of thing that is not the most helpful in judging an individual creative work but may be telling about popular culture overall.

Aside from those considerations, The Last Samurai is not a badly made movie by any means. The acting is good, the world is immersive, and the visual storytelling is strong. There are sequences of intense and protracted war time violence, with lots of people being brutally skewered by arrows and cut down with swords, but it often comes with a sort of poetic beauty. Tom Cruise is playing his classic sort of character–a callous jerk who learns to care, and Ken Watanabe demonstrates a level of intensity that he is particularly good at.

And one element of Japanese culture (of which I am no means an expert in spite of my ethnic background) that I appreciated is the way that Taka, the widow of a man Algren killed in battle, is filled at shame and disgust at having to be close to Algren, but perfectly hides it to everyone but her brother Katsumoto. There was a dramatic and cultural richness to that depiction, though that may be undermined by the fact that she seems to fall in love with Algren eventually.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think?  In spite of the movie’s strengths, I had to force myself to get through all of The Last Samurai, and it took me quite a while to do it.

See here for the Master List.

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