This western has travelled so far west it has become an eastern -- and a vehicle that takes a U.S. Civil War hero to Japan to find his inner samurai
The Last Samurai
Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick
Starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe
Grandly overblown and deeply cornball, The Last Samurai is a visually detailed historical recreation of 19th-century Japan that's as thin as rice paper in ideas. The story of an American soldier (Tom Cruise) who ends up living among samurai rebels is really a western, complete with a white captive who learns from his "savage" captors, the small honourable band of outlaws against the corrupt sheriff, and the rugged landscape.
The twist is that it's a western that has travelled so far west it has become an eastern. Sharing the same liberal bent as Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, it's intended as a similar apology to non-European culture.
Japan, we are told in the opening voice-over of a British historian (Timothy Spall), was founded by "a handful of brave men" willing to die for an almost forgotten word -- honour. In this fanciful view of Japanese history, the distinctly anti-democratic samurai militants are held up as noble idealists. Naturally, it takes one disillusioned American to help them out.
Cruise plays a U.S. cavalryman and Civil War hero, Captain Nathan Algren, who suffers guilt pangs over the massacre of an Indian village while serving under General Custer. He has become a drunk who makes a living by telling embroidered war stories while demonstrating rifles for the Winchester company.
On the verge of being sacked from his job, he receives an offer from an oily Japanese businessman, Omura (Japanese director Masato Harada), to go to Japan to instruct the imperial army in the art of modern battle. The young Emperor Meiji is determined to modernize Japan, protect it from foreign invaders and suppress a samurai uprising. To make sure we understand the link between Algren's past as an Indian fighter and his present, Algren notes that he is "fated to suppress the rebellion of yet another tribal leader."
The army, mostly peasant conscripts, is tested long before it is trained, against the samurai rebels who have attacked the railway lines. The army is overrun by the samurai rebels, who swoop like avenging ghosts from the foggy forest. Algren is wounded and taken as a prisoner to a mountain village, where he is billeted in the house of the beautiful Taka (Koyuki), the widow of a man Algren killed before he was taken prisoner.
In the long second act of the movie, Algren recovers, and begins to go native. Initially, he mocks his captors ("You're angry because they make you wear a dress," he tells his guard) but soon he is filling his diary with admiration for them: "They are intriguing people. . . . I have never seen such discipline."
Eventually, he even begins dressing and moving like a samurai warrior (a scene that evokes his underwear dance in Risky Business). He begins to win the affections of Taka and her young son, and finds his mirror image in the warrior chief, Katsumoto (played with calm assurance by Ken Watanabe).
Katsumoto, who is modelled on the historical figure Saigo Takamori, used to serve as a teacher to the young emperor but has rebelled against what he considers the corruption of Japan's traditional values.
As the robed Katsumoto stands beneath the cherry blossoms speaking of poetry and prophetic dreams, Algren becomes enamoured of his brand of philosophical warfare. (There are curious echoes of The King and I here. I half-expected Cruise to break into Getting to Know You.) When the prisoner comes to the leader's aid during a ninja raid late one night, the samurai accepts him as a comrade in robes. Come spring, Katsumoto and his troupe are invited by the emperor to peace talks, but the talks end abruptly. Algren persuades Katsumoto that a heroic last stand may be better than suicide.
The climax of The Last Samurai is a mighty battle, with slow-motion horse riding, flying limbs and blasting howitzers. Brief moments of philosophical reflection are surrounded by a solid half-hour of carnage, carnage and more carnage. Director Edward Zwick draws from sources as varied as Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Akira Kurosawa's Ran, but perhaps the dominant influence on recent battle scenes has been Steven Spielberg's punishing opening to Saving Private Ryan.
The Last Samurai is a Cruise vehicle all the way. Although he probably won't win an Oscar for it, he's fine for a limited purpose. Equally unconvincing as a drunk or a thinker, he works well as the embodiment of cocky American positive-thinking, just the man to give the stoical Japanese a self-asserting boost. Funny how many movies about correcting Eurocentric historical biases turn out this way.