Retro Review: The Last Samurai

Who and what were the illustrious Japanese warriors known as “samurai”? What were their ideals, who did they protect and who did they wage endless battle against?

Furthermore, where did they go? It is that final question that looked at in the feature film, “The Last Samurai”.

Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a haunted man. A Civil War veteran, Nathan chronicles his life and experiences for profit but his war demons sit promptly on his shoulders. Those demons unlock a horrific event housed within Nathan. Nathan’s demons have brought him disgrace and failure until he is confronted by one of the men linked to Nathan’s demons, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn).

Bagley brings a disgraced Nathan to meet some prestigious men who have journeyed from Japan. The men want an American war hero to help train and arm their troops as they wage war on some rather brutal rebels. In a drunken stupor, Nathan agrees.

Nathan is whisked off to Japan where he finds that there are two worlds within the evolving Japanese society. A lot of these ways reflect highly upon Nathan and his experiences as an officer.

How will this distant land affect a lost man like Nathan? Who are these rebels known as “samurai”? And how will Nathan make it home alive when confronted by them?

The best way to describe the “Last Samurai” is that it’s an amalgamation of “Dances With Wolves” and “Glory” but set in Japan. The script writers and director Edward Zwick, who uncannily directed “Glory”, have found a way into the world of the samurai without forcing away the audience. We learn, understand and feel for these people as we pull back the curtain to see the way they once were.

Casting Tom Cruise is actually a good thing for this film because we need someone so out of place and alien to the world so that we can experience it through his eyes. It is always nice to have a “tour guide” character in a historical epic. The reason being is that it’s hard for modern thinkers to relate to times without modern conveniences. I liked how Cruise brought some of his Oscar-nominated “Born on the Fourth of July” performance to his incarnation of Algren. Just like his character in “Born”, this character is betrayed by war and frustrated at his over-seers. Cruise develops a raw intensity and it works well against the controlled and methodical “bushido” code of the samurai.

The relationship between Algren and the Japanese mother, Taka (Koyuki), was wonderfully laid out.

The filmmakers resisted the temptation of a tumultuous relationship between the characters. It is almost a poetry of eyes and unspoken thoughts. It is beautiful, eloquent and so memorable.

Probably one of the most amazing parts of this film is the attention to detail that was paid in carving out the rural “samurai” village and crowded 18th Century Tokyo streets. The tiniest little detail is paid in each frame of the film.

“The Last Samurai” is probably the best film about westerners and the samurai since the epic landmark mini-series “Shogun”. There is a lot of homage here and it often took me back to that series. The battle sequences and restructuring of the Japanese world years after the events in “Shogun” make “Samurai” stand on its own.

I love the epic feel of feudal Japan and the history of the lost traditions. On a personal level that is probably why I loved this film so much. I did however find a couple flaws in its depiction. The film’s ending feels tacked on and it so takes away from the majesty of a lot of moments housed within the film. I am not sure all of it was necessary.

Well what happened to the “samurai”? Like all great things they were probably replaced with a microchip. But it is safe to say that the bushido code does live and evolve in a lot of us. What do you think?

(4.5 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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