The Last Samurai: Overshadowed by Cruise, But Has Something to Say
by Owen Grieb, December 2003
Though very much the Hollywood blockbuster, The Last Samurai, led by a sword-wielding, shaggy-bearded Tom Cruise, provides an interesting insight into mid-nineteenth century Japan.
Ending two and a half centuries of self-enforced isolation, the American naval commander Admiral Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853 with a trade agreement and some heavily armed black ships.
This event in itself stated a convincing case for a shift towards the abandonment of age-old traditions in favour of the technology and methodology of the Western powers. The feudal system of the Shoguns was at an end and the modern age had begun under the restored Emperor Meiji.
Perhaps no sector of Japanese society underwent such drastic change than the military. Confronted by mechanized rifles, machine guns, cannons, and howitzers, the Japanese arsenal of traditional weapons - the yumi (bow), the kyosha (spear), and, of course, the katana (sword) - was seen to be at the end of its usefulness. The samurai class was stripped of its power and status in favour of the newly-formed army and they were even forbidden to bear arms.
They watched as foreign military experts were brought to Japan to teach ordinary people how to wield automated weapons. To many samurai, a hereditary caste of warriors, this was intolerable.
Enter Katsumoto - the eponymous last samurai of the film - a character loosely based on the historical figure and folk hero, Saigo Takamori (1827-1877).
His role as the samurai commander who led the Imperial army in unifying Japan, helped to usher in the new age under the Emperor. Takamori became disillusioned when he found his wishes for an invasion of Korea thwarted and learned of the Meiji government's plans to disenfranchise the samurai in order to establish a western-style conscript army.
He retreated to Kagoshima, where he gathered other disgruntled samurai to his side and raided an arsenal in Kagoshima. His rebellion was subsequently crushed by the newly modernized Imperial forces.
Apart from speaking fluent English, Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) is a convincing samurai. Capturing the American military expert, Nathan Algren (Cruise), in battle, he takes him in and gives him food and shelter.
Somewhat unbelievably, he then grants him weapons and armour and the training in both language and traditional fighting techniques that he needs to fight alongside his band of samurai rebels.
Amazingly, he then offers him the beautiful widow of a warrior that Algren had killed in battle to feed and care for him. The audience continues to suspend its disbelief as Algren not only masters the Japanese language but also the martial skills of the samurai in a single winter, belittling somewhat the samurai's lifelong devotion to the art of battle and their status as war gods.
The historical epic takes a further turn towards the Hollywood caper when romantic sparks begin to fly between the captive and the woman he widowed.
For anyone who remembers the bum-aching Costner fable Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai will seem eerily similar with Cruise as the disillusioned military leader breaking from his native culture to join the ranks of the honourable underdogs to fight the good fight.
In his time training with Matsumoto, Algren learns much about himself and his own beliefs. Plagued by past sins as a cavalry captain butchering innocent Native Americans, he decides to fight for what he believes in against his former comrades-in-arms.
It must be said however that Cruise does not fit the bill. For a fan of great movies such as Risky Business, Top Gun, and Mission Impossible, it is just too difficult to swallow him in the spiritual role he is called on to play in The Last Samurai.
Fortunately, with its magnificent cinematography, sets and costumes, the film is easy on the eye and helps to divert the audience's attention from Cruise and some of the films plot holes.
Where this movie does succeed is in having an emotional impact. We are made to cringe as noble warriors who have spent their entire lives honing traditional battle skills are mowed down by grunts doing little more than loading ammunition and cranking cranks.
The Imperial Army are themselves overcome as they realise that in unleashing the horrific power of modern weaponry, they have not only slaughtered the hallowed warriors of old, but have brought a death to the traditions of Japan.
Though it is true that the samurai were a hereditary, often brutal ruling class, The Last Samurai explores a different side to their character - the ascetic, honourable lifestyle free of convenience and comfort, their athletic ability and prowess in battle, and their love of the Japanese people.
It is difficult to believe, after watching this film, that unskilled soldiers pushing buttons are preferable to the dedicated and noble samurai.
We are certain that Algren is better off fighting for his newly acquired values than for the side which, though technologically superior, is morally corrupt. In his own words, he sleeps better at night.
This is confirmed by the fact that Omura (played by Masato Harada) - the character in the film associated with importing modern arms for the Japanese army - is shown to be more concerned with fat trade contracts than with the Japanese people.
Emperor Meiji himself (played by Kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura) expresses his displeasure with Omura and chastises him for not recognising the nobility of Katsumoto's struggle.
Although the samurai may have outlived their usefulness, one wishes that their code of honor and ascetic way of life could somehow make a comeback in the Hello Kitty-buying, pachinko-playing world of modern Japan.
The Last Samurai is directed by Edward Zwick (producer, I Am Sam, Traffic) and produced by Tom Cruise. It grossed US$24.4 million on opening weekend.
Much of the movie was shot on location in New Zealand, though several scenes were filmed in Japan including Engyoji Temple in Hyogo Prefecture.
Read a movie review of The Last Samurai: directed by Edward Zwick, starring Tom Cruise as an American samurai in late-nineteenth century Japan.