Last Samurai (2003)
Directed by Edward Zwick

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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An American soldier, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), is recruited by the Japanese government to help train its newly formed army in Western military techniques. When he is prematurely sent to quell a rebellion by members of the nobility led by a man named Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), his army is defeated and Algren himself taken captive. In the days that follow, the American, having been placed in the care of Katsumoto's sister, learns about and becomes enamored of Japanese culture.

Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai is a well made film, but not, ultimately, a successful work of art. The acting is universally good. The sets and costumes are beautiful, and the action sequences are well choreographed. The movie is, however, burdened by a number of problems.

In fact, there is much about The Last Samurai that is hackneyed. Many of the conflicts and events are recycled from other films, and the overall trajectory of the story is predictable. We know from the start that the ethnocentric Westerner, Algren, will not only learn that the Japanese are not barbarians but will be intoxicated by their civilization. Even the events that lead to Algren's transformation are predictable. In the battle preceding his capture, Algren kills a man and is subsequently cared for by the man's widow, Katsumoto's sister, with whom and whose family he forms a bond, despite the obvious barriers keeping them apart. Katsumoto himself is presented as a sensitive, intelligent individual with a variety of admirable qualities. Algren quickly realizes his captor's virtues, falls under his spell, and, essentially, takes him as his teacher. These relationships Algren forms with the family of the man he killed and with his wise non-Western teacher are, unfortunately, dull and recycled.

Many of the other incidents depicted in the film are similarly predictable. For example, shortly after his capture, Algren, the supposedly skilled Western soldier, is easily bested by a Samurai and "put in his place." Villains are humiliated or killed. The Japanese government, inevitably, learns to stand up for itself and resist Western imperialism. Trite tidbits of "Eastern" wisdom are dispensed to show Algren the beauty of Japanese culture, and so on and so on.

What is more, while cinema, like any art, is not didactic, the inclusion of elements which are intended to produce a false perception of some extrinsic reality can be troubling. The Last Samurai's misguided nostalgia for an ancient way of life does, consequently, detract from its emotive capacity. I have no problem with pre-modern cultures being depicted on their own terms, but I am bothered by self-deluding idealizations of those cultures, whether the culture being idealized is the antebellum American South or the Meiji remnants of Tokugawa Japan. No doubt pre-modern cultures had their virtues, but idealizations of such societies always seem to ignore their gross inequities. Tokugawa Japan produced significant achievements, one need only think of the traditions of drama or Ukiyo-e prints developed in that era to be reminded of its brilliance, but it was also a horribly hierarchical, unjust society. While deserving of praise for its accomplishments, Tokugawa Japan was not a paradise of spirituality, honor, and aesthetic sensitivity. No doubt such elements were present, but so were many unpleasant elements that are completely ignored in Zwick's film, and we are simply deluding ourselves when we remember only the virtues of some past time and forget its sins. The person cognizant that the director's attempts to idealize a bygone era are self-deceptive will be troubled by the movie, as he will have no desire to deceive himself, and, being so bothered, he will not be able to experience the feelings of longing for a refined but vanished way of life the director is striving to evoke.

The Last Samurai is a technically well made film and is generally entertaining, but it is also completely uninspired and occasionally troubling.

Review by Keith Allen

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