The Last Samurai Review
A lot of mud was thrown at The Last Samurai upon its release, it was commonly labelled ‘Dances With Samurai’ labelled a mere copy of Costner’s multi Academy Award winning classic western, and Cruise was accused of making it simply to garner the Oscar attention he’s been denied, cribbing from a previous winner as a route to glory. Whilst the similarities are obvious, and Cruise’s intentions unknown, one thing is very clear, that The Last Samurai is a fantastic film in its own right.
Cruise plays 7th Cavalry Captain Nathan Algren, a soldier that cut a swathe through the native American population in the 1800’s, he’s a war hero, having been instrumental in decimating tribe after tribe, winning battle after battle in the name of the pale-faced settlers against their vicious foe. The problem is he doesn't quite see it the same way, he may be a good soldier, skilled in battle and willing to follow orders, but he doesn't seem to agree with them, and now home from the war, riddled with guilt, he drinks constantly to try and stifle the nightmares he has about the horrible treatment of the innocents he was complicit in slaughtering. Reduced to working on travelling sideshows, extolling the virtues of Remmington’s fantastic new rifle – as the ‘gun that won the west’ – he’s a shadow of his former self, drinking his way through his days waiting to die. It’s then that an old comrade brings a proposition to him, the Japanese are on the verge of full scale civil war, the new emperor is obsessed with western culture, determined to bring the technological advances of the west to his people, but many of his most loyal followers refuse to give up the ways of the samurai, and are willing to slaughter his new army to prove to the emperor that the ways of the west should not be the ways of Japan. Desperate, the emperor is willing to pay Algren a very large sum of money indeed to train his conscripted army in the ways of modern warfare in order to crush the rebels. The more victories the rebels win the more volatile the populace becomes, his vision of a new Japan is in serious jeopardy.
But in his rush to defeat them the emperor’s forces are sent into battle far too early, Algren’s platoon is crushed, and he is captured by the rebel leader - Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Now cut off from rescue by the harsh Japanese winter Algren faces a long spell as a prisoner of war, but he’ll be far from rotting in a cell as his prowess in battle has earned him some level of respect from Katsumoto, and he is eager to learn what he can from Algren about the western ways of war.
I’ll get the Dances With Wolves comparisons out of the way early, yes, it is a story about a soldier, disillusioned with his own force, left alone with the people who he has been taught are his enemy, who comes to learn that despite his indoctrination with stories of them being savages they are actually people too, and probably better people than those he was raised to fight for. But it’s simple to borrow the structure of another film, it happens every day, what The Last Samurai manages to do is take that structure and weave an engrossing story around it, fill its canvas with believable, involving characters, fantastic battles, and an emotional core not matched in most entirely original projects.
The first thing that struck me about The Last Samurai was its surprisingly anti-American stance, whilst in the current climate most directors are wary of bashing America, the historical aspect of the film has given both director and writer a chance to point out that America hasn’t got the finest track record, and the film’s attitude towards both America’s treatment of Native Americans and its negative influence on Japanese culture certainly isn’t patriotic. Though this becomes less surprising when you pass an eye over director Edward Zwick’s previous work, having been the man behind Glory, The Siege and Courage Under Fire, it would certainly seem he isn’t a man at ease with his country’s military, either presently or historically, and its certainly nice to see these issues handled with a softer touch than America’s most famous detractor Michael Moore. Conversely, however, his view of the samurai is certainly rose-tinted, and it is one of the few flaws in the film that his obvious infatuation with the mythology of the samurai has prevented him from casting them in even an occasionally imperfect light. If an American director had produced such an overwhelmingly positive depiction of America he would have been damned as a ultra-patriotic flag waver, it seems this is easier to forgive when you are waving someone else’s flag, but that is one of few flaws in the film, and its virtues fill a far greater list.
The film looks nothing short of beautiful, the cinematography of John Toll (who shot such fantastic looking films as Vanilla Sky, Braveheart and The Thin Red Line), combined with amazingly detailed production and costume design is breathtaking, and despite being shot in New Zealand (who seem to have Peter Jackson to thank for creating them a film industry) you will never find yourself doubting that this is exactly what Japan looked like in the 1800’s. That this didn’t win a host of awards is proof positive that the Academy voters never bothered to read their cards before ticking every box for Return of the King, I doubt I’ve ever walked out of a film before thinking it deserved to win awards for costume design, it’s an area that’s often thought to be done right if you don’t notice it, but you’ll notice it here, and for all the right reasons.
Of course all of this would count for little if the acting wasn’t up to scratch, and it seems to hold true that the bigger the budget the less believable Tom Cruise gets, but for once both he and his supporting cast are all fantastic. Even though Cruise is the only person to get be named on the front of the box, the real star of the film is Ken Watanabe, his performance as Katsumoto is stunning, easily filling to boots of a leader ready to take every man under his command to a glorious death if need be, as well as inspiring them to want to. His powerful presence overwhelms Cruise in every scene they share, and this seems to be why Cruise is so believable in his role, whether deliberately or not Cruise has a co-star that owns the screen when they are together, which prevents this from feeling like a Cruise star vehicle – at least when they are together. When Cruise has the screen to himself there are a few more close-ups of stern, manly looks, and slo-mo shots of his hair flowing, but thankfully they are kept to a minimum, even when he is laying waste to hordes of attackers. Cruise also earns some respect for his handling of the Japanese language, as, unlike many western films, the Japanese don’t all magically start speaking English, so a large portion of the film is subtitled. It's a brave move, American audiences aren’t fond of subtitles, but it adds another layer of believability to the film as Algren slowly comes to grip with their language.
You couldn’t talk about this film without mentioning the action, it’s far from being an action movie yet you’ll find levels of it here rivalling the biggest Bruckheimer blockbusters, and it’s brutal. Samurai swords are sharp, this fact you will be in no doubt of when the credits roll, as blood flies and limbs fall at an incredible rate, when the armies of the emperor and Katsumoto finally meet it isn't a sight for the squeamish. The skills displayed by everyone involved, and not least Cruise, are impressive, and the action moves fast, so much so that after one encounter we see the whole thing replayed again in slow motion so you can get an idea of what just happened.
The Last Samurai succeeds in capturing the spirit it so clearly set out to, portraying the samurai as the last truly honourable people in a corrupt time, it wanted to compare them very favourably against western culture and it manages to do so without leaving a saccharine taste in the mouth. The final scenes, which go some way to redeeming the Americans in the affair seem somewhat tacked on for the sake of not offending anyone too much, but even they can’t ruin this film. It does have its flaws, but in keeping with the message of the film, at least they are ones with honourable intentions.
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 the film looks beautiful on DVD, the transfer really is flawless, though watching it on a 32” television will really make you want to upgrade to a projector, as the cinematography is so beautiful it would be fantastic to be swept away by it.
Even though there are action scenes, which sound impressive, this is really a soundtrack driven by Hans Zimmer’s score, with it far more often filling the soundstage than the clanking of swords or the spilling of blood. Levels for the score have really been pushed up all around you, and while this may be a ply to let the score tug at your heartstrings, it’s one that works to great effect and lets you engross yourself in the film.
Commentary from director Edward Zwick
Despite stepping to the microphone alone Ed Zwick manages to keep his commentary moving, albeit at his own wistful pace, for the whole film. It’s impressive to hear just how much thought he’s put into even the smallest aspects of the film, and he talks about many challenges that aren’t obvious, such as getting the audience to buy Cruise’s transition into the Japanese culture without it being forced, It’s much easier to talk at length about action sequences, which he does to some extent, as they are right in your face, but Zwick seems to prefer talking about things that are below the surface of his movie, and this commentary is all the more interesting for it.
History Channel Documentary: History vs. Hollywood
This is a nice addition to the disc, as when the film finished I was left wondering just how much of it was factual. This mini documentary provides some nice background into the period, and reveals - with the help of a number of experts – just how much of the film was factual and how much is Hollywood gloss, all the experts seem to agree that both the look of the film, and its political background are amazingly accurate, even if Algren’s story is pure Hollywood.
Tom Cruise: A Warriors Journey
This mini doc, despite its pretentious title, is about how Algren/Cruise’s skills progress through the film. It appears the action scenes were shot largely in continuity so Cruise and his trainers talk about how his skills in real life improved, making the onscreen action seem more realistic as Cruise was always performing at his top level, not having to hold himself back pretending to be less skilled. Cruise’s co-stars all seem to have a lot of respect for both him and his commitment to learning the various martial arts, with him being commended on how easily he takes instruction.
Edward Zwick: Director’s Video Journal
Calling this a director’s video journal is slightly misleading, as it never looks like Zwick is controlling the camera, rather this is a selection of b-roll footage from the shoot with commentary from Zwick. It’s actually rather well done, starting with the initial shooting in Japan – as some of the architecture would have been impossible to recreate on soundstages, following it to the studios back in America where the Tokyo streets were constructed, and finishing up in New Zealand watching hundreds of extras battle it out on a Rugby ground.
Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise
Although it starts out feeling somewhat scripted and forced, this conversation between Cruise and Zwick – with nobody asking them questions – is rather a nice discussion of the ideals the were trying to display within the film. The clearly both love the samurai ideal of honour, and talk about how the themes of the film ended up being things they wished to convey to their children. The conversation is inter-cut with behind the scenes footage of the film, and there are a lot of fond remembrances from shooting. It’s an entertaining 20 minutes that makes it clear just how much love they ad for the project.
A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert
This looks at the 2 biggest sets from the film, the streets of 1876 Tokyo and Katsumoto’s village. The Tokyo streets were meticulously reconstructed from period photographs on the Warner Brother’s back-lot, you’ll have seen it in many incarnations before looking a lot like New York, and this shows how they transformed it to Tokyo. Katsumoto’s village was a much greater task, being constructed from scratch. The whole village looks magnificent, and it’s impressive to see how much it resembles the original concept sketches,
Silk and Armour: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson
As I mentioned before, the costumes on the film were stunning, so it’s excellent to see this section devoted to them, even if it is a little brief. Obviously being a period piece you can’t have Armani dressing your leads, but the amount of effort that goes into constructing just one of the Samurai’s suits of armour is impressive, but on a production of this scale it’s jaw dropping.
Imperial Army Basic Training
Hundreds of Japanese extras, many of whom had never acted before but were eager to both be in a Hollywood production and show off their skills, took 6 weeks out of their lives to fly to New Zealand so they could train and perform the huge final confrontation between the Samurai and the Japanese Army. This featurette looks at the management of that many people, as they made their way through boot camp (is it possible to make a movie involving some kind of battle that doesn’t involve a mini boot camp any more?) as they are taught to fire the antique rifles and fight for the cameras without looking like they’re in a school project.
From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons
As with all aspects of the film, the weapons were very carefully prepared to make sure they were authentic, from separating the troops – on both sides – into units with various differing weapons, to forging their very own fully functional cannons. This is a nice look into the weapons of the film, but it would have been nice to hear more detail about the samurai swords, we keep hearing that they are so complex that they can take more than a year to produce, but we’re never told what is so intricate about the operation. Maybe they don’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that Algren’s is knocked up in an afternoon before battle, so it was clearly well below par.
Just two scenes here, the first sees Ujio being challenged in the street, and mocked for being a samurai, leading to him defending his honour by beheading the man who gives him no respect. This is followed by a short behind the scenes segment showing how the realistic beheading was accomplished. The second is a discussion between Algren and Katsumoto, which sees them argue about the importance of honour against human life, with Katsumoto trying to explain the ideal of a ‘good death’. Both scenes have optional commentary from Ed Zwick explaining their deletion, and it’s fair to say whilst both are nice scenes they had good reason for being removed.
A collection of soundbites from the Japanese premieres in Tokyo and Kyoto here, and mostly Japanese soundbites, so the feature is full subtitled – even the English parts! It’s interesting to see Cruise talk to the crowds at the end, if only to see he isn’t talking in Japanese, I guess not only is he not as fluent as he appeared in the film, he also couldn’t be bothered to learn any more lines, maybe it’s tougher when you only get one take.
The Last Samurai impresses me, maybe it was all the ‘Dances with Samurai’ stories that had been floating around, but it turned out to be much deeper than I had imagined it would be, along with being visually breathtaking. The movie is presented flawlessly, which is little surprise, but the depth of the special features was very pleasing, stopping the package from feeling like Hollywood gloss, it really translates how much love went into this film extremely well.