The Last Samurai Review
Tom Cruise has been nominated for an Oscar three times, twice for Best Actor (Born on the Fourth of July and Jerry Maguire) and once for Best Supporting Actor, for Magnolia. He’s perhaps the biggest star of his generation yet to receive the accolade and behind his (recently augmented) gleaming smile it must really grate on him that he has yet to be so recognised – after all, he prides himself in the variety of roles he takes on. Now, just in time for awards season, comes The Last Samurai, which comes signposted with Oscar potential. Epic story: check. Heroic and yet embittered lead role: check. Well respected director working with an Oscar-winning screenwriter and a fight choreographer who worked on both Braveheart and Gladiator: check. But is it good enough or will Cruise's trademark grin become ever so slightly glazed come February 29th?
The story follows one Nathan Algren (Cruise), an embittered Captain of the American army who is reluctantly drafted in by the Japanese to train their army against the uprising of the Samurai. The Samurai, it seems, are not happy with the encroachment of Western thinking in their homeland and have taken arms against their own beloved Emperor in protest. During an initial skirmish, Algren is captured by their leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who, intrigued by his foe’s performance on the battlefield, takes him back to their village so he can study him and learn more about the enemy. During the Winter months he is confined there, Algren, already more than a little uncomfortable about the persecution of the Indians in his own country, comes to see that the Samurai have a point, and that far from being a sign of progress, the American influence on Japan is actually diluting and stripping away her proud culture. Finally he decides that he believes in the Samurai so much that he takes up arms with them against the very army he was drafted in to train.
So far, so Dances with Wolves, and to be honest the comparison is flattering to this young pretender. Whereas Wolves was brave enough to have her natives speaking in their own language, here we have Katsumoto – a proud warrior who loathes the very idea of outside influences tainting his beloved Japan – speaking perfect English (he learnt that where, exactly?) and becoming so enamoured with Algren that he allows him to spar freely with his warriors and learn their ways. I wouldn’t mind this, though, if we learnt some more about the Samurai culture, but I came away at the end of the film none the wiser – I knew they were a proud people with a strict honour code at the beginning, and that’s about the only lesson we learn – and with many more questions than there should have been. In a film that purports to debate the rival merits of outside influence on a culture versus keeping a culture’s sanctity, it is difficult to draw any opinions when neither side’s case is satisfactorily explained. On the American side, their influence apparently is little more than introducing Gatling guns into Japan, whereas on the Samurai’s side it seems that there is no deeper problem than not wanting to give up the sword. At no point is there a rigourous debate between the two symbolic head figures, Katsumoto on one side and the weaselly Omura on the other, and yet because Katsumoto is painted at dignified and proud, and the minister as a sly opportunistic, we are expected to side with Katsumoto. This is vaguely insulting to both the intellect of the audience and the Samurai themselves, who I am sure would have constructed a much more rigorous argument.
And then there is Algren’s conversion to their cause. This, too, is portrayed as simplistically as possible. Algren walks around the village a bit, sees what decent chaps the Samurai really are, loses a couple of battles to Ujio, the dour second in command who cannot understand Katsumoto’s interest in the American, and falls for Taka (Koyuki), the wife of the warrior he slew in battle. And that’s it. At no point do we doubt that he will come over to the Samurai’s side, and it seems there’s no doubt in his mind either – he’s already half way there having seen the Indians cut down mercilessly by the Americans. As such there is both a feeling of going through the motions and also a strange lack of emotional involvement in this section, the only time it comes alive being when the village puts on a show and Katsumoto joins in, clowning around with the rest of them. It’s a beautiful little scene and is one of the few where I felt here was a real village with real people. Compared to this, Algren’s “conversations” with the warrior lack depth, which is a real shame as it was here that the film could have found its way. As it is, I found myself more interested in the temple Katsumoto prays at than in anything the two characters say to each other.
Overall, the script really does suffer from the fact that absolutely nothing that happens is unexpected. Even the little details are so clichéd it makes you cry. You know that Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada), the warrior who initially hates Algren will come to have a respect for him. You know that Algren will fall in love with Taka. You know that Algren will face down his nemesis, Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), in the climatic battle. The only thing even vaguely surprising is that poor old Billy Connolly, wearing his trademark wry smile throughout, is cut down so early – a shame really, as he lightens up the screen in the brief time he’s on it. Other than that it is very much plot by numbers, with little levity aside from Algren’s gentle teasing of his Samurai guard to lighten the mood.
Tom Cruise has repeatedly said he doesn’t mind if he gets an Oscar for this film, but it’s plain he sees this as a Big Chance. Overall he’s good and charismatic in the role, as a Hollywood leading man should be, but as there’s no real sense of progression to his character, aside from him leaving his drunken ways behind him, there’s no real reason why he should win. The fact he survives to the end of the film is a tiresome Hollywoodism – he believes in the Samurai’s cause, but hey he doesn’t have to die for it like they do – to make a neat ending. I would even more have welcomed the potential ambiguity of the final voiceover if it had been left at that, as at least it reflects the mysteriousness of the Samurai way of life. He just doesn’t deserve an Oscar for this role – if you had to give him one, it should have been for Magnolia – but I’m a little concerned Hollywood might feel his time has come. Of much more interest is Watanabe as Katsumoto, who gives a warm and convincing performance as a man determined to follow his beliefs to the grave, and someone who knows that he is fighting a losing battle. He has an impressive presence on screen, totally convincing as the honourable leader, and I just wish he had been given more to do. The other players also do well with the material they’ve got, although sadly most are required to give only one note performances - Sanada as Ujiaa, Koyuki as Taka, and so on. You cannot fault the actors, perhaps the only weak link the chain being Shichinosuke Nakamura as the Emperor, who remains impassive no matter what is happening around him – it is one thing to keep a neutral face in front of your minions, but it is another to not portray any feelings at all given the tumultuous nature of events surrounding you.
The film looks beautiful too, and there is a convincing feeling to the surroundings Algren finds himself in, whether it be late 19th-Century Tokyo or the lush Samurai village. It all feels very authentic, down to the armour the Samurai wear – heavy but practical – and is all shot with a pleasing eye. At times it is strongly reminiscent of Kurosawa, in particular the scene in which Algren and Ujio battle with sticks in the middle of a rain storm. The battle scenes are impressively staged and it is easy to see the fingerprints of Nick Powell on them, as he produced very similar-feeling battles for Braveheart and Gladiator. Also of particular note is the eerie first shot of the Samurai riding to battle through the mist and trees near the beginning of the film, wraiths come to defend their land against the onslaught of the new. It’s a lovely moment, demonstrating the grace of the Samurai, and gives the subsequent battles a context that they might not otherwise have had.
In fact, the battles express more eloquently than the dialogue the theme the movie is desperately trying to get across of modernity vs tradition, the conflict between old and new. The Samurai, armed only with their swords which they have wielded for hundreds if not thousands of years, face the onslaught of weapons that can spew out multiple rounds in minutes and while the traditionalists are finally cut down before the might of the new, they do manage through guile and cunning to cut down far more of their foes than in theory you would think they had any right to. This would suggest that the film’s message is that old and new must compromise if they are to live together, that progress is inevitable but that old customs still have a part in the new world order, although once again the script lets down the side with an end in which the Emperor rejects the Americans fullscale. This muddying of the thematic waters is another demonstration that the film’s reach far outweighs its grip.
The musical score is, surprisingly, almost completely lacking in oriental flavour and as such is a bit disappointing. It is never more than functional and certainly doesn’t have the feel this would-be epic needs, having no memorable riffs to mark it out of the ordinary.
The Last Samurai is an entertaining film, and at least strives to be more than the usual multiplex fodder. The people I went to see it with came out raving, saying that it hadn’t felt anywhere near two and a half hours long, but for me it came across as thinking it was a much better film than it really is. It certainly doesn’t deserve to do much business on Oscar night, aside from perhaps cinematography, and, while I think Tom Cruise does deserve an Oscar at some point, I hope it’s not for this. It’s not a bad film – it’s too professionally made for that – but at the end of the day it would be nice if, instead of skimming the surface of the subject, it had dared to dig deeply into the potentially fascinating central debate. As it stands, it can only be filed under Missed Opportunity.