A sweeping vision of clashing cultures“The Last Samurai” unfolds as a sweeping vision of cultural clashes and the brute force of modernization. Even with its epic scale, it never loses sight of its characters, and resonates from beginning to end.
Like previous films from its director, Edward Zwick (“Glory,” “Courage Under Fire”), its main character is an American soldier. But this story is one of two warriors from very different countries. One is a samurai leader of 19th-century Japan, at the sunset of the samurai tradition. The other is an embittered soldier from the comparatively young United States, where he was called upon to ravage the Native Americans. The two meet as enemies, but both have such strong inner compasses that curiosity develops into respect and loyalty.
Tom Cruise delivers as a Civil War veteran, Nathan Algren, who sells rifles to pay for his drinking habit. He’s haunted by memories of past killings.
When his former commander, Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn), offers Nathan a job in Japan, the pay is too good to turn down. But Nathan’s inner demons are revealed in a journal entry: “I am hired to once again stop the rebellion of another tribal leader ― apparently the only job for which I am qualified.”
Nathan journeys to Japan to teach modern warfare to the Emperor’s forces. Omura (Masato Harada), a Japanese politician, is gathering the forces to destroy the samurai, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who oppose the path of modernization that Omura has chosen.
As Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel” demonstrates, the evolution and use of guns had a major influence on the direction of the modern world’s development. To this day, the political games of international politics yield to those nations most proficient in warfare. In “The Last Samurai,” guns have no place in the samurai’s world. But some of the emperor’s advisors covet the guns, railroads and warfare training of the West. So the story of modernization is woven into this tale.
The collision of cultures also plays its part. In one country, beauty is found in the perfect cherry blossom, and in devotion to perfecting one’s skills. Killing can be an honor. In another country, generals are scoffed at, and murder psychologically damages the murderer. In this sense, “The Last Samurai” is a Western tribute to Japan.
While the plot is engrossing, the heart of the movie is two-fold. It’s found in its humanity ― from the samurai leader who chooses to be accountable to the old ways, to a fallen soldier’s search for redemption, to a child’s desire for a father, even if the replacement killed his blood father, to the emperor who must yield power to maintain power.
But the film’s heart belongs equally to its cinematography. The visual impact of the movie is like a rolling tidal wave. Its power comes in large part from the aesthetics of Japan. At times, the scenes bring to mind the beauty of a Kurasawa film. The verdant mountainsides, the simple architecture in the villages and the menacing but antiquated armor of the samurai set the background for grand and gory battles.
While it is possible to dismiss this movie as a typical Tom Cruise vehicle ― a story of man stripped bare and left to make a last stand for redemption ― “The Last Samurai” is also storytelling at its best.
“The Last Samurai”
Action / English
by Joe Yong-hee