Anyone who knows me knows that I love samurai movies; the epics of Akira Kurosawa, the tragicomedies of Zatoichi, the swagger of Toshiro Mifune’s Samurai trilogy, the tragedy of Hara-Kiri, the slice n’ dice of Lone Wolf and Cub, etc. So naturally, I was pretty interested in seeing The Last Samurai, even if I was somewhat put off by the fact that it was both a Hollywood film and a Tom Cruise film. Well, I just got back from seeing it, and most of my fears were pretty much realized.
First of all, the movie is incredible from a technical standpoint. Cinematography, costumes, battle sequences (the scene when the samurai first appear, riding out of the misty forest like apparitions, is breathtaking), locations — all of those are magnificent. Much of the acting is topnotch as well. However, it should be noted that the finest acting in the movie comes from the Japanese cast, specifically Ken Watanabe who gives a powerful performance as the rebel samurai leader Matsumoto. And perhaps best of all, it has ninjas (personally, I believe that most movies can be dramatically improved with the presence of a few ninjas).
But the movie’s flaws are pretty numerous, as well, starting with Tom Cruise’s performance. I don’t hate Cruise — if he’s in the right movie. But in The Last Samurai, much of his performance seems to consist of “Deep Meaningful Statements” and looks that range from “thoughtful” to “tortured” to “pensive.” Indeed, much of the movie’s dialog is pretty cheesy and clunky — the movie is bookended by two real groaners.
And while I won’t spoil anything, the movie’s ending feels incredibly contrived. It’s a standard Hollywood ending, complete with another one of those “Deep, Meaningful Statements,” and it shoots itself in the foot. However, I’m sure test audiences would’ve found the truer ending, one that is more inline with the movie’s tone and ideals, too much of a downer.
However, the movie’s biggest problem is twofold and stems from one of the movie’s central concepts, that of the conflict that arises between modernization and tradition, specifically within Japan’s history. In The Last Samurai, Japan is seeking to modernize and reaches out to Western countries. However, this modernization is seen by some as a threat to traditions and customs that have lasted for over 1000 years, and a group of samurai rebel as a result.
Now, I’m certainly no fan of rampant Westernization taking over the entire globe at the expense of longheld traditions. I believe traditions need to be understood, respected, and even preserved at times. And I do enjoy the fact that The Last Samurai tries to bring attention to the traditions of Japan (albeit in a slightly overwrought and melodramatic way), and touches on this entire issue. However, The Last Samurai presents an incredibly romanticized vision of the samurai tradition.
When Tom Cruise’s character arrives in Tokyo, it is crowded, dirty, and polluted. By contrast, the village of the rebel samurai is serene, peaceful, and idyllic. Everyone is smiling and perfectly at peace. This is simply not the truth.
Now, the ideals of the samurai way of life, as typified by Bushido’s code — honor, nobility, courage, sacrifice — are certainly admirable. However, the reality was far different. The samurai class made up only a fraction of the population, and under their rule, the commoners were subject to great oppression. But you won’t get any of that from The Last Samurai, which posits Westernization (and specifically, Americanization) as a great evil despite the fact that it takes a White American Male to save the day and help the Japanese learn the error of their ways, and at the same time, presents an incredibly idyllic version of a past that simply was not.
The Last Samurai isn’t a total bomb, but it certainly could’ve been better. And it’s certainly no Kurosawa movie. As with Kill Bill, I think my greatest hope for The Last Samurai is that encourages people to seek out the real thing, done by the culture(s) and countries that should be doing them. For starters, I would watch Yôji Yamada’s masterful The Twilight Samurai, a recent samurai film that is the complete antithesis of The Last Samurai (and I mean that in every good way possible).