Nishan Fuard

Last Samurai, The

19th August 2004
The Last Samurai Poster reviewer: Nishan Fuard
rating: 3 out of 5
directed by: Edward Zwick
written by: John Logan
starring: Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, William Atherton
genre: Action Adventure Drama War
released: 9th January 2004

Whilst Kurosawa’s seven have their place in cinematic history it remains to be seen if Hollywood’s sole samurai will be as revered. The Last Samurai makes no secret of its ambitions though with Tom Cruise on board as star and producer, Edward Zwick (Glory) directing and a story from Gladiator writer John Logan.

It’s a stirring tale of honour and tradition that leans towards the epic and has some impressively staged battle scenes. The film’s setting and its initial premise echo Shogun although some critics were quick to make comparisons with Dances with Wolves.

When we first meet Nathan Algren (Cruise) he’s seems nothing more than a washed-up Civil War veteran plying his shooting skills to drum up trade for the Winchester rifle company. But beneath the boozy exterior Algren is still a consummate soldier and he’s sharp enough to grab the opportunity that allows him to quit being a sideshow stooge.

Japan is undergoing intense modernisation and has opened itself to Western influence. The young emperor, an advocate of progress, wants his troops trained in modern warfare and Algren has been hired for this task. Yet there is an ulterior motive: although the samurai class has dwindled in power and influence, there is still a group of warriors that defy the emperor by refusing to give up the sword and their ways. Algren is charged with ending the rebellion.

Still unfamiliar with using rifles the imperial army is quickly routed in its first encounter with the samurai; Algren is spared and captured. The rebel leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), wants to learn from the enemy and in turn Algren learns of the samurai cause and begins to embrace their code of honour.

There is something distinctly familiar about The Last Samurai. You know that despite Algren’s initial defiance he will eventually come to respect his enigmatic captors. That he will turn his back on his own culture (Algren particularly loathes General Custer and the extermination of the American Indians) and eventually triumph with rather than against the samurai. The victory in defeat motif is also plain to see.

The film looks wonderful. The scenes within the samurai village make you want to breathe the clean air, smell the freshly tilled earth and touch the falling cherry blossom. All staples of what you’d expect to see in rural Japan perhaps (although some of the film was shot in New Zealand), but this doesn’t detract from the beauty.

The battles are also lovingly crafted, particularly the cavalry charge in the misty forest. The ninja assault is also a frenzied and exciting affair.

Cruise puts in tremendous effort, especially in swordsmanship, but he’s less interesting than Watanabe’s meditative and fiercely honourable samurai. A British contingent consisting of Billy Connolly and Timothy Spall appear in minor roles.

The Last Samurai is an enjoyable if slightly overlong historical jaunt (naturally, there have been claims of inaccuracies). However, it doesn’t really dig deep into the nature of the samurai and if you’re more interested in this aspect then there are much better films (and not all Japanese) available.