Film Score: Hans Zimmer Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada and Koyuki Kato
The Last Samurai by Edward Zwick is a masterful piece of filmmaking and displays Cruise’s talents to their best. Like some of the director’s previous films, Legends of the Fall and Defiance, this is an historical drama and it is certainly something he does well. In addition he has a terrific script by John Logan, who wrote Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and a very strong supporting cast to help him realize his vision. And though it’s not quite as impressive as Scott’s film in term of scope and story, Zwick manages to walk a fine line between cultures and demonstrates a significant difference between the capitalist zeal that not only has a stranglehold on Euro-American culture but also infected Japanese culture at the end of the nineteenth century, and a more earth-based existence culture that values cooperation with nature rather than dominance over it
The film begins with Tom Cruise as an alcoholic ex-cavalryman who has nightmares about the Indian wars that he participated in under Custer and along side Tony Goldwyn. He has drifted into a position as a demonstrator for the Winchester company for William Atherton. After he’s fired for drunkenness Billy Connolly takes him to see Goldwyn, who makes him an offer to come to Japan and train their soldiers. The offer comes from the acting head of the Emperor’s government, Masato Harada. So he takes the money and goes. There he meets British author, photographer and translator Timothy Spall. In the nineteenth century much of Asia was closed to Euro-American trade and culture. Japan was one of the most ardently against this intrusion into their culture. But they also realized that with modernization comes the need to trade for raw materials they would need to industrialize their nation. With the ascension of a new emperor, Shichinosuke Nakamura, who has allowed Harada to completely open the country to western influence, the samurai, the traditional protectors of the emperor, have rebelled because they feel this change is bad for the people of Japan. Ken Watanabe is the leader of the samurai, and during a failed attempt by Cruise and his Japanese soldiers to attack them his men capture Cruise, but not before Cruise kills one of them.
That first battle scene is beautifully atmospheric, with fog and blue light turning the forest in to a haunted land from a fantasy world, just the conditions the samurai use to frighten their enemy. When Watanabe sees Cruise continue to fight, even when surrounded and wounded and facing certain death, he inexplicably saves him and takes him back to his village. The middle part of the film is the real meat of the story. Cruise winds up living in the house of the man he killed, Watanabe’s brother in law. And there’s a strong parallel between the Native Americans and the samurai that causes Cruise to give up his Western ways in a similar fashion as Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. One of the things that impresses Watanabe most about Cruise is his apparent lack of fear about dying, though he has no idea this has come about from feelings of guilt and futility, the same motivations that cause Costner’s suicide ride in the beginning of his film. Truth be told, there are many similarities between the two films in both story and character. But because of the extreme differences in the culture, it doesn’t feel like a copy or a rip-off.
While Tom Cruise is good, Ken Watanabe is exceptional, as is his angry lieutenant, Hiroyuki Sanada, and grudging respect eventually turns to a bond of brotherhood and love between them. For his performance Watanabe was given an Oscar nomination. Koyuki Kato as the widow, Sôsuke Ikematsu as her son, and Shin Koyamada as Watanabe’s son do a tremendous job as well. But all the Japanese actors are excellent. Ultimately, the situation in Japan at the time portrayed is far less simplistic as the film puts it, and the idealization of a lost way of life and the “noble savages” who live it threatens to undermine the whole story. But once the viewer can move beyond the literal and see in Cruise the ability to understand and immerse himself in an entirely different culture, it is quite inspirational. The film was given four Academy Award nominations but, with the exception of Watanabe, none of them were in major categories, though a Cruise film was never going to do any better. Which probably caused the actor no end of grief when Johnny Depp was nominated the same year for best actor in one of the horrible Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But the truth will out, and Zwick’s film has stood the test of time. Whatever your opinion of Tom Cruise is--and there are certainly moments when he’s not up to the task--The Last Samurai is a compelling piece of filmmaking and a powerful ideological criticism of consumerist culture.