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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Last Samurai, The  


The Last Samurai

Reviewed by 1. Soh Yun-Huei 2. Sinnerman

Alternative Title: The Last Samurai: Bushidou
Director: Edward Zwick
Writing Credits: John Logan, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Cast: Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, William Atherton, Chad Lindberg, Harada Masato, Odate Masashi
Genre: Action Drama
Country: USA, Japan
Language: English, Japanese
Released: 2003
Runtime: 154 min

1. Review by Soh Yun-Huei
Rating: *** ½ (out of four stars)

What’s most memorable about The Last Samurai is not the rousing battle sequences, or the amazing cinematography by John Toll, or the convincing performances by the entire cast, or the evocative score by Hans Zimmer. Rather, it’s the near-perfect blend of emotional resonance within an epic, sweeping film that makes The Last Samurai stand head and shoulders above similar films. Director Edward Zwick should be proud – between this movie, Glory and Courage Under Fire, Zwick has proven to be one of the most, if not the most, accomplished director of war movies in recent times.

The year is 1876. Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a soldier who has seen too much violence and persecution for his own good. Still haunted by images of his last battle with the Native Americans, Algren has turned to drink, and with the lack of any war to fight in, he has resorted to appearing as a celebrity endorsement for a rifle company to earn his next drink. This changes, however, when a Japanese delegation led by Omura (Masato Harada), a Minister to the Emperor of Japan, arrives in America looking for American heroes to teach the ways of modern warfare to Japanese soldiers. Omura makes an offer that Algren cannot refuse, and he soon embarks on a journey to Japan, together with his Sergeant, Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), and his superior Colonel Benjamin Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), with whom Algren has a grudge against.

Once there, Algren finds out that the soldiers he has to train are to be used against a rebel group led by a Samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), whose attacks on the Japanese railway are hampering its completion and have to be stopped. Algren teaches a troop of conscripts on how to fire rifles, but Katsumoto strikes before the troops are ready, soundly defeating Algren and the soldiers. Algren is spared death, and instead taken as a captive to Katsumoto’s village. There, he spends the winter of 1876 and the spring of 1877, gradually learning the ways of the Samurai, acquiring a rudimentary command of spoken Japanese, improving his fighting skills, and even falling in love with Katsumoto’s sister, Taka (Koyuki). Before long, Algren is no longer treated as a captive but as a comrade, and he begins to believe in Katsumoto’s views on modernizing Japan. Algren must then make a choice – to return to Tokyo and train the troops against Katsumoto, or to fight alongside Katsumoto in a battle they have almost no hopes of winning.

Zwick has succeeded in bringing old Japan to life in The Last Samurai. Period details feel accurate, and the sweeping battle sequences are a good match for those found in the recent Return of the King, both in scope and emotional range. The Last Samurai is also consistently stunning to look at, from the beautiful scenery to the almost poetic grace of many of the battle scenes. It’s also to Zwick’s credit that he doesn’t try to force in too much of a romantic subplot, which would most likely have caused the movie to flag. The few scenes that Algren shares with Taka are poignant and handled with typical Japanese restraint. Unfortunately, the plot isn’t perfect – the final two reels become a bit too heavy handed, with the enemy forces being unnecessarily demonized in manipulative scenes, and some hardcore American chest beating that may be hard to swallow for some audiences.

However, this isn’t to too much detriment to the film, because the film never once loses sight of its characters and the human drama inherent in them. This is as much a credit to Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan (Logan also wrote Gladiator), as to the truly stellar performances of the entire cast. Tom Cruise, the most recognizable face in the film, puts in a passionate performance as Algren, and his Dances With Wolves-esque transformation is believable and impressive. However, he is overshadowed in every scene with Ken Watanabe, who exudes a charisma and presence that far outdo Cruise, and Watanabe becomes the emotional center of the film and the perfect embodiment of the honorable Samurai with seeming ease. It’s a superlative performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. Koyuki is also stunning in a role that requires her to emote not through words but through action, and her conflict at gradually falling in love with the man who killed her husband and the ensuing sexual tension is played out flawlessly in a nuanced performance.

The Last Samurai is a film about the clash between old and new, about how modernization can bring forth the death of culture and honor, and bar a few awkward moments, succeeds on all counts. Expertly mixing action with drama, comedy with pathos, The Last Samurai is not only an effective film, but also a hugely entertaining one. Without a doubt, The Last Samurai is the first unmissable film of the new year.

Final Word: Without a doubt already one of the best films of the year, The Last Samurai ranks as a must-watch this festive season, or any other.


2. Review by Sinnerman
Rating: *** ½ (out of four stars)

In the words of Frank TJ Mackey: "We, are, man!!"

The Last Samurai is a thinking guy flick. It celebrates the values men hold in codes and honor. It champions the virtues of stoicism and tenacity, especially in the face of losing battles. And of course, it attempted to exoticize Japanese culture, with some parts of its screenplay seemingly lifted out of back translated fortune cookies. But I am not bothered much by such pedantically imperialistic concerns. For its blood pumping war action and martial arts choreography more than capably distracts my critical faculties. So much so that I'm thankful now I don't write reviews for a living. At once sweeping yet intimately rendered, The Last Samurai is a prized find alongside Master and Commander. It’s a movie made by men, for men. Its sexist chauvinism is delicious beyond reckoning. Me like.

Ok, enough gender trumpeting. Here's the review proper.

A Two-man Play (Did that come out right?)

A film, however blindingly epic, will never work without the essential conduit of effective performances. I hence liked the fact that the film attempted to articulate depths in the two central male characters (Cruise and Watanabe). Both men are at war with external forces, at war with each other and most intriguing of all, at war with themselves. It came out the better for it.

Though outwardly a courageous man, a brilliant war tactician and a very tenacious soldier, Cruise's voice-overs (transcribed words in his journals) reveal him to be an empathetic man wounded by his war experiences, jaded by past betrayals and haunted by his stricken conscience. He just couldn't let go. Since Magnolia, Cruise has not delivered a performance I can condemn conscionably, here is another....

Ken Watanabe, the fierce and fearsome chief of the renegade Samurai tribe, transcended his external persona. In the quieter moments, the man exuded an aura of collected calm and kingly air of dignity. He is also a man of profound love for his family, his honor, his people and his emperor. The lordly charisma emanating from this man increases his verisimilitude as an inspiring leader. His men will follow him to the very ends of battles, even to their certain deaths. But he is no Godly being, for here too is a man who feels the weight of his duties/ responsibilities, who bears the very human burden of gradually losing his fight, upholding his ancestral Japanese traditions in the face of his country's ravaging modernity. I concur with his well-deserved Globe nomination. An Oscar berth need too be given.
Via their conversations and individual introspection, this film thus charted the respective emotional and spiritual journey embarked on by both men. Coursing through their respective gains and losses, the trust, friendship and collective experiences of the samurai and the warrior will put them both in good stead when their time comes.

The Ensemble

But if I can have my way, I will vote for the stoic yet lovable "Bob" (heh). There is a point to this above jibe, of course. For The Last Samurai boasts of actors who are all round outstanding, from Cruise on down to the smallest soldier/ samurai. Every face with a close-up, big or small, delivered on their emotional cues, culminating into an ensemble resembling a well-oiled machinery. There is an unforced honesty in the expressions of even them bit actors. I think this evocative Japanese-ness might have (by accident even) rubbed off on the film.

For War & Glory

Both Cruise and Watanabe's characters are portrayed as ones well schooled (or interested) in the art of warfare and combat. This thus made The Last Samurai a very satisfying war movie for yours truly. There is a certain beauty in the orchestration of the battles. Very often, big scale cinematic war sequences are not well articulated enough to suck an audience into its core. To achieve this connection, a delicate balance need be struck within its ebb and flow. It needs to be skillfully alternating between the grandeur of the troop movements, the intimate nuances of the protagonists' characterization while not losing sight of the intricacies of situational developments. The Last Samurai succeeded on all three counts. In fact, it's ingeniously rousing last stand with the enemies' meat grinding weaponries is one of the best rendered war action choreography I have the fortune of experiencing this millennium.

Selected Favorite Lines

Goldwyn to Cruise: "Why do you hate your people so much?….."
Cruise to boy(or woman) later on in the flick: "….(Because) they have come to destroy the people I have come to love...."

Yes, this film reminded me of Dances with wolves (and similarly, Nowhere in Africa). I loved them all too. Cultural imperialists may have their field day with The Last Samurai, but I instinctively respond to such culture clashing films. Its not about which culture is more superior or more exoticized, it’s about our mutual willingness to listen and learn from each other. For via these cross-pollination exercises, wisdom and insights are interchangeably imparted, along with other quaint and (maybe) useless customs. It’s all about selective acceptance of the good and discarding the bad. Yes, I do opine that even films like The Last Samurai can teach us something in return. But it can only be learnt if one is open to its educational intent.

A Long and Winding Conclusion

I will like to think of The Last Samurai as a solid human/ war drama, a genre Edward Zwick often excel in. They may all have been set in different times and places, from "Glory" to "Courage under fire" to this Samurai pic, but Zwick always possesses a flair in spinning simple, affecting tales of humanity and morality. I love this guy for he has shown to be one of Hollywood's most underrated cinematic advocates of grand, unabashed earnestness. And unlike most embarrassing wannabees, he makes good movies based on said principles. Sadly though, one value is often necessarily sacrificed in favours of such a singular conviction, dramatic subtlety.

I have no problem with Zwick's shtick, for I have already weighed in on his pluses and minuses. I have since opted to embrace his movies, warts and all, for he speaks to my sensibilities. But if you wanna gauge your threshold for such cloying (albeit good intentioned) cinema, look no further than this test kit survey; what did you think of "Glory" and "Courage under fire"? If you love'em both like I did, go see The Last Samurai immediately. If not, go see it anyway. I hope to see you come back and talk sense into stubborn fucks like me. For I have this one idealistic opinion of people who don't like Zwick's flicks; their complaints about his lack of subtlety in such well-made epics like The Last Samurai, may jolly well be their personal rights, but it’s also my personal right to think it way too much of a nit pick from them nit pickers. Which camp you belong to depends on what you will think of it. So go see it and let's talk some more. Happy Holidays!