The Last Samurai
February 19, 2003
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, William Atherton, Chad Lindberg, Ray Godshall Sr., Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Masashi Odate, John Koyama, Timothy Spall, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Togo Igawa, Satoshi Nikaido, Shintaro Wada, ,
The one-two punch of The Last Samurai (2003) and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) marks a surprising mini-resurgence of the samurai movie genre. When most people think of examples from this type of movie, the first ones that come to mind are Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961). However, digital cable channels like IFC are showcasing other, lesser known films of the genre, like Zatochi: The Blind Swordsman film series and Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Samurai trilogy. The Last Samurai is the latest Tom Cruise vehicle but is it merely Dances With Samurai as some critics have claimed or a sincere attempt to pay respect to one of Japanese cinema’s most popular exports?
Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a career soldier and survivor of the Indian and American Civil Wars. In-between conflicts, he has become an unkempt drunk, an embarrassing shill for a rifle manufacturing company with erratic behaviour. He is drawn out of his alcoholic stupor and enlisted by the U.S. government to go to Japan. He must train the Emperor’s army to quash the samurai warrior rebellion, led by the enigmatic Katsumoto (Watanabe).
Algren quickly realizes that the army is vastly inexperienced but his superior (Goldwyn) orders them to engage the samurai anyway. Predictably, they are hopelessly outclassed and slaughtered. Algren is taken hostage but not before taking down countless samurai in the process. Katsumoto (Watanabe) is impressed by Algren’s fearless warrior spirit and his obsessive death wish. He also sees a part of himself in Algren and decides to learn more about this intriguing man. Predictably, the longer Algren stays with the samurai, the more he comes to respect them and their way of life. You can pretty much figure out where this going as Algren earns the samurai’s respect and joins them in their struggle.
Tom Cruise delivers the right amount of intensity for the role. He does a fine job of portraying a man haunted by past horrors he’s committed in the name of the U.S. government. As with all of his roles, Cruise is committed a 100%, even going so far as to do most of his own stunts become very capable with fighting techniques of the period.
The heart and soul of the film belongs to Ken Watanabe who is a fascinating actor to watch. He brings a peaceful serenity and spirituality to his role. He conveys an intelligence that befits his character and yet, he also has a world-weariness of a career warrior who has seen too much killing in his time. Watanabe’s performance transcends what could have been a stereotypical cliché into an interesting, layered character. The film truly comes alive whenever he’s on-screen. It is easy to see why he was nominated for an Academy Award.
What links Algren and Katsumoto is their mutual respect for one another as veteran warriors. Some of the best scenes in the movie are the discussions between the two men and the friendship that develops as a result. Katsumoto has made peace with his violent past and he tries to impart this knowledge on Algren.
The Last Samurai is a beautifully shot film by master cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous). Zwick shot the film in a widescreen aspect ratio and fills the screen with stunning, postcard perfect landscape shots of ancient Japan (actually New Zealand). Toll also photographs the battle scenes with impressive skill. The first skirmish between the Emperor’s army and the samurai occurs during fog-enshrouded dusk. Toll lights the scene so that samurai first emerge from the mist charging in on horseback like ominous ghosts.
On the first DVD, the film’s director, Edward Zwick contributes an audio commentary. He is soft-spoken and provides a lot of background on the filming of specific scenes. He also talks about the motivations of the various characters and articulates the themes that the film explores. This is an informative track and Zwick speaks clearly and plainly, making it well worth a listen.
The second DVD contains the rest of the extra material.
“Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journey” kicks things off. The actor talks about his character with clips from the movie. Cruise imparts a genuine love and enthusiasm for the subject matter and for making movies. He is an eloquent speaker and it’s a shame that he didn’t participate with Zwick on the commentary track.
“Edward Zwick: Director’s Video Journal” is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film from his point-of-view. This feels a little redundant after listening to Zwick’s commentary.
“Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise” is an excellent conversation between the two men with clips from the film that illustrate certain points in their discussion. It’s a shame that the conversation they recorded for Turner Classic Movie’s Samurai Film night wasn’t also included. In between screenings of classic Akira Kurosawa films they talked about each film and conveyed a real passion for these movies that isn’t evident on the DVD.
“History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai” is a featurette produced by the History Channel that examines how historically accurate the film was compared to the actual history. Again, Cruise speaks very knowledgably of Japanese history. He clearly did his homework for this role!
“A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert” explores the hard work that went into building the detailed sets of 19th century Japan. To recreate the streets of a city in Japan, she brought in 150 people who took three months to achieve very realistic looking results.
“Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson” examines the challenging job of creating diverse historically accurate clothes that reflected the characters’ personalities.
“Imperial Army Basic Training” shows the boot camp that Zwick and his military advisors assembled for the 300 Japanese extras they shipped in for the film. They had to be housed, fed and trained in a rigorous two-week program.
“From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons” is a look at the amount of work that went into making and using all of the period weapons.
“Bushido: The Way of the Warrior” is text from the Samurai code.
Also included are two deleted scenes with an optional audio commentary by Zwick. He talks about where the footage fits into the film and why it was cut.
“Japan Premieres” shows the enthusiastic reaction the film and its cast and crew received when it debuted in Tokyo and Kyoto in November 2003. This is pretty standard press kit soundbites as the cast are interviewed on the red carpet.
Finally, there is the theatrical trailer for the movie.
In many respects, The Last Samurai resembles a Japanese version of Dances With Wolves (1990). It is yet another American take on a foreign culture with a definite liberal stance that paints the Americans in the wrong and the Japanese as cultured savages. However, the casting of Watanabe and the actors who play his samurai warriors picks away at this cliché. Watanabe is never shown in a condescending light but as Cruise’s equal. The DVDs extras make it quite clear that Cruise and company have great respect for Japanese culture and this translates well in the final product.