MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Samurai

This post was written December 5, 2003, and posted to my first weblog called Shotoblog, which now exists only as a web archive accessible through the way-back machine. I originally gave this movie a 3-1/2 out of 5 pine cone rating! I’m reposting here more out of nostalgia than anything else.

Before I remembered that I have a standardized format for titling my movie and book review posts, I started thinking of titles for this post–“Richard Chamberlain lives!,” etc. And it’s true that the movie has its Shogun elements (Cruise even looks a little like Chamberlain…). However, in reality, it’s much more like Dances with Wolves meets Gladiator. The similarity with Kevin Costner’s Western about the soldier that becomes a Sioux tribesman is almost impossible to miss since Tom Cruise’s character is consumed with the same Native American concerns with which Dances deals. The similarities with Gladiator abound, too, which should come as no surprise since the movies’ stories and scripts were both by John Logan.

Attentive moviegoers may remember that the year 2000’s sword-and-sandal epic about the virtuous Roman general Maximus was surrounded by some controversy over the fact that it played fast and loose with historical fact. At various times in antiquity there was a general Maximus, there was an Emperor Commodus who himself took part in gladiatorial combats, and there was an emperor who was killed while fighting with a gladiator of sorts (a wrestler). But these historical figures never interacted, let alone in the way they did.

Similarly, The Last Samurai begins with historical fact and then weaves its own tapestry of events. During their period of rapid modernization, the Japanese did import foreign instructors like Tom Cruise’s character Algren to instruct them in warfare, engineering, bureaucratic management, etc. And they did experience a conservative samurai revolt, known as the Satsuma Rebellion. Ken Watanabe’s character Katsumoto is clearly based on the historical character Saigo Takamori, leader of the Satsuma Rebellion. And although I don’t know for sure, I suspect the character Simon Graham, the British photographer, is also based on an historical person. However, no events like those in this movie are recorded.

Algren (Cruise) served under General George Custer of Little Big Horn fame. Although the movie never tells us how Algren escaped Little Big Horn, he’s drinking away his visions of the American Indians he killed when the Japanese show up to offer him a position training their new modern army. In its first confrontation with the rebellious samurai, he is captured and taken to their village, where he sobers up and finds something to believe in in the samurai rebellion. He saves Lord Katsumoto from assassination, is accepted as a “real samurai” by all the formerly bigoted Japanese and, in the end, fights in one last glorious battle of traditional samurai against the modern Japanese army. As an action movie, this plot makes for fair if predictable viewing. As a piece of historical fiction, though, it presents at least two problems.

The first problem is that the message given to the audience at the end of the movie–that, even as we modernize, it is important not to forget the past–is contradicted by the movie itself, which muddies and blurs past events by mixing fact with fiction. And the problem is mirrored and compounded by various directorial choices. For example, Algren is cured of alcoholism after one or two nights of withdrawal symptoms. Likewise, as the last battle looms, medieval Japanese sword smiths fashion Algren a sword in a few days using a process that might have taken a real smith a month. Details like these pass over most members of the audience, but that’s just the issue at question.

The second problem is that the movie’s plot never gives us a reason to come to the conclusion that we should preserve those old ways of doing things. Although we can assume from the movie’s pre-release hype that Algren finds courage, honor, devotion and other virtues in the traditional samurai, we are shown nothing to suggest that these values inhere in ancientness and are absent by definition in modernity. What we are shown is that Algren is simply happier living as a sober samurai with a family (another man’s wife and children) than as an alcoholic traveling salesman. Big surprise.

This failure in the movie bothers me because I am sympathetic to the historical Satsuma Rebellion and would have liked to see the movie confront us with its potential challenges. I would have liked to see a Burkean critique of the Meiji Restoration. Instead, we got a Rousseau-style idolization of the past in which happiness and goodness are simply asserted.

The choice to go with one style of traditionalism over another starts with the inception of the main character, in which John Logan decides to make Algren’s association with the American military through the Indian Wars rather than through the Civil War. This choice is very decisive and important from a story-teller’s perspective. In making Algren a veteran of the Indian Wars, Mr. Logan sets up a parallel between, on one hand, the conservative samurai and innocent, oppressed native people and, on the other hand, the Japanese government and an imperialistic American government. The issue becomes one of tribalism versus “white-man’s culture.”

If I had written the movie, I would have chosen to make Algren a Confederate veteran instead. This differene would have set up a parallel between rebellious factions and governments that more closely resembled the situation in the Satsuma Rebellion. It also would have made the issue one of traditionalism versus modernity, which would have had more to do with the Meiji Restoration and been more relevant to modern viewers as well.

At first, I thought the reason Mr. Logan made the choice he did was simple PC motivation. (There is a little of that in the movie. For example, Algren corrects Katsumoto when he calls Custer a general: “He wasn’t a general, he was a lieutenant-colonel.” Well, that’s just a cut at the infamous Custer, who was given a battlefield promotion to general rather than earning it the normal way.) However, on further reflection, I’ve decided that really–and this is a much more sad explanation–the reason was that audiences indoctrinated with the dichotomous thought of modern school systems wouldn’t have been able to deal with a movie that indicated that there was anything sympathetic about the ante-bellum South. It’s unfortunate because the question of cultural preservation is complex and unclear, and a parallel between conservative samurai and conservative Southerners would have given us much more to think about. There was goodness and nobility in the South just as there was injustice and hypocrisy in feudal Japan and to think otherwise is to fall into mythologization of history.

From a cinematic perspective, the movie is good but falls short in several respects. Some reviewers have commented that the beautiful cinematography of the Japanese landscape is a further parallel with Dances with Wolves, but the truth is that the cinematographer of Dances had a much better eye for capturing the American prairie land than did Samurai‘s for capturing Japan. Japan is an incredibly varied land, and misty mountain-scapes were overused. Also, traditional Japanese aesthetic sensibility, which lends itself very well to the big screen, was explored less through camera work than through set and location choices, which is unfortunate. More to do with cosmopolitan Yokohama would have been nice, too. Viewers who want to get more perspective on that can read Yoshikawa Eiji’s Fragments of a Past.

Homages to the famous Japanese director Kurosawa Akira were present throughout the film from script to direction, which is a good thing. Watanabe’s slightly swaggering Katsumoto with loose-fitting clothes was reminiscent of Mifune’s Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, while the Demons in the Mist scene was taken from Dreams and the survived-yet-another-battle stoicism of Algren harks back to the end of Seven Samurai. Viewers will no doubt find a plethora of other Kurosawa trivia as well.

I have to say, though, that for all my criticism, I do not regret spending this afternoon in the theater. Unlike Shogun, I wasn’t totally embarassed by the romance, and the gai-jin’s rise to acceptance seemed much more believable considering Katsumoto’s background as a former general in the Meiji government. The only thing in the movie that really rang untrue was the attack by the ninja army…