Movie Review

 

The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai

Production Company: Warner Brothers
Director:  Joel Zwick
Principals: Tom Cruise, Tony Goldwyn, Ken Watanabe
Rating: R (Violence)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMC.org) -- Is preserving a way of life worth killing or dying for? Is a man’s worth measured by his honor? And what is honor? These questions are woven through the new Tom Cruise costume epic, The Last Samurai. One thing is certain; the hot movie accessory this season is the sword. From Pirates of the Caribbean to Kill Bill anyone who’s anyone is flashing steel. With Samurai, director Joel Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) mounts his tale of the dying days of feudal Japan on a grand scale, capturing both the chaos and strange grace of expert fighting men living and dying by the sword.

The Last Samurai
Captain Nathan Aldren (Cruise) is sent as part of a arms agreement with the U.S. to bring modern artillery to Japan, replacing their ancient traditional swords and spears. Photo © Copyright Warner Brothers
Set in 1878, Samurai introduces us to imperial Japan, on the cusp of modernization. The old system of regional warlords and their faithful knights, or “samurai” is on its last legs. The young emperor relies, perhaps too heavily, on westernized advisors, anxious to establish lucrative trade deals with America. One deal is an arms agreement, bringing modern rifles and artillery to Japan, to replace their ancient traditional swords and spears.  Enter our hero. 

Captain Nathan Aldren (Cruise) is a proud soldier, morally repulsed by the atrocities he’s seen on both sides of the Civil War and the range wars, culminating with the battle of Little Big Horn, which he improbably survived. Blaming the slaughter on Custer’s ego, and shocked by the cruelty of the U.S. Cavalry’s retaliation against helpless Native American families, his sense of what it means to be an honorable soldier has been shattered. He’s become lost in whiskey and self-loathing. 

His old commander (Tony Goldwyn) rescues him, with an offer to travel to Japan to train the Emperor’s army in the ways of modern war and mechanized weapons. He’s unaware that the Emperor has more immediate plans, to launch a counter-strike against the last band of samurai. The samurai, led by charismatic warlord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) refuse to give up the old ways that have defined their way of life for centuries, and have staged a series of guerilla attacks on imperial forces.

The Last Samurai
During his captivity, Aldren falls under the spell of Japan’s ancient ways, and after a long winter of healing and learning, begins to realize that here, with these last proud warriors, he can regain his own sense of honor. Photo © Copyright Warner Brothers
During a spectacularly ill-planned attack on the samurai, Aldren’s forces are annihilated. But Katsumoto is so impressed with the ferocity of his American opponent that he takes him captive, to study him further. During his captivity, Aldren falls under the spell of Japan’s ancient ways, and after a long winter of healing and learning, begins to realize that here, with these last proud warriors, he can regain his own sense of honor. That their cause is doomed doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to Aldren, now a full-fledged, white-samurai, is that they make their stand against the Emperor’s superior forces.

While the film is impressive and entertaining, its message of “it’s better to die with honor, than yield to change” is ill defined and a philosophically slippery slope. Katsumoto’s resistance to modernization is never fully explained, nor is his call for violent revolt fully justified. The reawakening of Algren's belief in honor and courage—the samurai code of “bushido”—is central to the story and adopting the samurai way of life reminds him that sacrifice in the service of a noble moral code is still worth fighting for. However, history tells us that the common Japanese peasant of the time would not have mourned the passing of the samurai, who were the muscle that violently enforced the laws of the warlords and collected exorbitant taxes. Failure to pay those taxes often landed you on the wrong end of one of those gleaming swords. 

The Last Samurai
The reawakening of Algren's belief in honor and courage—the samurai code of “bushido”—is central to the story and adopting the samurai way of life reminds him that sacrifice in the service of a noble moral code is still worth fighting for. Photo © Copyright Warner Brothers
The film begins with a narrative about the importance of “honor,” but the concept bears closer scrutiny than it receives here. We all know the word “honor” but what does it actually mean. I turned to the dictionary and found that honor has a very subjective meaning.  In essence, honor implies a strict adherence to a moral code. But the nature of that moral code is very different from one culture to another. What is honorable to the samurai, such as ritual suicide, is not honorable to the American Algren. Also, violence as a form of civil disobedience might seem honorable to Katsumoto, but not to a Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Although touched on in the film, its treatment of deep cultural differences mostly skims the surface.

The Last Samurai isn’t the best military east meets west movie—that title still belongs to Lawrence of Arabia. But the film delivers a lot of bang (or clang) for the buck and proves to be an exhilarating and intelligent adventure, touching on major themes and exotic places.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.



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