The Last Samurai (2003) Review

The Last Samurai (2003) Director: Edward Zwick



The Last Samurai is a beautifully shot film with an incredible score by Hans Zimmer, however the finished product is a painfully formulaic Hollywood film that disappointingly strains the audience’s credulity. The film stumbles its way into every modern Hollywood trope, in particular Tom Cruise plays the character of Captain Nathan Algren as a tortured and roguish alcoholic trying to atone for his past sins while living amongst the ‘mystical’ and ‘foreign’ peoples of Asia.’ It is a tiresome cliche. “Orientalism” (a la Edward Said’s criticisms) is apparent throughout the film. Ancient Japan is portrayed at a distance: the samurai are shown as noble but innocent savages, foreign and one-dimensional, though the film clearly venerates their culture, albeit an inauthentic representation of it. In the end, the West becomes the villain, and the ancient samurai culture of Japan is elevated as heroic, even as the rugged Western hero chooses to side with the ancient customs of Japan. Perhaps the most painful part of the film is the ending in which (somehow we are to believe) Captain Algren is the lone survivor of the samurai despite being shot numerous times. When Emperor Meiji asks him how Lord Katsumoto had died, Captain Algren responds: “I will tell you how he lived” -cue the disappointing eyerolls. Finally, Captain Algren becomes something of a legendary character as he stumbles back to Lord Katsumoto’s village. Sadly, it is an expectedly Hollywood ending to a tragically flawed movie.

Edward Zwick is the director of other Hollywood epic period films, like Glory (1989) and Legends of the Fall (1994). The Last Samurai was nominated for several Academy Awards (predictably) but in more recent years the film has not met favorable reviews. Audiences would have a much more challenging and enjoyable experience reading the novel Shogun rather than watching this film. The film was mostly shot in New Zealand, not in Japan.

The Last Samurai is very loosely based on a true story of Jules Brunet, a French Officer who traveled to Japan to train the Japanese shogunate armies in the use of Western weaponry and warfare on behalf  of Napoleon III. Brunet later stayed in Japan to fight the Emperor Meiji on behalf of a powerful Shogun named Tokugawa. This period in Japanese history was fraught with civil unrest. Japan was rapidly modernizing under Emperor Meiji (i.e. “The Meiji Restoration”). This led to the bloody Boshin War 1868-1869 between the traditional samurai warriors (a.k.a. the old way of doing things in Japan) and the new machinery of the Western powers. It turned out that Brunet chose the losing side of the war, because the Japanese imperial weaponry was vastly superior, but Brunet was luckily able to escape Japan and return to France where he continued his notable military career.

samurai painting

(A painting of Samurai troops near Mount Fuji in 1867 by Jules Brunet)

This true history is, in many ways, far more intriguing than the film. The Last Samurai gives the Hollywood version of the film as the French officer, Jules Brunet is replaced with a bitter and tortured American Civil War veteran named Captain Nathan Algren (unfortunately played by Tom Cruise) who is haunted by his violent past. He drains his sorrows in whiskey amidst vague memories of killing innocent American Indians. Captain Algren is sent to Japan to train the Japanese military using Western weapons, but in the course of a conflict with the fabled samurai, the soldiers become fearful and they are overwhelmed. Many are executed but for some reason Captain Algren’s life is spared and he is taken to the village of the Shogun, Lord Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe). Apparently, Lord Katsumoto speaks better English than the Emperor of Japan. He is forced to live in the house of a samurai he killed, and somehow he develops a romantic relationship with the late samurai’s wife. Gradually, Captain Algren learns the ways of the samurai and he joins their force against rival shogun attacks, ultimately joining their battle against the Emperor Meiji’s reformations. The scenes depicting rural Japanese village life are some of the best in the film. In the end, Captain Algren and company rescue Lord Katsumoto from imprisonment and forced sepukku, and in the end Lord Katsumoto and his cohort (along with Captain Algren) do battle against the Emperor’s forces but they are all gunned down by the new machine gun weaponry -all except Captain Algren who survives and briefly changes the Emperor’s mind. Thus the only true last samurai is Captain Algren, I guess. A more interesting plot might have focused on a truly rebellious shogun in ancient Japan, like Saigo Takamorim rather than introducing the absurd character of a rogue American cowboy as the hero.

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