U.S. Release Date: December 5, 2003
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Edward Zwick
Writer: John Logan
Producer: Tom Cruise, Ted Field (executive), Scott Kroopf, Paula Wagner, Edward Zwick
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe
Running Time: 2 hours and 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and battle sequences)

West Meets East
by C.A. Wolski

Anyone who has ever been or has ever wanted to be besotted by Japanese culture will find Tom Cruise's newest star vehicle The Last Samurai everything they could have hoped for in a movie about that most aesthetic, mysterious and maddening civilization. A mixture of the epic, the tragic, the philosophical and even romantic, the movie delivers a rousing tale of honorable men trying to survive in a world that no longer values them.

Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a decorated veteran of both the Civil War and the Indian wars, is recruited by one of his old sergeants Zebulon Gant (Billy Connelly in an excellent supporting performance) to go to Japan to help the nascent, modern Meiji government quell an uprising of samurai led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Algren is haunted by the horrors he has seen in the American West and has retreated into the bottle, but the prospect of easy money and escape from selling firearms as a sideshow attraction lures him east.

When Algren leads the under-trained modern Japanese army against Katsumoto, he is captured and brought back to the samurai's stronghold where he is spiritually and physically healed. The scenes in the samurai village form the core of the movie. It is there that Algren comes to admire the traditional Japanese way of life with its emphasis on discipline and aesthetic perfection.

Algren soon goes "native" dressing in gi and hakama, practicing the Japanese fencing technique kendo (though without the protective headgear and less lethal bamboo shinai used today) and speaking Japanese. Katsumoto, though technically at war with Emperor Meiji, considers himself a loyal retainer—a nice contradiction that writer-director Edward Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan explore at some length.

The dramatic sequences, especially those between Cruise and Watanabe have a quiet gravity and dignity. These are men who are destined to be friends and allies. The individual fighting sequences, particularly those after Algren perfects the no-mind attack approach embodied in kendo, are dramatic, exciting and stylish—capturing both the difficulty of attaining the technique and its effectiveness.

The final battle sequence is a little less effective, due, in part, to its horrible inevitability. There are also several "Hollywoodisms," which are a bit much (characters throwing their swords into antagonists' chests for instance). But just when it seems that the movie will go down the path of a typical Hollywood drama, Zwick gives us a Japanese ending that is both powerful and satisfying.

Cruise is quite good as Algren, carrying out the drama, action and even comic scenes equally well. There isn't a false note in his performance. But the real stand out is Watanabe. He could be the next big international star. Like the late Toshiro Mifune, Watanabe owns the screen in every scene he's in.

The rest of the largely Japanese cast are also excellent, particularly Shin Koyamada as Nobutada, Katsumoto's son, and the ethereally stunning Koyuki as Taka, Katsumoto's sister-in-law and Algren's would-be lover. The only misstep both in the script and casting is Timothy Spall as Englishman Simon Graham, the local gaijin (foreigner) expert on the samurai and the Japanese. His performance is a bit off-center and distracting.

Though there is no doubt that Zwick and company love Japanese culture, for anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Japan, The Last Samurai is missing some of the nuances peculiar to its culture and the samurai. For instance, the samurai's inherent philosophical dilemma of the little joy he takes in killing while being an expert at it is not explored. Ritual suicide is performed several times in the movie—very accurately, too—but there is no discussion as to when and why this would be appropriate (the movie would have that every time a samurai experienced a defeat, he would kill himself, which is not the case). But, on balance, Japanese culture is presented in an accurate and respectful way. During Algren's long captivity, we see the samurai go through their daily lives as devoted sons, fathers, husbands and friends. Bushido, the code of the samurai, couldn't have any better commercial than Zwick's movie.

In the end, what makes The Last Samurai work isn't the epic battle scenes or the cool swordplay, but the emotional resonance that Zwick is able to build from this tragic story of noble men who fight a losing battle and still win.

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