once again i have decided to not look at some of the true classics of the Samurai Film genre, and have decided to look at something a little more popular (maybe i really don’t know though…) and more mainstream.
The Last Samurai marks a couple of firsts in my life; it was the first movie i saw alone (i caught a matinee, at the bright age of 16), it was the first Samurai film that i watched, and it was Tom Cruise’s luscious locks that inspired me to also have a go at hair longer than an inch (at its longest i’m assured by my lady that it was past my shoulders but i don’t remember it ever getting that long).
I was in absolute love with this film throughout high school but as time goes on it does start to lose a little of its lustre.
I would say the films biggest asset is it’s absolutely lovely visual design. Edward Zwick, John Toll, and Lilly Kilvert are firing on all cylinders in order to make 19th century Japan become a reality. Toll whose credits include Braveheart and The Thin Red Line is a perfect match for the material, as his command of both contrast and frame is well suited for stories that require a bit of a romanticism in their depictions, the compositions are painterly in the quiet scenes and sweeping in their movements during the battles. Lilly Kilvert whom served as production designer really spares no expense when it comes to the little details, the biggest example would have to be the armour worn by the Samurai as the amount of detail and variety is a worthy successor to the Hollywood epics of old. I’m not very familiar with anything Zwick has done other than this film (i know that he directed Glory but that is about it) however he most certainly has a great eye for staging action scenes that are frenetic but not incoherent, and is clearly very good at getting performances from his actors.
The actors present, are clearly quite engaged with the material and regardless of how big or small the part they have to play in the movie none of them come off as untalented. The biggest standout would have to be Katsumodo whom is played with just the right mixture of humour and weight by the great Ken Watanabe. After seeing this film it truly is a shame that it took so long for us here in North America to experience his wonderfully quiet and contemplative acting and i can say without a doubt he is one of the finest actors working today.
As stated in a previous post Hans Zimmer provides one of his last really great scores as his themes provide all the necessary sweep and emotional undercurrents to help embellish the scenes in the movie, but don’t fall into his growing habit of being overly simplistic.
Although we’re shown a lot of things during Algren’s captivity (a tea ceremony, rice fields, village life, etc, etc) we don’t ever get to experience it in any depth as it’s all summed up in cut away shots or as part of montages. If you look at other “going native” films like Dances With Wolves or even Avatar a great deal of time is spent having the main character learn and be a part of a new societies customs. In The Last Samurai all we’re given to go on is a few scenes of Algren speaking with Katsumodo, a play that is cut short by a ninja attack, and various other montage shots of him living out the winter, learning japanese, and becoming close to the children and mother he is staying with.
Also, yes one could say that the fact the last of the Samurai is a white man, and that white man also happens to be Tom Cruise is a ding to the movie i really don’t have too much problem with this for a number of reasons. Firstly, Cruise is well suited for this material and is clearly applying his not inconsiderable talents to the part. Secondly the time period is more or less correct for someone like Captain Algren to be in Japan and “become native”, although admittedly it would be more appropriate for Algren to be German as they were the time periods uncontested military power and the Japanese (if my recolection serves me correctly) hired German military officers to modernise their newly formed Imperial Army. Thirdly, the fact that most of the cast here is Japanese and on top of that they also speak Japanese here and there is mostly made possible by the fact that a big name actor like Cruise is a part of the production
As i said earlier i quite loved this film when i was younger, and if you spoke to me then i would have given this a significantly higher rating then i do now, but as i grow older and experience i suppose more “proper” Samurai movies, the failings of this film start to become more apparent. The film kind of sums up and sanatises a feudal culture that had a lot of problems with it when looked at through modern eyes (woman’s rights being the most obvious misgiving).
This being said it is by no means a bad movie (not remotely) and it is fairly unique in that it is a big Hollywood block buster, with big Hollywood talent, and big Hollywood money-making a movie about Samurai. Keeping with big Hollywood traditions the film has a mix of humour, drama, and a bit of romance, that adds up to a movie that has just the right amount of sweep and makes it a worthwhile watch for anyone who is interested in the material, or anyone who just wants to waste a couple of hours.
*** Stars out of Five