The Last Samurai

By now, we’ve heard the phrase “Dances With Samurai” applied to this movie. It’s a fine phrase, wholly appropriate: a American Civil War veteran finds the native Other more compelling and joins up in their fight against industrialization/Westernization/Progress-with-a-capital-P. But being somewhat like another movie is not necessarily a flaw, and taken for itself, The Last Samurai is perfectly fine, though probably not memorable. It’s unlikely we’ll be making references to it more than a dozen years after the fact, beyond any use in Tom Cruise trivia contests.

As noted, a disillusioned Westerner finds honor and spiritual fulfillment among the natives in an alien land. The pristine rural/pastoral Other of the natives is a rejection of all that modernity offers; in this film conception, Progress’s gifts always have dark linings, making the gifts themselves questionable, while the old ways’ virtues have no vices. It is only by embracing these old ways that the lost Westerner finds himself. Or something like that. We’ll gloss over the fact that the last samurai, Katsumoto (loosely based on the real-life Saigo Takamori), was fighting for his feudal privileges, haiku writing and Zen philosophizing aside. Fundamentally, this is about Tom Cruise’s character’s personal growth and fulfillment.

And in the six months during which he is a prisoner/guest of Katsumoto, there is much growth and fulfillment. Being a veteran calvalryman, he knows how to use a sabre, but it’s, uh, somewhat surprising that he can wind up matching up against the best samurai swordplay by the end. That, and he’s able to take a sword from someone despite being unarmed. (My best theory is that Tom Cruise’s character is the Highlander: mysterious survivor of battles where everyone else dies, able to keep fighting after suffering numerous stab and gunshot wounds, using a katana to lop off other people’s heads with centuries-old technique taught by Sean Connery.) Never mind that: the important thing is that he appreciates the simple way of life practiced by the feudal Japanese, in particular their culture of honor and striving towards perfection. He adopts these practices himself, and joins the samurai in their revolt against modernity.

They’re, of course, defeated, overwhelmed by numbers and guns. But it’s a glorious, honorable defeat, which resonates greatly with the soldier-peasants who defeated them. In this sense, the revolt succeeds: the Emperor doesn’t forget about the samurai code and the old ways in pursuit of Westernization and a stronger Japan that can stand up to the imperialist powers (Though I couldn’t help but think that the simple formula is Industrialization + Budo = World War 2. Yes, Tom Cruise sets us on the path to Pearl Harbor.)

It’s a competently made movie, full of both spectacle and quiet moments, with some beautiful photography. I particularly liked our first view of the samurai, charging out of the mists. It’s technically among the best epics Hollywood can offer in this day and age. But it won’t be memorable, and it may not be particularly memorable by Oscar time: Japan chic isn’t the same as Sioux chic.

Regarding the spectacle of set-piece battles, back when Kubrick made Spartacus, he actually had to get a few thousand people to drill and look like Roman legions on maneuver. There was drama to that, both as visual spectacle and realization that all those people formed up on the hill are real people. We had similar scenes at the end of The Last Samurai, with Civil War-era regiments lined up on a hill or charging as a Napoleonic column down the road, as well as the samurai army, with their banners all a-flutter. But some scenes don’t look real — the big melee after the samurai calvary charge looks particularly fake — and you realize that at most there are a few score extras marching down that road, multipled many times by CGI. The technology isn’t quite there yet, and we know that it’s not real: the spectacle is diminished compared to what Kubrick pulled off.

Update: David Edelstein in Slate’s 2003 movie roundup notes that Tom Cruise’s characters action bear some resemblance to John Walker Lindh’s joining the Taliban. Heh. Certainly, Dances With Wolves wouldn’t have been made after Little Big Horn, nor Last Samurai after Pearl Harbor. I suppose the mystical Other in these cases just have to be the ones that are no longer seen as medievalist tyrants. Could there be a time fifty years from now when the “positive” side of the Taliban is appreciated? I hope not.

2 Responses to “The Last Samurai”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Well, Pear Harbour is always viewed from the we did nothing wrong aspect. How do we know that we didnt deserve what we got from Japan? In Japan its told as the complete opposite… maybe it was something that both sides did? I would blame America before i blamed Japan…

  2. Swords Says:

    All Americas responses were to the brutal way Japan was acting to the rest of Asia. The Japanese killing thousands of Chinese and other asians was cause for us to attack Japan not the other way around.