Published on February 13th, 2009 | by Chris1
The Last Samurai (2003, Blu-ray)
The Last Samurai takes us back to a time of change in Japan. Where the traditional governmental systems and military traditions were giving way to Westernized concepts. Where the old guard, the Samurai were finding themselves irrelevant, and weren't willing to go out without a fight.
First, the movie does have some basis in fact. I suggest you read up at the Wikipedia page for The Last Samurai, in particular the historical background section of the article. I won't go into the details here, because as far as the movie is concerned, its not really relevant.
Former American Army Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is enlisted by the Japanese to train their army in the ways of western military tactics. Which at the time was the dreadful 'line em up and shoot' style of battle, fought with muzzle-loaded guns and bayonets. He reluctantly agrees, fighting his demons from his previous battles with the Indians on the American plains.
Upon arriving, he learns who they'll be fighting. One Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the "Last Samurai" and his band of men insistent upon carrying forward tradition and the samurai code. During the first encounter with Katsumoto's men, Algren is captured, and held at the Samurai camp over the winter.
During that time he "goes native" for lack of a better term, and comes to understand the motives and traditions he was brought here to fight against, eventually joining their side.
Katsumoto is later arrested, and then rescued by Algren and the rest of the rebels, and goes on to fight the Imperial army in one last battle....
So yeah, its not exactly historically accurate. So what? Cruise gives one of his best performances ever here, as a PTSD victim turned alcoholic, who in a moment of clarity realizes what its all about. Watanabe is equally good, as the noble warrior who treats him as a near equal.
The battle scenes are at the same time intense, bloody, well choreographed and executed, if a bit cliche. Lots of the usual horseback slashing and melee fighting, but with very few laughable moments of extraordinary gore. The work Cruise put into the role really shows during the fight scenes.
Another strong point is the cinematography. There are some shots which are just amazing. Whether they are real or not (such as the wide shot of 1870's Tokyo) they are indeed impressive. Especially on Blu-ray. Just, wow! Also on the disc is the usual complement of 'making of' extras, including a not very satisfying History Channel pulp piece. It purported to be an explanation of the facts behind the film, but wound up giving only a mention of the actual Samurai rebellion. The audio was equally impressive, although it seemed a bit low in the center channel for my tastes, and I had to keep messing with it to find a decent setting.
What you will find is an in-depth exploration of the meaning of honor, and respect, and for tradition. You'll also find a decent but indirect look at a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. You'll just have to see if you can figure it out.
One thing that did bug me though, was the Japanese in the film. The language I mean. As a student of the language there were some points I was like, WTF? Especially in the realm of people's order in society and how they would speak to each other. I think some errors were made here. Although Cruise's stuttered and incorrect usage was well written, and well acheived. Just a minor nitpick on my part, but I didn't mind all that much. There also seemed to be a lot of the usual cultural 'stereotypes' displayed here, which was either intentional to reflect an 1870's mindset or not, I don't know, but they are there.
The Last Samurai is a fine epic of a war movie. It's no Lawrence of Arabia or Saving Private Ryan, but nevertheless should leave you satisfied.
Here's a clip of that first encounter between Algren's not-ready-for-primetime army and Katsumoto's Samurai. Yeah, its about like that.... Lets try a trailer instead....
Summary: The Last Samurai takes us back to a time of change in Japan. Where the traditional governmental systems and military traditions were giving way to Westernized concepts. Where the old guard, the Samurai were finding themselves irrelevant, and weren't willing to go out without a fight.