The Last Samurai: Japan for Dummies

The return of our feature looking at historical films to disseminate whether they are fact or fiction sees The Last Samurai (2003) come under scrutiny.

The Last Samurai first and foremost is an American film. Firstly, this is a commercialised film that is easy going and has broad themes to apply to larger audiences. Secondly, the casting of Tom Cruise and the general story is at worst a concerted effort to place the white man in a defining role in the history of Japan, at best its typical white savior mindset creeping in.

But this does not make it a necessarily bad film. Four Academy Award nominations are testament to that but on a more human level it is just enjoyable, not taxing. There is a great drive these days to make films deep in intrigue or at the opposite side of the spectrum total Michael Bay explosion fests. The Last Samurai sits in the middle, taking a piece of Japanese history that is so crucial to the nations identity and embellishing it with some excellent battle scenes. In fact this film has a lot in common with Braveheart (1995) but at least does not claim to be accurate.

The subtlety with which it deals with this part of Japan’s history is impressive. One feels compelled to compare it to Pearl Harbor  (2001) at this point which among historians and those with any human decency see as an American Director exploiting Japan’s history to give those who love to shout “USA, USA, USA!” an erection. The Last Samurai instead moves gently around a subject of great emotional importance to Japan’s identity and does not use the American character as way of bolstering the USA’s ego.

… the depiction of Japan is at times a little rough as interpretations are seemingly lifted straight out of tourist pamphlets and not the pages of history.

Ken Watanabe plays ‘Katsumoto’, whose way of feudal life known as bushido is threatened by the growing power of the Imperial Army of Japan who, under tuition from the west, are destroying Japan’s heritage. Watanabe models his character on Saigo Takamori, a legendary samurai from Satsuma, who after leading the revolution against the Tokugawa Shogun then turned against the new Meiji Government he helped establish as it became obvious the samurai were not part of Japan’s future in the government’s eyes. At no point does Katsumoto become Takamori explicitly, the films charm comes from how it is implied it is him but is not bound by his historical legacy and thus can stray from fact without offending good history.

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Ken Watanabe is towering as Katsumoto, however, Saigo Takamori was an impressive 6 foot 8 inches.

Tom Cruise’s character is not as cleverly constructed as Watanabe, but is compelling nonetheless. US Army Captain Nathan Algren suffers from alcoholism and his nightmares which torture him; he cannot escape the crimes he committed against Native Americans in the name of the US Army. He is subsequently captured by the samurai rebels and is taken captive, facing great adversity as the samurai fail to accept him as one of their own despite showing elements of bushido. In a basic redemption story arc he finds his soul, redeems himself and comes to appreciates the cause of the dying out samurai after failing to appreciate the extinction of the Native Americans. He becomes such a part of the community that he begins a romance of sorts, it is terribly strained, with the widow of a samurai he brings down in battle which somehow works.

It is questionable at times, perhaps failing to truly appreciate some of the finer points of Early Meiji Japan yet is, by Hollywood’s standards, a good attempt at a historical film…

It all seems a little much and at times it is, the depiction of Japan is at times a little rough as interpretations are seemingly lifted straight out of tourist pamphlets and not the pages of history. But this is sadly all to common in Hollywood, the practice is lazy but rife especially in films that deal with particular historical themes. Perhaps the clearest example is the ease with which Algren picks up Japanese and assimilates so quickly, making the experience at times seem a holiday lark. Despite this the film is genuine in its adoration for the samurai, the shortfalls of this film are more than balanced by its efforts to convey respect for the samurai heroes of Japan.

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Algren, Tom Cruise, joins the samurai rebels as they charge the guns of the western taught, equipped and dressed Imperial Japanese Army.

As with many historical films it is the final battle that people really remember, this one sees samurai take on rifles and artillery in the defiant display of true spirit, resembling the Battle of Shiroyama in 1877. Watanabe and Cruise are sublime in the battle, until this point their relationship as captor-prisoner developing into brothers-in-arms is contrived at times but here it develops into something really quite moving despite what unfolds.

The Last Samurai then is on the better side of historical films. It utilises not just artistic licence but clever storytelling, allowing the character of Katsumoto to be a metaphor for the ancient samurai who faced extinction. It is questionable at times, perhaps failing to truly appreciate some of the finer points of Early Meiji Japan yet is, by Hollywood’s standards, a good attempt at a historical film… and Tom Cruise is surprisingly good which is a nice addition to this moving film,

By Arran Byers

Our previous historical film review: Braveheart: Scotland’s Greatest Myth?

 

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