Movie Review: The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai is a very loose retelling of a historical event, the Satsuma rebellion of 1877.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was Japan’s response to the forced opening of Japanese society in 1854 by Commodore Matthew Perry, which exposed the weakness of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the government which had ruled Japan for about 250 years and that had maintained peace for that whole period partly by completely closing Japan to all outside influences. Japanese nobility believed that a return to a direct rule by the emperor would be the best way to move to a strong central government that could modernize Japan and compete with the west. A big part of this modernization was an end to many of the privileges of the samurai class in Japan. The Samurai were retainers, servants of the Shogunate and the daimyo, or lords. The samurai were the only ones permitted to wear weapons in public and many government positions were open only to them. They received taxes on the produce of the peasants in the form of stipends from the Shogunate. They were a major obstacle to a central modern government, and the Meiji emperor’s administration rightly recognized that modernizing Japan required breaking their power. And so, in 1877, one of the oldest clans, the Satsuma, rebelled against the Meiji government, and were easily crushed by new conscript forces armed with firearms.

The Last Samurai retells this event loosely. The leader of the rebellion is fictionalized in the character of Katsumoto, and the American who helps them, Capt. Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, is according to the best of my knowledge completely invented. Algren feels a little bit like a ripoff of Blackthorne from James Clavell’s Shogun, except with a “Dances With Wolves” kind of feel thrown in. He is a hero of the Indian wars, but he has become a self-loathing drunk as a result of the things he saw in those wars, and the things he had to do. The movie tries to draw some sort of parallel between the struggle with the Indians and the samurai in the Satsuma rebellion- both being traditional, more ‘spiritual’ ways of life being driven out by modernization. Capt. Algren is hired by the Japanese government to train their new conscript army. His troops are pushed into battle before they are ready and are slaughtered in their first engagement with the samurai. Algren is captured by the samurai because their leader, Katsumoto, is impressed with his skills and wants to learn about the new enemy from him. He spends the winter in their village, and comes to love their way of life.

There were pros and cons to this movie. Tom Cruise has turned himself into a top-rank actor, I believe, and is excellent in this film. He doesn’t have a lot of range, though, and always seems to me a little bit like his brash, wise-cracking Top Gun character, just more earnest in the more serious roles like this one. Ken Wanatabe plays the samurai leader strikingly. I’m looking forward to seeing him in more things in the future. The costumes were great, feeling very authentic to me. The samurai’s elaborate armor in particular gave the combat sequences a great feel. The combat choreography was good, especially the small-scale fights involving the samurai, where they really got to show off their martial skills.

The writing was not as convincing, though. The characters all came out a little stereotypical- the evil Japanese bureaucrat; the spiritual warrior; the troubled vet; the stupid bloodthirsty military man. The movie as a whole ended up falling neatly into the formulaic “Dances With Wolves” ethos- Algren’s character wasn’t the only thing that reminded me of that movie. Old, traditional ways are idealized with all the cruelty, stupidity, pride and greed that characterized those ways excised; modernity is demonized with all the vast improvements in the actual quality of people’s lives, especially the commonest and lowest of the people, never discussed. It’s not quite as bad as “Americans bad, Japanese good”, but it is a simple formula of “modern bad, traditional good”. Capt. Algren’s superior at one point asks him, “What is it about own people that you hate so much?” I feel like Hollywood should be asked the same question.

The movie conveniently omits the fact that the samurai had been mercilessly crushing the commoners for centuries, that the government that the Meiji administration replaced had been keeping the peasants on the brink of starvation to pay for their elaborate lifestyles. Unarmed combat or combat with farm implements such as sickles, nunchaku and staves had been developed in Japan because the samurai were so oppressive and were the only ones allowed to carry swords. The peasants would periodically revolt against the samurai, despite the fact that they were virtually unarmed and untrained, because life under the samurai was so miserable. The peasants would invariably be crushed, and thousands would be crucified. This was the ‘idyllic’ traditional life that Capt. Algren comes to love.

Firearms had been banned in Japan because it guaranteed the supremacy of the Samurai, who could continuously train in the ways of war. Firearms can be used with relatively little training, and destroyed the samurai’s privilege. The crushing of the Satsuma rebellion was widely viewed as a victory for the people of Japan, who once and for all would be out from under the heel of the samurai. As it turned out, the modern military government that replaced it ended up leading Japan into an even greater disaster in the 1930s. But a movie that presents itself as historical really shouldn’t distort the history to fit the script. The historical and moral complexities of the situation could have been presented without a great deal of difficulty in a movie of this length, and I believe it would have made a stronger story. Instead, the movie opts for the cardboard cutout of reality. The presentation of Japanese culture and ways is OK, but the history is a caricature. If you want to watch a movie to learn about Japan, I’d recommend the highly superior Shogun. Better yet, read the book.

Still, I have to admit I enjoyed the movie, probably mostly for the battle scenes. As long as I viewed it as just a story, it was fun.

As far as objectionable material- it’s quite bloody, but there’s no vulgarity and no sex, which was a refreshing change. There’s a romance between Algren and a woman of the village, but the movie manages to present it in a highly charged way with nothing that would even merit a PG-13 rating. It reminds me of the old movies, when the sexual tension between the leading man and leading lady could be presented without so much as a flash of skin or a single vulgar word. So the violence would probably be a bit much for small children, but otherwise, it’s fine. Maybe Hollywood’s finally learning, that movies without all the objectionable material sell a lot better.

Rating- 3/5 stars.

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