RECAP: The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai (2003): Ed Zwick

Tom Cruise. Yeah, he’s on the poster. His face is one of the most recognizable in the world. For several years he topped list after list of the most bankable stars. Cruise is one of a few actors to star in a Best Picture winner and a year’s number one box office success. He’s also 5’7”, four inches shorter than his ex-wife Nicole Kidman, but you would never know that from watching his films. He also does his own stunts. You would know that, at least from the press for his movies. Cruise has worked with Stanley Kubrick, Cameron Crowe, Michael Mann, and Steven Spielberg. He’s as successful as any actor could even hope to be.

The word "is" is not on this poster. That's important.
The word “is” is not on this poster. That’s important.

Cruise is a titan of action films, especially the science-fiction versions. War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, and the terrific actioners of Mission: Impossible. But today I’m talking about the 2003 samurai drama The Last Samurai

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: An American soldier flees America to be a soldier in Japan, and he falls for the samurai culture. 

Hero (7/10)

Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a disgraced, self-hating drunkard who once served in the United States Army. We first see Algren drunk, and drinking more, at an exhibition in San Francisco displaying the power of Colt’s repeating rifle, a weapon capable of ending the scourge of the “red man.”

We don’t need much time to realize that Algren is more than a little troubled by his history of violence, specifically against Native Americans. He gets fired. But Billy Connolly is available to offer him a new job, in Japan.

Cruise in Angry Face
Cruise in Angry Face

Algren believes his life is forfeit, at least in America, so maybe Japan will give him a fresh start. He, and his former CO, are tasked with training the Japanese emperor’s new toy–an American style army. Algren reluctantly agrees. The money is good.

In an early scene Algren tests the mettle of a recruit in the firing range. Algren believes they are not ready to face the samurai, and to prove it he walks to the targets and tells a soldier that if he doesn’t kill Algren, Algren will kill him. Hey, that sounds a lot like war. The soldier is terrified and misses Algren badly. The episode shows not only that Algren was right about the army’s readiness, but that he wants to die.

Contrast this scene to the final battle. Algren has joined with the samurai, his former captors, to fight the emperor’s army. Algren relays the story of the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae, the famous 300 men who staved off the Persian horde. Algren and his new bestie Katsumoto (Oscar-nominated for the role Ken Watanabe) revel in the fact that they were “dead to the last man.” Algren intends to die in this final battle. But, unlike in the target practice scene, he will die with purpose, and not as punishment.

Spoiler alert: lots of dudes die.
Spoiler alert: lots of dudes die.

Cruise brings his patented intensity to Nathan Algren. He looks ready to kill someone at any step. A man like Algren probably needs that skill honed and present constantly. Consider the attack in Tokyo, when he fends off several swordsmen assassins. He showed how well he had learned from his captors the ways of the samurai.

Villain (2/10)

The lead villain is one we see little of. Omura (Masato Harada) is a wealthy businessman with the ear of the emperor. He appears to be the Rockefeller of Japan’s Meiji Period, and will benefit more than any other Japanese person with the nation’s modernization. He’s the guy who wants the samurai to die because their “codes” and “ideals” to not align with his “money.”

Omura, the industrial icon of the time and chief mind behind the killing of the samurai.
Omura, the industrial icon of the time and chief mind behind the killing of the samurai.

Emperor Meiji (Nakamura Shichinosuke II) is portrayed as Omura’s stooge, a young man foolishly guided by businessmen rather than the Japanese Way. Omura shows his true colors on the battlefield. After he brings out the repeating guns and cuts down the samurai’s desperate, symbolic final cavalry charge, Omura screams to continue the onslaught, even after each man has collapsed under the barrage. The soldiers order the firing to stop, but Omura is apoplectic with fear. They must keep firing, he thinks, because he fears the samurai even at that final moment.

Action/Effects (5/10)

Climax excluded, we don’t see much action in The Last Samurai. Algren rides alongside the Japanese Army in an early battle, in which the army will test itself against the might of the samurai warriors.

The army marches into a forest near where the samurai have attacked a railroad. Algren believes they are not prepared, and the audience is forced to believe him. The battle scene opens in the forest, where the area is covered in fog.

I am not a military expert, but even I know that a forest is a terrible place to stage a battle. Grouped masses of soldiers cannot form lines when trees are in the way. Cavalry cannot charge effectively, and artillery guns cannot shell effectively. Add literal fog and forget any battle for the uniformed set.

The army waits, listening to the charge of the samurai. They cannot act until they see them, and Algren cautions his regiment to hold fire. But the men are too green, and once one man fires blindly the others follow. Blind leading the blind.

The samurai burst into view like ghosts. Dressed in full armor and charging on horses, the men resemble dreamlike specters more than a warrior class centuries old. Many of the soldiers have never seen samurai, much less fought them. They are no match, and flee quickly.

First samurai attack
First samurai attack

Algren is no coward. He wants to die in battle, and soon, so he draws his pistol and fires away. It doesn’t take long for the samurai to unhorse Algren, who topples to the ground beneath his steed.

This guy is the only warrior on the army’s side, and he stands and fights off five samurai like he was mowing the lawn. Katsumoto finally appears, removing his mask to watch Algren. Samurai surround the captain. He plays dead. One approaches, and Algren jabs a spear into his neck. The other guys are fine with this. Watching one’s teammate die is a normal thing.

Good training sequences and gorgeous, gorgeous cinematography.
Good training sequences and gorgeous, gorgeous cinematography.

Algren grabs a pole with a tiger banner and swings it around. Katsumoto has glimpsed a similar image in the dream that opens the movie, except then it was an actual tiger. Algren is nearly killed, but Katsumoto stops it at just the right moment, capturing Algren and taking him to his evil mountain lair, a.k.a. a beautiful hill village.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Calling Katsumoto Algren’s sidekick is offensive. But I’m sticking with my standards here. Katsumoto doesn’t really give a damn about Algren’s life, or his mission. He captures him for two reasons: 1) He has a dream of a tiger killing his men, which Algren fulfills by using a tiger banner to kill samurai; and 2) “To know my enemy.”

Katsumoto
Katsumoto

Katsumoto knows that the Emperor Meiji has created a modern army to destroy the samurai. He believes that Algren could help him through intelligence. Katsumoto believes he and the samurai serve the emperor, and by extension Japan, and he needs to know why the emperor would want to destroy them.

Katsumoto is a fully formed character. He leads the village of samurai in peace and war. He has his own codes and ideas, and, most importantly, he keeps Algren around because he finds him interesting. Algren gets to be the hero of this movie because he’s played by Tom Cruise, but also because he’s the one who does the changing. Katsumoto doesn’t, nor does he wish to. You could say that Algren is Katsumoto’s sidekick, because Algren ends up aiding Katsumoto’s quest, and not vice-versa.

Some of the white dudes.
Some of the white dudes.

Henchmen (4/8)

Before he was America’s Heartthrob-in-Chief, Tony Goldwyn wore the uniform of the US cavalry in Japan. He once bossed Algren in the army, but he bought into the native raids as integral to the safety of the United S

tates when Algren rejected them for their barbarity. Colonel Bagley, in one flashback, ordered the slaughter of women and children after a battle had been won.

Check out the boss mustache
Check out the boss mustache

In Japan Bagley believes he is fulfilling the same modernizing role, which he does, but he also believes in the barbarity of the enemy. Algren does not. Bagley sticks to his guns, literally, when he meets Algren on the field again. I wanted to give him three points, but the manner of his death earned another.

Stunts (4/6)

Any movie about samurai is gonna have a good bit of sword fighting. But this movie is about swords fighting guns. Will we get an interesting clash of civilizations?

Cruise, as usual, does his stunts. He first must fight in the misty woods. He is unhorsed and finds himself surrounded by masked samurai. Algren picks up a tiger banner and fends off about five guys.

Algren’s real challenge comes when the nasty, cowardly ninjas, hired by Omura, attack Katsumoto’s compound. The ninjas strike with crossbows, because they are weaklings who cannot use their arms to draw a bowstring.

Katsumoto is rushed into a house while many samurai slice and stab ninjas with swords. A lot of blood is spilled in this scene, and guys don’t get sliced only, many have swords rammed through them. The fighting is chaotic and cramped, but only an experienced stunt team and director could make this fight work. Blades be poppin’ out guys’ backs!

Ninja strike. Key-yah!
Ninja strike. Key-yah!

Katsumoto and Algren fight aside each other in the house. Ninjas start busting in through walls as if they were made of paper. (They were.) Ujio stabs one guy with a long knife. Katsumoto and Algren slash ninjas in their necks and knees, the former throws a sword into a dude’s back, and the latter jabs a needle in another’s eye. Pick a place to be wounded and they hit it during this attack.

It’s hard to believe Algren would be THAT good at sword fighting already. That’s movies, I guess. But the stunts were great. Men die after one or two moves, much closer to reality, and giving us a higher body count. Good times.

Climax (6/6)

The final spring-time battle between the samurai and the Japanese Army is one of my favorite battle scenes. We haven’t seen the army in the time between Algren’s capture and now. They are disciplined, marching in ranks, and they’ve brought some new, shiny guns. The samurai have brought their battle flags, which they decided to attach to their backs. Camoflauge be damned! Maneuverability be damned!

Bagley about to get got but he don't know it.
Bagley about to get got but he don’t know it.

Before the battle starts, the leaders of the combatants gallop to the center of a field to negotiate the terms of either’s surrender. A good laugh is had by all. Cruise is in full samurai regalia. He will be white-saving these people for sure!

Algren tells Colonel Bagley “I will look for you on the field,” in a way that makes you think that they won’t be shaking hands when next they meet. Maybe hug. We’ll see. Algren and Katsumoto go back and Algren tells Katsumoto that those 300 Greeks at Thermopylae all died fighting the Persians. Katsumoto likes this story. I think we know what’s coming here.

Here comes my favorite part. The sides are lining up to fight. We are treated to a fantastic score/editing collaboration from the editor and Hans Zimmer. Zimmer starts this pounding timpani beat that accompanies cuts to each of the primary characters. LOVE IT. It’s so inspiring, and it makes we want to grab a sword and star–oh the fighting’s started. Oh yeah. It’s going all right. There’s a guy getting blown away. Yeesh. And, what’s that? Are guys getting cut in half? Oh my God, they are. A wide shot shows hundreds of dead bodies covering the grass.

We shall run into the hail of bullets!
We shall run into the hail of bullets!

Man, that battle scene was gory. Lots of folks died. But at least it’s ove–. It’s not over? The samurai are going to charge the army?! They have guns! OK, here they go. The music is swelling, Omura is getting scared. The music is really swelling now. Omura is really scared. Samurai are cutting down the soldiers. The music is triumphant!

New guns
New guns

The music stops. The new, shiny guns are firing. They are revealed to be crank-operated repeating guns. Oh. My. Shinto gods. Samurai are cut down, riddled with bullets. Everyone is down and dying. Algren, under hails of bullets, crawls to Katsumoto. The bleeding samurai has failed. He asks for Algren to aid in his suicide. Algren plunges a sword into his captor, who, looking at a bank of cherry trees, lets a tear fall from his eye. He understands now. He has finally seen the perfect cherry blossom. They are all perfect.

Katsumoto dies. Katsumoto is The Last Samurai.

Algren hobbles his way back to the capital, where he presents Emperor Meiji with Katsumoto’s sword. The emperor asks Algren to tell him how the last samurai died. Algren answers, “I will tell you how he lived.”

I want you to know, emperor, I am not the last samurai.
I want you to know, emperor, I am not the last samurai.

Jokes (0/4)

Nada. Zwick plays his movies super serious. That way, they will be more likely to get Oscar nominations. This movie earned four, but no wins. 

Setting (2/4)

Japan is a beautiful country in which to set a film. But in The Last Samurai, New Zealand fills in for Japan. Mt. Fuji is played by Mt. Taranaki, a similar-looking snow covered peak in the southwest part of New Zealand’s North Island. The rolling green hills and forests are all New Zealand, or perhaps a back lot at Warner Studios. Some parts were shot in Japan, but minus points for this.

Cherry blossom growing in the background
Cherry blossom growing in the background

The film is mostly set in rural Japan. The buildings are beautiful, as is much of the landscape. We are seeing idyllic Japan, a tribal lifestyle romanticised by those who left it behind. It’s hard to believe that such an idyllic land actually existed. Did the samurai have rolling grain fields and gently falling snowflakes? Maybe for a day or two. But the place is mythic.

Commentary (2/2)

Japan’s reform period lasted briefly and changed much. The emperor modernized (and Westernized) his country faster than the democratized West can believe. The movie captures the period well.

Meeting the emperor for the first time.
Meeting the emperor for the first time.

When Algren arrives to train the emperor’s army, he finds them cowardly, undisciplined, amateurish. He is captured and returns to fight the army in the spring. The new army is everything the old one was not. Japan changed nearly as fast.

Offensiveness (-2/-2)

The Last Samurai is constantly lumped into the group of the most egregious of Hollywood’s many “white savior” movies. Avatar and Dances With Wolves are typically the worst offenders. I am here to say: The Last Samurai is not a white savior movie. Hey, hey, hear me out.

Algren is portrayed often and convincingly as a man who has murdered many Native Americans in the name of progress. They haunt his dreams. It’s part of the reason he fled to Japan, where, again, Algren is looped into a “modernizing, civilizing” army. He wants to die. He literally says, “Shoot me, dammit,” when trying to get a Japanese foot soldier to load his gun faster.

Sorry I killed your husband. Sorry I killed your dad.
Sorry I killed your husband. Sorry I killed your dad.

Despite the army not being ready, he marches with them to confront the samurai. He is captured by the man he set out to destroy. Over the winter he learns to love their ways. He wants to join them, and after great battles he is allowed.

The snow thaws. The samurai march to meet the Imperial Army one last time. Algren suits up in samurai gear, going full native. After a protracted battle, all the samurai are killed. Algren survives because he does not believe in suicide after defeat, and because he seems to be unkillable. After dropping off Katsumoto’s sword with the emperor, Algren returns to the village that once held him captive to live out his days.

Samurai is more a Fish out of Water movie that White Savior. You can’t say that Algren “saved” the samurai when they all died and their culture was destroyed. The Navi in Avatar, with a white guy’s help, defeat the Earthlings. Katsumoto does not defeat the emperor’s army.

Yes, Algren does tell the emperor how Katsumoto lived, so in that way he is “saving” the culture, but we can’t believe he is saving it like the medieval Italian humanists who rediscovered the lost works of Antiquity. He’s just standing up for a friend.

So why the negative score? Well, all you people seem convinced it is a white savior movie, solely because it’s Cruise’s face on the poster below these words: The Last Samurai.

Others

  • (-5) Algren kills a masked samurai in his initial battle. When the samurai capture him, Katsumoto decides to stick him with the wife of the man Algren killed. Yikes. Things get a bit dicey. But, surprise, she falls for him in the end, after he SHOWS HIS VALOR! Ridiculous. A lot of unbelievable stuff happens in this movie, but falling for the man who killed your husband? No. I cannot abide.
  • (2) The music really is that good.
  • Die Hard‘s Richard Atherton fires Algren in the opening scene.

Summary (33/68) 49%

Technically, The Last Samurai is a well made movie. Music, sets, acting, script–all are top notch. Algren’s relationship with Katsumoto’s sister is outlandish and nearly ruins the movie, but the kids like him. I believed that; they might not know he killed their father. Critics received the movie well, but I think it’s fallen in the public eye since then.

I love The Last Samurai. The 49% score helps me prove my objectivity in scoring action movies for their constituent parts. The movie creates a perfect sense of place. I never didn’t believe the movie was shot in Japan in the 19th century, but they shot it in New Zealand in the 21st. Go figure. Verdant hills, soft snow, cherry blossoms, misty woods–they captured what my Western mind envisions as old Japan. Accurate or not, that sense of place filtered my perspective on the whole enterprise.