The Last Samurai (2003)

Plot: Shogun with a hundred million dollar budget.

[Warning: This piece contains spoilers about the movie Glory.]

Note: Obviously, this film is a little off the beaten track for our site. However, I had some thoughts after watching it, so I thought I’d write them up. Yes, that’s right, I’ve gone mad with power! Mad, I tells ya!! Even so, feel free to move on.

Imagine you saw a well-mounted Japanese film set in America a few years after the end of the Civil War. The narrative would follow a proud Japanese warrior who ends up finding a temporary home amongst a once-wealthy and powerful Southern family. The warrior finds his general xenophobia whittled away as he comes to admire the aristocratic values the family struggles through their adversity to adhere to: Extreme physical courage, courtly civility, an iron sense of personal honor that puts God, family, country and community above the self, a deep respect for martial skills, etc.

The film, through the eyes of its outsider protagonist, contrasts the enlightened values of the Old South, as represented by the clan who’s taken the hero into their home, against that of the New America, a society marked by ugly commercialism and crass vulgarity. In a pivotal scene, the Japanese man stands by helplessly as grossly uncouth Negro troops harass and humiliate members of the proud family in the streets of the local town.

Imagine all this, and now imagine that this film never mentions slavery. That’s The Last Samurai in a nutshell. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a blatantly anti-democratic film.

The picture presents Tom Cruise as a haunted Civil War vet hired to help the Japanese create a modern, westernized army. The immediate purpose of this army is to bring down the remnants of the Samurai, the traditional warrior caste of Japan.

Cruise is severely wounded when his still largely untrained troops are forced into battle and massacred. However, his personal valor wins him his life, and he spends the following winter living with and learning the ways of his putative enemy. Suffering from deep emotional scars, the result of having once taken part in the extermination of a helpless Indian tribe, Cruise is rejuvenated upon finding himself among people who have a deeply ingrained and rigid system of honor. In the end, he joins the samurai in their futile but glorious final battle.

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The scene with the family being harassed by troops actually takes place; only here the soldiers are not blacks, obviously, but peasants. The film presents a ludicrously rosy presentation of the samurai class, who here are virtually without any manner of fault. They are learned, brave, loyal to the feckless Emperor who is betraying them, kind, skilled, etc.

What the filmmakers don’t bother to mention is that the samurai class had been the scourge of the peasants for centuries. As a member of the aristocracy, any samurai could kill any peasant at his will and whim. If killing too many of them was frowned upon, it was largely because somebody had to do the manual labor necessary to grow food and whatnot. In theory, the samurai were the protectors of the peasants. I think you can imagine what the reality of the situation was.

If a modern American film uncritically presented saintly Southern former plantation owners, and the filmmakers afterward responded to criticism by declaring, “Well, there were plantation owners who treated their slaves with kindness and were committed to their welfare,” well, you could imagine the reaction. The statement is probably even true. However, it would be considered so grotesquely wrong in the larger sense that it would inspire widespread outrage. Yet this is how the samurai are presented here.

The peasant army, part of Japan’s drive to modernize in the late 19th century, marked the beginning of the collapse of the caste system that wouldn’t be really achieved until the end of WWII. Therefore the film is siding against the coarse masses in favor of a privileged aristocratic social class, which strikes me as a bit weird for an American mainstream film.

Making this even stranger is that Edward Zwick, whose most prominent earlier picture was Glory, directed The Last Samurai. Glory followed the struggles of a similarly dispossessed class, American blacks, to demand a right to fight for their own destinies during the Civil War. It is the closest thing we’ve seen for a while to a pro-war film, in that its central point was that denying the right of men to wage war in their own behalf was more dehumanizing than war itself. The ultimate victory achieved by its protagonists comes not from winning a battle, but from establishing their entitlement to fight, even if the result is their own deaths.

The Last Samurai is, ironically enough, that movie turned upside down. In the end, the aristocracy is destroyed, and the peasants who have destroyed it kneel in grief and shame at what they have wrought. I don’t remember Denzel Washington expressing similar doubts about destroying the Old South.

The film is further handicapped by the fact that it seems Frankensteined together from numerous earlier and better movies, primarily Glory and Dancing With Wolves. In the end, the film keeps Cruise from dying alongside his samurai comrades, which emotionally is the only correct ending, presumably because such a climax was considered too similar—as in ‘exactly’—to the conclusion of Glory.

Tech credits are predictably top notch. The acting is good across the board, especially the stellar performance of Ken Watanabe as the titular character. Cruise, however, seldom convinced me that he was a character from another time. The battle scenes are well mounted, and there’s an extremely cool ninja attack scene that might in itself justify renting the movie.

Other elements, however, also detract from the proceedings. I found Cruise’s burgeoning romance with the widow of a man he killed entirely robotic. However, his scenes with the man’s young sons are entirely effective, mirroring how Cruise’s relationship with the adorable Jonathon Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire was actually more involving than his wooing of Renee Zellweger.

There are other crudities. Cruise’s commanding officer in Japan is none other than the vile individual who forced him to massacre the Indians. Needless to say, Cruise gets the opportunity to personally dispatch him during the final big battle, whereupon we’re all supposed to go ‘Yay!’ Meanwhile, the epilogue features the commercial interests of both Japan and America being heroically frustrated, because commercial interests are always bad (except for the ones involving putting down a ten spot to buy a movie ticket). Again, we’re meant to cheer. This is tedious stuff.

The film ultimately hints darkly that America’s base attempts to force Japan to modernize (purely for our own selfish commercial ends, of course) would turn and bite us on the ass later on. This is true, to an extent. What isn’t addressed, however, is that the Japanese military of the World War II era, perhaps the most murderous and genocidal such this side of Nazi Germany’s, was the product of Japanese leaders’ declared goal of reawakening and fostering anew the country’s glorious samurai past.

You certainly wouldn’t have figured that out from this movie.

Summary: A beautifully mounted film best suited for those lacking a basic knowledge of history.