Review of The Last Samurai

I’ve got a soft spot for samurai movies. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but something about the discipline, the focus, and the prowess of the samurai resonates. The Last Samurai, unfortunately, did not.

The premise of the movie is that a veteran officer (played by Tom Cruise) of the U.S. Army, scarred by Indian War battles, is hired in 1876 by the Japanese government to assist in the modernization of their army. The Emperor and his advisers have one major obstacle to overcome in fulfilling a complete modernization: a band of samurai intent on clinging to the old ways. In his first encounter with them, Cruise’s character reluctantly leads a contingent of poorly-trained conscripts that is completely decimated by the superior force of the samurai. He is captured and nursed back to health after impressing the samurai leader with his valiant resistance prior to capture.

After several months of observation, Cruise’s character sloughs off his resistance to the samurai culture, learning Japanese and the way of the samurai in quick succession. He gradually achieves a grudging acceptance among the elite samurai for his bravery and attempts to learn their culture. In a surprise raid on the samurai camp by ninja forces unknown and never identified, Cruise’s character saves the samurai leader’s life several times and earns his respect. They part company as friends.

Cruise’s character then comes to learn that the samurai leader has been captured and will be executed. Inexplicably, he decides to rescue him and join his rebellion. The climactic battle scene rivals Braveheart and The Patriot in its complexity and the viewer’s inability to follow the action. Anyone who knows their Japanese history (or even anything about World War II) will know the results of that skirmish. Suffice it to say, the samurai did not bomb Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The story is hackneyed: the thoughtful turncoat is pervasive enough to probably be an archetype. The inanity of the plot is compounded by the sugary sentimentality of Cruise’s outbursts, the cravenness of his U.S. Army superiors, the dishonorability of the Japanese modernizers, the maudlin plight of the samurai, and the historical blind-eye turned toward the realities of the samurai. I’ll briefly take each in turn.

Cruise, we come to understand, was a captain in Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s cavalry during the campaigns of the Indian Wars, where he witnessed the killing of women and children. These episodes haunt him, driving him to drink and relive flashbacks. We see that Cruise’s Captain Algren is a sensitive soul who recognizes the evils of the American imperialists against the pacifistic and noble American Indians. His foil, a superior officer, chides him, “Just tell me one thing, what is it about your own people you hate so much?” This is for the cheap seats who might otherwise have failed to get the unspeakable evil of the American bloodlusters.

The problem is that this conception of the Indian Wars ignores the wider context in which they took place. While there were certainly American officers who perpetrated great cruelty, they were by and large normal men placed in the most extraordinary circumstances and left to fend for themselves. They witnessed horrifying atrocities early in the campaigns as they were outnumbered and outclassed by the fierce Indian tribes. They learnt that mealy-mouthed treaty signing and formation fighting didn’t cut it in the midwestern plains; they reconceived their strategy and fought the Indians at their own terms.

The Japanese at the turn of the century were doing exactly the same thing. In their initial encounters with Americans and foreigners, the completely homogenous Japanese realized that the Westerners held the keys to a glorious future and began the process of shedding the thousand-year culture that was trapping them in a feudal subsistence farming society. They saw themselves as doing the right thing and they really were, until they experienced a resurgence of samurai-inspired militarism prior to 1937.

That resurgence, much like the “noble savage” notion that swept nineteenth century Europe, was based on a romanticized view of the samurai that had little to do with reality. The samurai were the thugs of the Japanese warlords and they showed little mercy or recognition of the peasantry, who they regarded as their servants. They regularly swept into peasant villages and demanded tributes, slaughtering whole towns if they didn’t receive it. Like the medieval knights, they didn’t have any particular allegiance to their warlord. Instead, they fought for whoever paid them and they could be persuaded to switch sides if the offer was right.

It wasn’t just the plot: there were too many silent scenes where someone asks Tom Cruise’s character a question and he icily stares back at the questioner rather than answering. One or two times and you get the idea that he’s not afraid to refuse to answer his superiors; four or five times and it becomes a cheap device.

There was also the utterly banal scenes where samurai were escaping while guards were shooting at them with rifles at relatively short distances yet managed to score very few hits. It worked when we believed that the soldiers were untrained conscripts, but it didn’t when they’ve had six or seven months of training.

I’m not entirely certain what the movie’s theme is and I’m not even sure that it had one. It seems like more of a vehicle for revisionist history, lecturing the audience about current events indirectly, and glorying in a simpler past. I did not enjoy the movie, but there were parts that were exciting and visually compelling. Unfortunately, the plot they were hung on tried to do too much. The samurai leader was well cast, but Cruise’s Algren was a stereotype and seemed to be pulled out his memory from Born on the Fourth of July.

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