A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 532 – The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai – August 14th, 2011

This is a movie I never really had any intention of seeing. It’s not that the time period and subject matter don’t interest me, it’s that I’m not a big Tom Cruise fan and I didn’t particularly want to see this time period and subject matter with him at its center. I wish I could say that the movie surprised me, but I can’t say that and be honest. It was precisely what I was expecting, which is incredibly frustrating because really, it’s a beautifully made movie. It’s just a beautifully made movie that has no particular need for its main character.

The story follows a former soldier named Nathan Algren. He’s a drunk who works as a pitch man for a rifle company, telling stories of his war experiences to try and drum up sales. Of course, since he’s drunk and horribly conflicted about his role in the war, massacring Native Americans just because they were there and he’d been ordered to, he ends up driving people off more than attracting them. And it’s not that I doubt that there were people who fought at that time who questioned the orders they were given and felt guilt about their actions later, I just don’t really feel comfortable with their stories being made the important ones. So already, by fifteen minutes in, I’m not terribly interested in this man who is clearly supposed to be the pivotal figure in the story.

Algren is recruited to travel to Japan to help train troops to help fight a civil war going on there. Once in Japan he meets some American soldiers, a British linguist and sociologist and a number of Japanese soldiers he can’t communicate with and has little interest in. They’re barely trained and have never handled firearms before and of course Algren makes it clear to his superiors that regardless of what the senior officers and officials want, the soldiers aren’t ready to fight anyone. And if I hadn’t already been rolling my eyes, this would have made me start. Because really? No one else could tell these folks weren’t ready for battle? No one else was going to notice they’re practically Imperial Stormtroopers when it comes to aim? Not that I expect anyone would care if all these guys were supposed to be was fodder who might get off a few lucky shots and intimidate the enemy by dint of even having guns, but still. Welcome to Nathan Algren: Showing Those Japanese Idiots How It’s Done.

In short order the troops are ordered to march against the samurai whom Algren is told are rebelling against the Emperor, and of course they’re totally outclassed since Algren was right and they’re not ready and the samurai are bad-fucking-ass and wipe the forest floor with them. Algren witnesses some things he doesn’t understand and ends up captured after facing off with a samurai and winning. And thus begins the re-education of Nathan Algren. He spends some time in a remote village where samurai leader Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) is gathering people loyal to him and to the Emperor. Because, you see, the samurai aren’t really rebelling against the Emperor. They’re fighting against what they see as foreign influences that threaten to destroy Japan and which they believe are manipulating the Emperor against them.

It probably goes without saying that as Algren spends more and more time in the village he comes to learn about and respect the samurai and the Japanese people. Of course he does. He’d be a pretty lousy hero figure for the film if he didn’t. Katsumoto tries out his English with Algren and they learn from each other and Algren starts taking lessons in swordplay from the men in the village. He stops wearing his western clothing, replacing it with clothes left for him by the woman whose house he’s staying in, whose husband was the samurai he killed in battle. And if you’re thinking “Oh, well then, he can’t possibly end up with her!” you’re wrong. I’m so sorry.

Now, I do like seeing Algren gain an appreciation for the culture he’s been immersed in. He’s made out to be a sympathetic character, certainly, and it speaks well for him that he does apply himself to learning the language of his hosts and to respecting their customs. While there is a good deal of stupid American stuff going on when he arrives, it doesn’t last long and it’s easy to chalk it up to him being grumpy at being captured and in an utterly foreign situation. So I do rather like the bit where he’s learning about it all and being open and receptive to new ideas and practices. But soon enough the movie has to show just how essential Algren is and so we’re back to battle.

The big fight between the samurai and the Emperor’s new gun and cannon-bearing troops is the climax of the film and it’s obviously a losing battle. The thing is, Katsumoto is present for the whole thing. He was present throughout the movie, showing a keen understanding of tactics and the ways his enemies fight. But it comes down to Algren to come up with the sneaky plan that devastates the enemy and renders their firepower far less useful than it was supposed to be. Throughout this movie it’s made clear that while the Japanese people and the samurai in particular are highly intelligent and skilled, it’s always Algren who saves the day or thinks of something the Japanese people didn’t think of. It’s frustrating beyond belief.

On one hand, I suspect that the idea behind movies like this and Dances With Wolves is to show a period in history to mainstream US white folks and to give us a central figure to relate to. But while this movie does do a good amount towards showing the Japanese people with a lot of respect, Algren is clearly the main character in a story that isn’t really his, or shouldn’t be. It should be Katsumoto’s, with a side of Algren. How different would this movie have been had it started not in the US with Algren drunkenly scaring children with stories of scalping, but in Japan, with Katsumoto learning that a former comrade had been conscripted? That the army raised against him was being trained to use firearms by American soldiers? That is a movie I’d be interested in seeing, though it would still be historically inaccurate. So take the US out of the picture entirely! Not every story is our story, no matter how beautifully it’s told.

August 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Samurai

August 14, 2011

The Last Samurai

I honestly cannot remember what possessed me to buy this movie. I am not a huge Tom Cruise fan and I didn’t particularly need to see him starring in a movie about a white man learning the ways of the samurai – the whole “great white savior” trope is one that doesn’t sit entirely well with me. (I’m sure that Amanda will be exploring that in some detail in her review – her hatred for this condescending cliche of a white man who goes native is the main reason we do not own Avatar.) I suppose it must be down to my general obsession with Japan in general.

When I was in college I took a couple courses specifically about Japan. Not because thy were part of my major or a requirement for me but because the idea of learning about Japan appealed to me. One was an introduction to Japanese culture in general (remember that this was before the days of the world wide web so I had not heard the term Otaku and there was no 4-Chan for all your Japanese pop culture needs.) The other course was on Japanese art history, and was one of the best courses I took in all my time at Occidental. It tied Japanese art through the years to the history of the islands and the influences on it – and it included visits to local museums to see gorgeous scrolls and silk screens. The funny thing is that I don’t ever remember making a conscious decision to study Japan – it just happened. When I was applying for courses I knew very little about Japan except that all the coolest cartoons came from there but these classes just appealed to me on some level.

This movie has a feeling like it was custom made for that younger version of myself. It’s a sort of ode to feudal Japan couched in a fictional tale about an American soldier hired by a faction in the Japanese government to train soldiers in modern combat to put down an uprising by a rebellious Samurai warlord. It seems as if it’s a movie aimed at people who think Japan is pretty cool but who don’t know an awful lot about it and need to be carefully shown how this tradition-steeped ancient culture would appear to a westerner. It also appears to have been heavily influenced by James Clavelle’s novel Shogun, which I remember reading one summer around the time I was taking those classes at Oxy and which touches on many of the same themes.

The protagonist of our story here is Nathan Algran, a soldier who was in Custer’s employ and who has descended to alcoholism to staunch the nightmares brought on by his campaign to slaughter innocent Native Americans. When he’s hired to train a new and more modern Japanese army it is very much implied that the Samurai he is sent to defeat are noble savages like the American tribes he helped to destroy. I can see the parallels I suppose, but it sometimes feels strained and somewhat condescending.

Algran is captured during a disastrous attack on the Samurai, and kept alive by their wise leader, the Samurai Katsumoto who once trained the Emperor in combat. From there it’s a fairly predictable tale of the modern man going native and learning to love the primitive but honorable people he has been sent to subdue. It’s all portrayed as a struggle to preserve the traditional ways in the face of the advance of the new modern world at the end of the nineteenth century. All very melodramatic and all pretty well travelled territory.

What saves this movie for me from being just another Dances with Wolves re-make is the gorgeous cinematography and direction. That and Ken Watanabe. Watanabe plays Katsumoto with such dignity and passion that I instantly loved him. Of course it’s a prime role – Katsumoto is the driving force in the movie and its most important figure – but it also takes a great actor to bring a role like this to life. Ken Watanabe is a fantastic actor – even when he’s working in a language that’s clearly new to him.

Okay, I admit it, this IS just a re-make of Dances with Wolves. That was such a good movie though that I can stand to watch another one. I love Japan – old and new – and this movie is a big gooey love note to Japan. Sure it was filmed in Middle Earth (a.k.a. New Zealand) but it looks enough like a sort of idealized Japan to work. It has great epic battle scenes reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. It has a big samurai vs ninja fight scene. It has gorgeous scenery and a sort of picturesque longing for a lost time of honest simplicity which in all likelihood never existed. I hope that someday, when I do finally go to visit Japan as a gawking tourist that the expectations raised by movies like this and a hundred others don’t leave me wanting more.

August 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment