A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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August 14, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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