The Last Samurai
starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Masato Harada, Koyuki and Willian Atherton
written by John Logan and Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based on a story by John Logan
directed by Edward Zwick
I thought this was such a good movie that I watched it twice. That’s right, twice! This film has received such publicity that I was looking forward to it, and when it finally came out on video I had to continue waiting more than a week to be able to get my hands on it. Ken Watanabe was expected to receive a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the renegade conservative samurai, Moritsu Katsumoto, in early Meiji Era Japan. He did not get it. I loved watching Watanabe’s performance, though. He is a handsome man, with a compelling voice, and terrific physical presence. Tom Cruise gave a good performance as Captain Nathan Algren, an American Indian wars veteran hired as a consultant to help train the first modern conscript army in Japan. But Cruise’s long, greasy hair and scraggly beard never ceased to bother me throughout the films 154-minutes. I loved the portrayal of old Japanese rural village life: the costumes, the wooden houses, the doors, walls and flooring, cooking utensils, temples, rice fields, the valleys, mountains, and woods, etc. But note: many of the outdoor scenes were actually filmed in New Zealand. In the town of Taranaki, to be exact.
Now, a brief history lesson. Japanwas a divided patchwork of provinces ruled by battling warlords until the island nation was finally united under one hegemony by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 at the famous Battle of Sekigahara. From then until 1867 Japanwas ruled by the Tokugawa family head - the “Shogun,” meaning general, or supreme warlord - while the Emperor remained a sequestered and powerless figurehead in Kyoto. By law, during this Tokugawa Period, the nation was isolated from the outside world. Shipwrecked foreigners were generally executed. Japanese fishermen accidentally washed away by the tides and storms were forbidden to return. The sizes of permissible ships were severely controlled so as to prevent Japanese from deliberately journeying abroad. Then in 1853 U.S. naval ships under the command of Commodore Mathew C. Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay. Negotiations were forced to open supply ports in Japanfor foreign whaling vessels, and that is the beginning of modern Japan. The Boshin Setsu, or Boshin Civil War of 1868-69 brought the downfall of the Tokugawa government and the restoration of direct rule by the Emperor. The teenaged Emperor - named Mutsuhito, but known as Emperor Meiji - relocated to Edo from Kyoto, and Edowas re-named Tokyo, meaning “East Capital.” Then a massive and fast-paced modernization program was launched to bring Japan up to speed with other, mostly Western nations, and thereby avoid the fate of China and Indochina, cut up as colonies by European powers: schooling, railways, gas and electricity, western dress, modern police, law enforcement, and a standing military, a parliamentary government with a written constitution, western style architecture, national roads, coinage, a standardized language, and so and on.
I almost cringed when I heard Captain Algren’s military colleagues in Americaintroduce the idea of traveling to Japan as a military consultant with the horribly politically incorrect statement, “Japan’s got it in its mind to become a civilized country.” Ouch! Yuck! Later, the same colleagues describe Algren’s winter-long captivity in a samurai village as life among the “savages,” just because the samurai cling to the traditional weaponry - swords, bows, etc. In the film the association of international military arms deals tied to economic trade-and-assistance packages comes across exactly as we still see it today on the front pages of the newspapers. For the exclusive right to supply Japan with modern arms, Americawill reward it with trading rights. Almost exactly what Washingtonstill does today.
Some of the feudal samurai lords resisted many of the demands of modernization. The Seinan no Eki, or“Military Campaign in the Southeast” led by Samurai of the Satsuma clan in what is now Kyushu island took place throughout much of 1877, and it is this conflict that The Last Samurai is playing on for its story. The samurai of Satsuma were led by Saigo Takamori who is, I guess, the historical model of Ken Watanabe’s character, Katsumoto. Typically, this rebellion came in the island of Kyushu, far from the center of power in Tokyoand hence kind of on the periphery of the country. It shows that despite more than two centuries of unified rule under the Tokugawas in Tokyothere were still strong regional “daimyo,” or military governors who sought for, and took advantage of opportunities to wrest power from the center. It was a useless struggle, though, that pitted armor-clad, sword wielding samurai against massed firearm-bearing troops. An interesting social note: the new armies of modern Japan were conscripted. That means that they drew largely on the peasant class of society. So in clashes between samurai rebels and the new army, the former feudal lords were set against their former social underlings, and the social underlings won.
About the title: “The Last Samurai” might make a lot of people think that the character Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, is himself the “last of the samurai.” But that is not its meaning. The plural of “samurai” is also “samurai,”and this film deals with the disappearance of the samurai as a noble warrior class in Japanese society, not with one individual man. In the course of the publicity surrounding the film I got the impression that Americans tended to view the meaning of the title as the latter, not the former. I suppose you might say that the samurai class was officially dissolved in 1876 when they were prohibited by new sumptuary laws from wearing their swords - the long one called the “katana,”and the short one called the “wakizashi” - which had always been a great symbol of their social status and was by itself the catalyst of many small, regional rebellions.
About historical errors: North American audiences probably will never recognize or suspect factual errors. But I can find a few first
because I live in Japan, and second because I am just such a knowledgeable guy. The story of Captain Algren is a true story, but the real character of history was a French military officer, not an American one. But that is Hollywood, isn’t it? U.S. moviemakers change real stories by throwing in some Yankees to give them an American angle to better appeal to big cash-spending U.S.audiences. They did it with The Great Escape(Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough), which in reality was based on a book by Canadian veteran Paul Brickhill about a totally British and Canadian POW escape. They did it with U-571(Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton), which in reality was a totally British operation to capture a Nazi Enigma coding machine from a German U-Boat. And many more.
Admittedly, the samurai sword fighting techniques in this film are superb, and Tom Cruise received high praise for his performance. However, a samurai sword is not a throwing weapon, as his character Captain Algren uses it in the climactic battle scene. The story begins in July 1876, and I was happy to see that the director did not overlook the fact that summer is the Rainy Season in Japan. Accordingly, there was lots of rain. But Edward Zwick failed to give us a sense of the awful humidity of Japanese summer. Beware the overuse of myths and worn stereotypes of traditional samurai: talk about honor and shame, purity, minimalism, the warrior spirit, discipline, etc. It sounds like the screenwriters read Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Emperor Meiji, played by Shichinosuke Nakamura in the film (a young kabuki actor in real life), actually speaks to Captain Algren (in English) during an audience. Even more, he kneels in front of him during a personal exchange in the final scene. Such things would never, ever happen in real life.
There was but one main female role in the film, the sister of Katsumoto who helps nurse Algren back to health in her home during a winter of captivity following his capture. I noticed that she sported bright white, modern teeth. It is a footnote in history books that Japanese women of old blackened their teeth (a practice called “ohaguro”),and that this custom waned and died slowly, with others, during the forced modernization. I think it would have been an interesting detail if the director had decided to include blackened teeth among what few women there were. (The reason for the blackened teeth is that traditionally the teeth were considered to be ugly bone sticking through the flesh. Blackening the teeth was a strategy to cover the ugliness in the name of feminine beauty. Traditionally Chinese women of a certain class bound their feet. Japanese women blackened their teeth. American women shave their body hair and have a tan. Canadian women rub their skin with seal blubber.)
About a third of the film is in Japanese. My Japanese is not so good that I can understand it all, and unfortunately for me, in Japan the English subtitles of the Japanese dialogue are removed because audiences here do not need them. So I missed out on a lot of the Japanese dialogue. If I had seen the film in Canada on video or in the cinema I would have benefited from the English subtitles. The same is true of other American movies that use Japanese dialogue - the Pearl Harbormovie Tora, Tora, Tora! is a good example. I cannot enjoy them to the full. Anyway, many of the foreign characters in The Last Samuraispeak at least some Japanese, and I must say that to my ear Tom Cruise’s pronunciation is quite good. I myself probably speak with a terrible accent, slaughtering what is supposed to be a beautiful language. But my ear is good enough that I can easily hear when other foreigners
are slaughtering the language - in film and in every day life.
My favorite character is expatriate Englishman Simon Graham, played by Timothy Spall. He came to Japan as part of the British diplomatic delegation. But because he had the indiscretion actually to speak the truth - or, rather, to say exactly what was on his mind (“honne”) - in a land where people did not (and still do not) do that, he lost his employment. So he makes his living as an expatriate using his fluent Japanese to accurately translate the lies of others. It is in this capacity that he falls in with Captain Algren. Mr. Graham is the kind of person I like, a Japanophile “henna gaijin”(“strange foreigner”) who speaks the language perfectly and has fallen in love with the country and all of its oddities. I love it when he convinces Japanese prison guards that Algren is the American President in order to bluff their passage into a prison to meet the captured Katsumoto and help him escape back to his mountain village. Graham is typical of many foreigners of that time who found their way to the newly opened kingdom of Japan. Just as there was a jaded, so-called ‘Lost Generation’ after World War One there was a similar generation of disillusioned people in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865) who took the chance to go someplace new and unspoiled (or, so they thought).
All–in-all, Captain Algren reminds me of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves. Both men are American military veterans of the Indian Wars, haunted by the horrors they saw and perpetrated. Each seeks salvation in communities outside of their own: Dances With Wolves finds peace and acceptance with the Sioux (Lakota) Indians; Nathan Algren, who describes himself
as a man “beset by the ironies of my life,” finds his absolution in a Japanese mountain village.
When Captain Algren’s colonel recognizes that his man is“going native” he asks him, “What is it about your own people that you hate so much?” Then I wondered if the same could be asked of me? o, it can’t. Impossible!
The climactic battle scene is fascinating. It reminded me of the gruesome opening battle scene in Gladiator(Russell Crowe).