Tom Cruise gets a lot of flack, but we love The Last Samurai (2003) and his performance in this underrated historical epic from director Edward Zwick.
Cruise stars as Nathan Algren, a troubled military officer who finds meaning in life out in far-flung Nippon. It’s Dances With Wolves in Japan but it was a big hit, making $456.8 million from a budget of $140 million.
The Last Samurai
Algren is a successful American officer held in high regard across military circles. A keen writer, his book on military experiences is in print and respected.
But despite his various successes, his time fighting in the American Indian wars has left him with PTSD. This has manifested itself as alcoholism – he seems content on drinking himself to death. And at the outset of the film in the 1870s, he’s utterly lost in life.
Nevertheless, he’s suddenly hired by the Emperor of Japan to train the nation’s army in the art of modern warfare.
This is to suppress a Samurai uprising against Japan’s latest Emperor. But his first encounter with the Samurai ends in chaos, with the Japanese allowing him little time to properly train the conscripted soldiers in the new art of firearms.
The above battle ends with Algren taken captive by Lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) – leader of the rebel Samurai and an earnest poet – who sees an unusual fighting spirit in the American.
Transported back to the remote countryside village, he’s essentially in a relaxed captive position. And he begins to bond with the family he stays with, as well as grow to appreciate the Japanese way of life.
This also leads him to take up basic training, upping his skills to become efficient in kendo. His training is under the direct influence of Uijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), a fearsome samurai who initially detests Algren’s very presence.
But in time, as Algren and Katsumoto have a proper bromance that leads to him joining forces with the samurai village.
This to take the battle back to the Japanese government and preserve the samurai way of life.
The Last Samurai is steeped in Japanese mysticism. Zwick really ensures the culture receives the full respect it deserves, and the entire cast of Japanese actors is fantastic.
Bushidō – the term for the codes of honour the samurai held – is the one openly explored the most. It’s not a thorough examination, but with the 154 minute run time Zwick lets Western audiences find out more about it through the inexperienced eyes of Nathan Algren.
And we have to say Cruise is fantastic in the film. He trained for two years in kondo and his fighting skills are highly impressive.
But he also clearly takes a learned approach with Algren, offering a conflicted anti-hero steeped in literature, the art of war, but personal misgivings and self-loathing.
Complementing that complex character study is Hans Zimmer’s emotive soundtrack, which plays on traditional Japanese music set to an orchestral sweep.
Despite the film’s occasional – and probably inescapable – lapses into epic film tropes, on the whole it does genuinely offer something new to the Dances With Wolves/Avatar leaning.
And a lot of the intrigue comes about from the traditional way of Japanese life. As even though Cruise is the big star heading the project, his character is more of a bit player there to support Japan.
Even the title of the film isn’t about Cruise being the last samurai – the term is plural and implies, perhaps knowingly, that these heroic sorts are destined to fail.
But despite the effort involved in making the film respectful of Japanese history, The Last Samurai did still receive some mixed reviews. And other critics even wondered whether it was a misguided project – or even racist.
There was a similar accusation towards Sofia Coppola’s excellent Lost in Translation, also released in 2003. For two films that present the historic Japanese nation with such passion and reverence, we struggle to see the problem.
In essence, both offer the viewpoint of outsiders looking in on an alien world and falling in love with it. Which we, in our opinion, believe to be deeply respectful – reverential, in the case of Zwick’s film.
Just as a quick aside here, but Nathan Algren didn’t exist. But his story was inspired by Frenchman Jules Brunet (1838-1911), an officer who became involved in the Boshin War.
In a greatly decorated military career, he was influential in many far-flung territories and integrated himself thoroughly in Japanese life.
On a final note, Nicholas Hodge’s excellent YouTube channels takes a look at historic films. He rates them based on overall excellence, as well as for historic accuracy.
One of the most glaring mistakes in The Last Samurai is the idea that Katsumoto refused, out of honour, to use fire arms.
This character is heavily adapted from the life of the excellently named Saigō Takamori (1828-1877). And in real life, he had zero problems using guns to defeat his enemies. His troops even ran out of ammunition at one point, so had to go back to using swords.
Such occasional oversights aren’t much of an issue, however, as the film does present the samurai as valiant warriors steeped in tradition, with one eye on the modern world. And full credit to Ken Watanabe for his moving portrayal of the progressive Katsumoto.