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Hokey and predictable, The Last Samurai is unlikely to garner the ringing endorsements accorded a more novel exercise in martial derring-do, Master and Commander. The least one can say for this costume action flick is that it hits bottom immediately. When a movie begins with a sonorous, fabulously insulting bromide like “Japan was made by a handful of brave men” willing to die for “what seems to have become a forgotten word . . . honor,” it can only improve.
The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick, may sound like a war movie, but it’s actually a western: “Dances With Wolves . . . in Kimono.” Tom Cruise plays the U.S. cavalryman and Civil War hero who, disgusted with his own kind, changes sides. First seen, his Captain Nathan Algren is a bitter, obnoxious drunk turned showbiz shill, rendered even more ornery than usual by the news that his old commander George Custer has just led his men to slaughter.
Along with a few old associates, Algren is recruited by an unctuous Japanese bureaucrat to modernize the Emperor Meiji’s army. Specifically, the young emperor is facing a samurai uprising—”the rebellion of yet another tribal leader,” someone helpfully explains. Although still suffering acid flashbacks to the bloody battlefields of atrocious Indian-slaughter, Algren remains a superb fighting machine. When the samurai fall upon his raw recruits in the foggy forest, Algren goes totally Uma Thurman in hand-to-hand swordplay and alone survives, taken P.O.W. into the hills.
The captivity story, in which a white settler maid is kidnapped by dusky savages, is the oldest yarn in American culture. (It’s exemplified this season by Ron Howard’s current western, The Missing, as well as the two topical examples, the Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart docudramas, that faced off during sweeps week.) But The Last Samurai is a less salacious type of western; it concerns the chaste confrontation between a white European male and his aboriginal Other, and their mutual transformation.
Recovering from his wounds, Algren chugs sake from the bottle, sullenly ponders his chopsticks, and pokes fun at the local dress codes. (“You’re angry because they make you wear a dress,” he sneers at the samurai charged with guarding him.) He’s tended to by the widow of a man he killed in combat; were they not living in a mountain village, she would probably be called Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (she’s played by the Japanese actress Koyuki). But it’s the samurai lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), loosely based on the historical figure Saigo Takamuri, who captures the American’s heart. A benign Buddha presides over their first meeting; subsequent conversations are held beneath the cherry blossoms. Like all the Japanese that Algren meets, the noble, English-speaking Katsumoto seems to be fascinated by American Indians; he even appreciates Custer as a crypto samurai.
Soon the soundtrack is awash with the insipid Kevin Costnerisms of Algren’s diaristic observations: “They are an intriguing people. . . . I have never seen such discipline,” he muses. “What does it mean to be samurai?” What indeed? As in Dances With Wolves, the big moment comes when the hero goes native—donning kimono and practicing his martial moves, while trying to grasp the mystery of “no mind” (not a Hollywood problem). Of course, Algren is never less than American. He’s always willing to fight—he gets his ass whipped and he just keeps a-coming—and he teaches the village kids baseball.
Although the movie is set at Cruise-control, the star had to work for this—learning Japanese, kendo, and according to the press kit, Japanese history—and the strain shows. The Last Samurai mostly moves like molasses, but Zwick is a capable director of action. The ninja sneak attack, which serves the same purpose here as the Pawnee raid in Dances With Wolves, provides a welcome jolt of activity; the grand finale of the samurai last stand, pitting arrows against howitzers, is a solid half-hour of clash and slash, slo-mo riding into the valley of death, battlefield farewells, and New Age bushwa: “You believe a man can change his destiny?” “I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed.” Small wonder the victorious soldiers bow in reverence.
The Last Samurai has a resonance—albeit a wacky one. The defeat of Saigo’s samurai army paved the way for Japan’s war with Russia and invasion of China while Saigo himself lived on in Japanese history as a hero of right-wing ultra-nationalists from the Black Dragon Society to Yukio Mishima. There’s no reason to acknowledge that here—this is a spectacle without ideology. That’s why it’s a minor kick to see the Americans cast as amoral arms dealers, the local Westernizers shown as bad guys, and a Hollywood star instructing a Japanese emperor in the Way of the Samurai.