Friday, June 25, 2004

The Last Samurai

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, William Atherton
Premise: An American hired to train a modern Japanese army and quell a samurai uprising ends up changing sides.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

I watched this in theatres and again on DVD. It is a great movie. There. Done.

Ah, yes, the review.

Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a US military man that was involved in the slaying of North American native peoples. Disillusioned with the effects of war and the atrocities that he himself helped to commit, Algren is a broken shell of his former self and lives off alcohol to escape his guilt. Finally, he gets hired by the Japanese government to train a modern Japanese army. As well, Algren must work with his superior officer, a man Algren hates for his utter willingless to slaughter the natives. Algren is ordered to put the Japanese army into battle, despite his protests that it is not yet ready for combat. The army is overrun by samurai and Algren is captured by the enemy.

So what was it about this movie that I enjoyed so much? This is a tale about personal redemption and a shift in eras. We have several conflicts happening here, all intertwined with each other. First and foremost, there is Algren's conflict with himself and everything that represents the cause of his actions. How can he live with himself after what he did in the US? He does not know the answer. Then there is the conflict among the Japanese peoples. Japan wishes to become modern and become as one of the Western economic and military powers. The samurai warn against losing their values. The Emperor Meiji wants what is best for Japan, but is unsure of how to go about it. He can only follow the advice of corrupt government officials who are working for selfish gain. Thus, where is the struggle? Is it the samurai against the government officials, against the emperor, or against the inevitable change that time brings?

In the samurai village, Algren is kept for a winter and eventually is befriended by the samurai. His exchanges with the samurai show us many things again. Firstly, there is a vast difference in culture. Algren cannot understand the samurai's code of honourable death. The samurai are amazed by Algren's unwillingness to admit defeat. The exchanges range from the comical (Algren's one-sided dialogue with his personal guard) to the dramatic (Katsumoto's psychological probing of his new prisoner).

Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, is the leader of the samurai. He values honour as most important, but see that a vast cultural shift is taking place in Japan, allowing avarice to displace honour. Honour is a theme that runs throughout this movie and it hit home as to what people truly value in this modern world. Perhaps the way honour is viewed by the various cultures can be demonstrated best by two scenes in the movie.

Algren and Katsumoto's scene. It's the end of the climactic battle between the samurai and the modern Japanese army (this time ready for combat). The samurai get defeated in Round 2 and the battlefield's action ceases to focus on the fallen samurai, valiant in being mowed down by gatling guns. Katsumoto motions to kill himself, but Algren stops him. Katsumoto says, "You have your honour back. Now let me have mine." For Katsumoto, honour was more important than life. Once defeated, it was no longer worth living.

Meiji and Omura's scene. The emperor has abruptly decided that Japan is not to enter into a treaty with the US. Instead, Japan must develop its own path. Before led like a sheep by Omura, his corrupt and wealthy government official, Emperor Meiji becomes a true leader and finally acts in the interest of the Japanese people. In response to protests by Omura, Meiji seizes the assets of the Omura family to give as a gift to the people. He tells Omura, in response to further protests, "If your shame is too great for you, I offer you this sword!" Read between the lines: if you are too ashamed of your actions, do the honourable thing and fall on a sword.

Ah, honour does conquer in the end then. In a way, at least. But what this movie demonstrated was that honour needed to be put into a modern framework in order to work in the modern world. Change is inevitable for many things, and civilization is one of them. But that doesn't mean that we should throw honour away. Just as Algren redeems himself for the atrocities that he committed against the North American natives, by assisting the samurai to live their values in one amazing last stand, we can pick ourselves up and move forward by helping others to find their way. There is no dishonour in providing compassion to our fellow human being.

This movie was definitely worth watching in theatres and definitely worth a buy. I can't say that about many movies these days....

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