Plot – An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.
Director – Edward Zwick
Released – 2003
When you think about samurai movies, you can’t help but think of the classics of Japanese cinema such as Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. But one of the most surprising aspects of Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, comes from showing how the code of honour that the samurai exist by, can be shared by two men from vastly different cultures from different parts of the world if the circumstances are right, but unlike classic samurai movies of old, what differs about this film is that here war isn’t glorified and the warriors were seen as flawed, most of all Lord Katsumoto Moritsug (Watanabe) for seeing Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn as a good way to die.
The Last Samurai is about change, something it explores often, with this change coming in a multitude of different forms, from the Japanese looking to modernise with the help of Western culture, with the samurai making way for modern armies. But also marks a change for the Americans, fresh out of the Civil War and ready to compete with the European superpowers on a world stage and on a personal level for Captain Algren (Cruise), whose life changed in profound ways once captured by the Samurai during the first battle, slowly letting go of the pain he suffered during his time in the American army, overcoming his alcoholism and coming to love the samurai culture he was brought over to destroy.
As seen in his previous historical epics, Zwick has a way of getting the most out of his actors, and here is no different. Five minutes in and you’ve already forgotten you’re watching Tom Cruise, he’s not the action star of Edge of Tomorrow and Minority Report but simply Nathan Algren, producing the needed emotion when the dramatic sequences required and as expected, he excels at the action sequences, while Watanabe not only matches Cruise but outshines him as the sage and wise Katsumoto. He gives the kinda poignant performances that make you wish they gave him more screen time in his previous movies. The two form an authentic bond that trickles down throughout the rest of the supporting cast and gives the film its heart.
Once again Zwick’s eye for what looks good on screen helped give The Last Samurai cinematography, that’s both beautiful and vibrant, wonderfully showcasing the gritty industrial nature of Western warfare as it clashes with the untouched simplicity of feudal Japan. It’s clear for all to see that great care was taken to make everything feel authentic while giving it a look you can fall in love with, and treating the culture of the Samurai with the respect it deserves, a feeling clearly shared by the Japan Academy Film Prize who awarded it Best Foreign Film.
Coming as a bit of a surprise, The Last Samurai is an entertaining and beautifully shot film that despite its two-house plus runtime, never feels slow or drags, it’s a shame that Zwick’s next attempt at bringing Asian culture to the big screen The Great Wall, wasn’t anywhere near as enjoyable.