" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

Sponsored links

Tom Cruise takes the audience on an epic tour of Japan’s era of modernization, in the 1870s. Despite of some rough spots, The Last Samurai is the best major studio release in many months.

Samurai Fodder

Kids teach Tom Cruise the way of the Samurai
Kids teach Tom Cruise the way of the Samurai

Cruise plays Nathan Algren, a retired captain who fought in the Civil War and Indian Wars. Nowadays, he earns drinking money as a sideshow act shilling for the Winchester firearm company. His war-time friend Zeb Gant (Billy Connolly), convinces him to work in Japan for a few months, training the new Japanese army in the ways of modern warfare.

After only a few days’ training under Algren, the Japanese peasants are still hopelessly unprepared for battle, but the bureaucrat Omura (Masato Harada) sends them into a fight anyway. He believes that even badly trained peasants with rifles can defeat lifelong soldiers with swords. He sends them against the Samurai, who reject the Westernization of Japan.

Algren knows his new charges will be badly beaten, and feeling responsible, he leads the hapless soldiers against the Samurai themselves. They are routed and Algren is captured, but not before killing one of the Samurai with a surprising last-ditch maneuver. The Samurai take Algren back to their village in the hills, behind a pass that is ostensibly blocked all winter long (although the Samurai valley seems to be lush and green, and not terribly cold).

Learning a Culture

The leader of the Samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), places Nathan in the home of Taka (Koyuke), the widow of the man Nathan killed. Here Nathan recovers. He is a prisoner of the Samurai, watched constantly by an unspeaking guard, and trapped in the valley for half a year by the off-screen snows, but Katsumoto doesn’t cage Nathan. He is free to walk the village.

At first, Nathan sees himself as a prisoner of war, but the slow passage of time makes him realize that there is another way. He could live as one of these people, and not as their prisoner.

In a novel, I remember a linguist who was sent to learn the language of a new culture. He began by playing with the children. Not only did it put him in the right frame of mind for learning — childhood is when language naturally develops — but the children were better teachers — linguist Steven Pinker says kids learn language from their peers, not from adults. I found it an astute observation, one that director Edward Zwick also makes.

When Nathan finally decides to live among these people, as one of the people, and not as their prisoner, he begins by challenging a young boy to a duel with wooden Samurai swords. He seems to know that the boy will beat him, but that he will learn from the fight. An adult steps in and humiliates Nathan before he and the boy can spar, but Nathan has made the first step, and soon thereafter he’s learning to fight, to live, and to speak from the children of the Samurai he killed.

This aspect of The Last Samurai is the best part. The slow acquisition of a new culture. The bridging of gaps, socially, linguistically, and personally. Like The Station Agent, The Last Samurai shows that persistence and mere presence are often enough to create understanding and friendship.

Symbols of the New

But The Last Samurai continues. It has more epic ambitions, and Zwick is too martial a director not to include some more battle scenes.

So even as Algren slips into a slower, simpler culture, the rest of Japan bubbles up into a faster, more modern and mechanized way of life. This clash of cultures, introduced at the beginning, comes to a head at the end, on a battlefield.

This theme of old versus new has often been done in westerns. New advances render the old ways obsolete, and in movies, this inevitable change is a tragedy. Often the symbol of the new is barbed wire, or the automobile. In The Last Samurai, the symbol of the new is the Howitzer, a cowardly, inhuman weapon of polished steel and brass, operated by soldiers who attack their enemies from a half a mile away.

But in the tragic westerns, the symbols of the lost way of life are tragic precisely because they were not weapons. They are tragic because, in a way, they are absurd. In Lonely Are the Brave, the hero is killed not by a gun but by, as professor Stan Brakhage aptly put it “a truckload of toilets driven by Archie Bunker.”

So Zwick’s lingering shot of the gleaming Howitzer manned by an anonymous private is more maudlin than thought-provoking. And a moment later, when Omura cackles the cheesiest line of dialogue, “Even the mighty Samurai cannot stand up to the Howitzers!” the spell of the movie is almost broken. The movie does recover, and the tragedy resonates, but it has been tainted somewhat by Zwick’s miscalculation.

Algren, Candide, Gump

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that The Last Samurai suffers a little from its American ego. It’s unfortunate, for example, that Nathan Algren is so omnipresent, like Candide or Forrest Gump. He fought with Custer, he trained the Japanese armies, he became a Samurai, and he ultimately tells the emperor of Japan what it is to be Japanese. “Arrogant” is a word that doesn’t seem far off the mark.

But like Candide or Forrest Gump, Nathan is a tour guide. He is the audience surrogate through Zwick’s epic drama of cultures and eras, and in that light, his character can be taken more dramatically than literally.

In any event The Last Samurai makes up for these criticisms and succeeds as a well-told tale of Japan and America on the cusp of a new era.