The Last Samurai

English Title: The Last Samurai

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: Warner Bros

Director: Edward Zwick

Producer(s): Tom Cruise, Tom Engelman, Marshall Herskovitz, Scott Kroopf, Paula Wagner, Edward Zwick

Screenplay: Marshall Herskovitz, John Logan, Edward Zwick

Cinematographer: John Toll

Editor: Victor Dubois, Steven Rosenblum

Runtime: 160 minutes

Genre: Historical

Starring/Cast: Koyuki , Billy Connolly, Tom Cruise, Masato Harada, Ken Watanabe

Year: 2003

Volume: American - Hollywood

In 1870s’ California, disillusioned ex-army officer Captain Nathan Algren is selling guns at a carnival sideshow and drowning his past in a bottle. After frightening the sideshow crowd with a drunken tirade against the army's treatment of the Indian, Algren accepts work from a Japanese businessman recruiting experienced soldiers to train a modern army for the Emperor. Arriving in Japan under the command of his former Colonel, with whom he has a strained relationship, Algren is introduced to the young Emperor Meiji and embarks on training conscripts who prove ill-prepared. Algren learns about Katsumoto, once-loyal bodyguard and advisor to the Emperor, now leader of an intended revolt by samurai traditionalists against the modernizers. His conscripts routed in a skirmish with Katsumoto's rebels, Algren is imprisoned in the samurais' remote village. He learns respect for his captors, especially Katsumoto, and regains the self-respect he had lost in the massacre of an Indian village. Algren 'goes native', becomes proficient in martial arts and is attracted to Katsumoto's sister, whose husband he had killed in the skirmish. He joins Katsumoto's rebel samurai in a final battle with the Imperial army. The outcome has profound consequences for Katsumoto, the Emperor and for Algren.

Marlon Brando hamming it up behind 'yellowface' makeup in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) was something of an inevitable end-point for Hollywood's post-Second World War imagining of the Japanese as more than faceless enemies but less than complex people with ways of life beyond what Americans expected them to be. The twentieth-century West's fascination with Japan, its start conveniently datable to Puccini's opera Madam Butterfly, quickly developed apprehension under the surface: at different times, apprehension of the exotic, of the militaristic, of the commercially irresistible. Being able to encode this fascination and fear in different ways has provided Hollywood with rich material over the years, not least during the 1980s and 1990s when Hollywood's Japan was one of ruthless corporations, scheming yakuza and inter-cultural gamesmanship. The Last Samurai can lay claim to ending Hollywood's more fearful treatments of Japan; and yet it never quite manages to escape patronizing its subjects either. Tom Cruise's Captain Algren remains very much a variant of Glenn Ford's Captain Fisby from The Teahouse of the August Moon: the gradually 'assimilated' American who nonetheless remains superior by dint simply of his unshakeable Americanness. This is not unlike Avatar (2009), where the American goes native and becomes a military advisor for the 'other' side, with the ultimate subordination of indigenous differences to good old-fashioned American heroism being the ideological heart of the movie.
The Last Samurai, like Avatar, has what Scott Robert Olson identifies as a key commercial and ideological strength of American media generally: the quality of transparency that allows indigenous differences to be assimilated into seemingly-universal themes and stories. As Algren is assimilated by samurai culture so, too, is the film's (respectfully recreated) Japaneseness absorbed into a recognizable, Hollywood story about the hero's redemption. As a 'transparent text' in this sense, The Last Samurai can be heavy on period detail and light on any historical and political complexity, placing the Americans in roles that were mostly taken by the French in Meiji Japan, uncritically depicting the samurai and exaggerating the contrast between traditional and modern in the clash between samurai rebels and Imperial army. That contrast serves historical accuracy less than it does Hollywood's fascination with an imaginary warrior code: a generalized set of values and traits that can be applied in different historical and imagined settings where the common elements include obsessive mastery of weaponry and martial techniques, evoking ostensibly timeless notions of honour, taking a stand against the odds and 'dying well' where necessary. The trappings of Meiji Japan in The Last Samurai endow this 'code' with attractive specificity here and both narrative and characterization do well at weaving it into the historical setting while observing the attendant value clashes; but, in the end, Algren the warrior is still Bruce Willis' Lieutenant Waters in Tears of the Sun, released the same year, while his sensitivity to Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto is still that of James Stewart's Tom Jeffords to Jeff Chandler's Cochise in Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950). The Last Samurai, then, remains quintessentially a good enough piece of Hollywood film-making, with all the strengths and weaknesses that this entails.
Dropped in pre-production from an early version was a central female character, modelled on Victorian women travellers in Japan such as Isabella Bird. Original director, New Zealander Vincent Ward, parted company with producers Radar Pictures who cited 'creative differences' around the commercial viability of a female lead. Ward, in effect, replaced himself with Edward Zwick, whose commitment to the Hollywood staple of male action hero was less in doubt.

Author of this review: Dan Fleming