A film I watched purely on recommendation, not really a fan of Tom Cruise, however when it mentioned the U.S. civil war I decided to take a closer look at The Last Samurai (2003) to see what was really going on. And I wasn’t let down, even though it’s not technically a western it does have all the clever hallmarks of being a revisionist Western, cleverly reworked to look at the decline and fall of the Samurai warrior. A reflection of the Native American across the Pacific, complete with out all knowing white other Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) a troubled man of the army who cannot reconcile his part in the forced relocation and massacre of the Native American people. Which we see in the form of ever more graphic flash-backs which could relate to any massacre before 1876 when we find him now a drunk helping to sell the Winchester rifle. He’s not happy in his work, used as a heroic figure who used a rifle in the Civil War.
He’s offered the chance of a better life back in the uniform in a training role in Japan. By this time relations with the once isolationist country have warmed up. The country has become westernised, adopting the fashions, technology and even weapons. We have come a long way since the time of The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) when relations are just being started between the two very different countries. One rooted in tradition and the past and another in asserting their dominance in the world (nothings changed there then). Now in the late 1800’s we are more in line with Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) when the Samurai is a seen as a dying breed, a reflection of the American gunfighter. The Last Samurai raises their status to another race that has become a relic, deeply rooted in the past, yet also very much part of the countries heritage. Once noble men at the disposal of the Emperor, who now wants them tamed if not eradicated. All part of the westernisation of the country.
Algren’s position is one of modern cinema with a conscience, looking back over the historical depiction of his own country reflected in another. He will train the Japanese army to fight the Samurai but not willingly, more out of a sense of duty and the money’s pretty good too. You’d think that guns would be a far better match for the sword wielding samurai who we meet in a gruesome batter that alters the course of the film dramatically. After killing of a fair few men Algren is taken back to the samurai village out of respect for his ability in battle. You can see some similarities between him and Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who is adopted/assimilated into the culture. The journey is not straight forward, it’s not a case of understanding just the culture, its a whole different mind-set. He can fight, he has the potential to be great, held back by his mind-set, not able to focus his thoughts. Whereas Dunbar is more open to what is around him, not coming with the “I’m living with savages” mindset which takes a while to wear off.
The Samurai are not depicted as savages, cinema has been more kind and even respectful to them. We hold them in awe of their skill, part of the countries culture and heritage. The genre is has strong links with the western, both drawing on each other before the release of this film. This is not Dances with Wolves (1990) in Japan, there is a sweeping feel to the movie, we are seeing the end of an era in a country through the eyes of an American which is standard for Hollywood. Which allows the audience to connect with another culture, which this time was more open to the white-man’s presence, the other was becoming a double-other (film theory talk) in order to work together. Both Algren and Dunbar are/were soldiers of the U.S. army who have come to dislike its recent campaign history. One wanting to see the West before it’s tamed and another horrified by that process. Openly criticising General Custer and his last campaign, saying he was living up to his legend. It’s as if the past has grown a deeper conscience through the guise of Japanese culture, however historically correct is another matter.
With the warrior transformation underway we see him assimilate into their culture, learning the language. Algren never gives up, determined to prove himself to these people who are almost like gods, giving their skill, honour and duty to the emperor who has turned his back on them. They are now fighting for survival, something which Algren feels the Native Americans had but were greatly outnumbered and outgunned. The same is happening here, but not without a fight all provided courtesy of cinema. And boy do we get a glorious battle even though it may never have really happened it’s all part of Hollywood and the genres attempt to rewrite history. It allows Cruise to act more than just rely on his stunts which he insists on doing. There is also little time for romance which would be very out-of place in this film. It’s thankfully held back to move the film forward. We also have Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto the leader of the Samurai and advisor to the Emperor. Watanabe has become the go-to Japanese guy for these heavier roles, bringing with him a more honest portrayal, not just someone in make-up or slightly Japanese. It’s a solid block-buster that if you go deep enough find more than just a historical action film, you get a western, always an extra treat for me.
- Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) (tokyofox.wordpress.com)