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)
I’ve been waiting to catch the Japanese remake of Unforgiven (1992), wondering how it would compare, which I can’t help but do. On the face of it these two films are the same in terms of the basic plot, the three men who ride into avenge a prostitute has been attacked. There is however more added depth to Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) with the added strand of their countries civil war between the now samurai and Shoshon in the 1860’s, which mirrors the American civil, I don’t remember that in Eastwoods western at all. (However I haven’t seen it in 4 years) which gives the characters more of a back-story, not just gunfighters who left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Much the same goes for the two elder men Jubei Kamata (Ken Watanabe) and Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) who start out on one last job in hopes of collecting the reward money. Something that Jubei has long since given up since his days of killing to survive. To raise a family and work a small farm. You could say on the surface that he is a changed man who is simply struggling to keep his family alive in the 1880’s. Whilst Kingo is willing to go on one more job.
With Jebei’s wife long dead he soon gives into his friends persuasive words, riding out a while later. Its still very much the same film, switching 19th century America for Japan, its’s that simple. Of course the dialogue is different, at times I can’t read the subtitles as some bright spark decided to make them white in a font that becomes invisible in the snow. Moving on we soon meet up with a younger man who wants to join up with the veteran swords men, ready for another killing. Even his back story is fleshed out more, finding out he is a Anui a race that the then Emperor was trying to reduce, much like the taming of the Native American over the other side of the Pacific.
Add into the mix the small town where all the action takes places we have the sherif who exerts more power than necessary. Using violence to quell violence. Much younger than Gene Hackman‘s Little Bill Daggett who mirrored by the far younger sherif who doesn’t care who he hurts, using the law to shield himself. Whilst the group of prostitutes are struggling to be listened to. You could say it’s a feminist film, but I’m not too sure, as much as there women are willing to defend themselves, they still pay for men to do the dirty work. They are hiding behind the strength of a man and his gun/sword.
I think to really compare both films I need to re-watch the original Eastwood classic to truly understand what is going on. I think there was a conscious effort to make this version stand alone, whilst the main story elements are the same, it would;t be the same without the final showdown which was shaken up and completely different. I didn’t feel the terror at the transformed man, maybe it was the snow that soften it, not as dramatic as the rain on the soaked ground. Again I have to see for myself. It was however interesting to see once more the relationship between American and Japanese cinema. Before it was Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo (1961) and Seven Samurai (1954), who influenced Sergio Leone and John Sturges The compliment is being returned from Clint Eastwood by Sang-il Lee.
Moving onto or backwards to the original as directed by Clint Eastwood I found myself understanding both in greater detail and his own observations of the western as a genre, how it formed. The violence of the west and the gunfighter which has recently seen his latest film American Sniper (2014) becoming the most successful war film of all time (probably to be beaten later his year). Focusing always on the man behind the violence, not the act itself, what drives man/person to act in such a brutal and dangerous way toward others. Scaring those around you, in order to have power, dominance, material wealth, and self-confidence.
When a man gives up that violence as we find with both Jubei and William Munny they are tamed by wires who have died by the time we meet them. Now a shadow of their former self’s, trying to do good by their family. Before we have seen the lone gunfighter’s come into town, not looking for a fight, always walking into it by the films end. Which happens here in great style. And in great tradition of the aged gunfighter Eastwood carries that on, in his last western role, becoming then too old to really so it justice. I can see strokes of El Dorado (1966), The Gunfighter (1950) and The Shootist (1976) they are no longer the young men they once were, struggling to get on a horse or even walk without some ailment holding them back. Time is their only true enemy. Munny is no longer able to shoot straight without changing weapon at least once.
The legend of the gunfighter and the west itself it question the form of travelling writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who arrives with English Bob (Richard Harris) one of the last great gunfighter’s who legend is bigger than himself. A status constructed by the writer and a lot of creative license to mythologize the untamed west, glorifying a man to become more than his actions. Creating a history that sells to the masses, attracting tourism and money. The very foundations of the genre, which can sometimes be based more on fact if in the right hands. Beauchamp spends most of his time discussing the events of English Bob’s gunfights with Daggett who puts the writers book to shame, the truth behind the legend which. The facts are sometimes harder to swallow than fictions. We discover that the man now in jail had only survived so long was down to pure luck Drawing your gun first was never a sure way to win a gunfight, it takes skill and thinking to win at a draw. Draw your gun first as your aim is not always right, giving the other a chance. Add to that the alcoholic element for Bob who is painted in a far darker insidious light, is more malicious in his killings. Not the brave man who saved the day, more of a lucky drunk who could’t stop shooting. The skill of the gunfighter in the pages of dime novels or the screen is a romanticised vision of an age of survival; kill or be killed.
This is also a macho trait which we find in the youngest of the two men in ride with Munny to avenge the prostitute. The ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) creates his own legend, first recruiting Munny to join him on what could be an adventure, a quick job that itself had been blown out of proportion. Stating that he has killed 5 men before they start even begin, knowing his youth is holding him back to match Munny’s record which is never really totted up. A very masculine trait to “big” yourself up to look and feel better, reputation is a very important part of masculinity. This doesn’t wash with Munny who eventually joins up with on friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who then all join up. I can see even at the start, the subtle changes that were made between this and the Japanese remake to have its own identity, to not just be a scene for scene copy unlike I Died a Thousand Times (1955) which allows it to be the same in terms of structure whilst having its own identity, its own culture.
Both have these built-in myths of past fighters, with swords or guns who have had great battles which have been constructed around the events which were probably bloody and full of horror, alcohol, and fear. If you deconstruct both films down to their main points we have a male figure who has lead a violent life, which has a built in legend and reputation that others have built up and admired. Without the facts to hand we have no idea what really happened, the trauma, the horror, more importantly the shame they now carry with them. I remember from my first review a few years back of the Eastwood original I focused on how the violence in a man can be tamed or even suppressed, able to reform. Until it’s triggered we don’t know how dangerous we can still. Eastwood’s gunfighter will always be more terrifying cinematically, probably because I am a great western fan than of samurai which is almost equal in its horror of the slaughter of the men. The changing of the end is what I was most critical of, going for the sherif first was a wrong footing, the main villain is always killed last.
Whatever these two films are, they do carry on that great tradition of that American/Japanese cinematic relationship of informing each others story telling. Showing the western is not dead and both countries have very different but similar histories which at the heart of human. All cultures create legends out of historical figures from moments they would sooner forget.
- Unforgiven (2013) (disasteryear20xx.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (2013, Japanese) (yacowar.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (rogersworst.blogspot.co.uk)
- Sound in Unforgiven (1992) (tdf165.wordpress.com)
- 4. Unforgiven (1992) (maltinsworstratings.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (haksreviews.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (coffeebeancinema.blogspot.co.uk)
- Unforgiven (1992) (unitedstatesofcinema.blogspot.co.uk)