Tuesday, 9 May 2006

The Last Samurai (2003) R3 DVD

Ken Watanabe's dream is to die in the arms of Tom Cruise when the cherry blossoms bloom

The Last Samurai feels like Dances With Wolves so much, I wanted to call it Dances With Kimino. The entertaining yarn tells the tale of a battle-shocked veteran of General Custer’s Indian campaigns. Reduced by white man’s guilt and the bottle into a travelling sideshow performer, Captain Algren (Tom Cruise) is given a chance at meaningful existence – he is invited by representatives of Emperor Meiji of the Empire of Japan to help train the Imperial Army in modern warfare and suppress a samurai rebellion in Satsuma. When the army is forced in a strategic error to engage the samurais too early, the imperial forces are decimated, and Algren is captured by General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

During his captivity, Algren comes to appreciate their culture, gain their respect (it involves taking more frequent baths), and learn the ways of the samurai. In short, he goes native, just short of joining their cause.

History and Japan buffs will complain about the exoticised, romanticised, and wildly inaccurate setting of the movie. I call on them to ignore that for the time being and just enjoy the flick. Tom Cruise is great as a clumsy oaf who manages to master the katana, sufficiently to dispatch 6 opponents in single combat, with an instant replay! Ken Watanabe is perfect as a poet-warrior who longs for nothing more than to die in Tom Cruise’s arms as the cherry blossoms fall!

The script is full of wildly improbable and ridiculously overwrought lines like "They are an intriguing people... I have never seen such discipline" (a nod to appreciating different cultures), "What does it mean to be samurai?" (a nod to intercultural understanding), and in a nod to pseudo-Eastern crypto-religious philosophy, "You believe a man can change his destiny?" "I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed", or even "I am a living god, as long as I do what they think is right." Like Dances With Wolves, Cruise’s white male hero gets to teach Emperor Meiji the ways of the samurai, to save the Japanese from amoralistic American villains.

All this is trashy and laughable nonsense, but it works on some level anyway. It still manages to thrill, excite, and entertain, despite the inaccuracies and poor dialogue. Tom Cruise is at his charismatic best since Born on the Fourth of July, while Ken Watanabe deserves his Best Supporting Actor Oscar award. Kabuki star Shichinosuke Nakamura brings an elegant restraint as the Emperor, while Timothy Spall was deliciously enjoyable as a colonial Brit interpreter.

The whole struggle of modernisation vs tradition thing adds depth to this Hollywood epic. Of course, some liberties were taken – Japan enthusiastically adopted firearms in the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese traders, and in the historical Satsuma rebellion, the samurai fought with cannons and firearms, but were overwhelmed by numbers, not necessarily superior technology. And by the Meiji era, the samurai were not much of a warrior class, but an aristocracy steeped in the arts, and serving as bureaucrats and administrators.

In The Last Samurai, Hollywood has remade Dances With Wolves with gleaming Western technology mowing down primitive Japanese samurai instead of Indians.

DVD Extras

History buffs will appreciate the balanced “History vs Hollywood” feature, a mini-documentary that can stand on its own, if it were broadcast on the History Channel. Indeed, the best features are geared towards students of history and historical re-creations, from costumes to weaponry to production design. “A world of detail”, “Silk and armor”, “Production design with Lilly Kilvert” and “From soldier to samurai” will satiate your historical cravings.

The conversation between Cruise and the director is too creepy for words. It’s like these men have a mutual admiration thing that goes too far, while Tom Cruise explains the major themes and his artistic vision of the film in “A warrior’s journey”.

There are only 2 deleted scenes in the DVD feature, but they make a world of difference to the movie. Zwick explains why they were cut even though these were arresting scenes (a samurai beheads an official who openly mocks him in a street) and important (Elgren and Katsumoto discuss artillery weapons in their first conversation). Given the soppy, fairy-tale like ending of the theatrical release, I was expecting an alternate ending that was rejected because it would not appeal to American audiences.

The Japan premiere feature is botched up. While the actors all speak in Japanese, there are no English subtitles available for people who can’t read traditional Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Bahasa Indonesia.

First published at incinemas on 9 May 2006

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