The title of the film gives it away. The Last Samurai stars Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, an American military man, who, after fighting in a civil war, is not so happy with his American compatriots. See, whenever he tries to sleep, he gets visions of his army slaughtering a bunch of Native Americans. I can see how that would be unpleasant. He tries to drown these memories with alcohol, but that has very limited results.
He’s approached one day by the Japanese. Well, not all of the Japanese, but the current government. They want to hire him to train their army, and are willing to pay him five times his current salary to do so. (He’s going to get $500 each month, which before 1900 was solid pay.) Obviously, that sounds like a good job, so we head to Japan. He meets translator Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), a couple of other people who aren’t worthy of the time it takes to write out their names, and ends up showing the Japanese military how to use their guns properly, take formation, and other military things that you’ll get to see when you watch this film. They’re preparing for war against the samurai, who hold are so deeply rooted in their tradition that they won’t even arm themselves with firearms. Should be an easy fight, right?
It isn’t. The military gets slaughtered the first time they try to take down the samurai. Some say they weren’t prepared. I’m willing to agree with that assessment. The highlight of the fight puts Cruise’s character up against five or so samurai, with him actually putting up quite a good fight before being pinned down. Before the final blow can be dealt, their leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), decides that he might be useful. He’s kept prisoner instead of being executed.
It’s here when The Last Samurai really picks up, even though the action scenes slow down to a crawl. For the next hour or so, the only fights we get are from Nathan and other villagers training with wooden swords. Sometimes, he even fights against children. As you might expect from the title, Nathan ends up becoming enamored with the culture, language and ideals of these samurai, eventually becoming good enough friends with his captors to be let go at whatever point he chooses.
The film ends in a big, bloody and breathtaking war scene. It’s exciting, well-made, and since you’ve built it up for the previous 120+ minutes, it’s a great release once you finally reach that point. Yes, it involves the samurai and the military, but no, I’m not going to tell you which side Nathan ends up on. The observant readers will note the title in trying to figure it out, but I’d like to point out that misleading titles have been used in the past. Hopefully that piques your curiosity enough to have you give this film a look.
Most of the time is spent observing the culture of these samurai warriors while Nathan is prisoner. We watch them live their lives — he notes that they get up every morning and work at perfecting everything they do — which actually don’t seem all that strange. Sure, some of their traditions are unfamiliar to both Nathan and most of the Western audience, but the similarities are there as well.
I’ve heard comparisons toward Dances with Wolves. I can see why, considering it involves a man growing to like another’s culture, eventually becoming more or less fully immersed in it. What The Last Samurai does better than Dances with Wolves is that it gives us a slightly more empathetic main character (I could actually feel for Nathan, which I couldn’t do with whatshisname from Dances), and also not trying to treat its story like it’s greater than it really is. The Last Samurai clocks in at just over two and a half hours, which is just about the right time for this type of film. I rarely felt bored, and when I did, that feeling was quickly ended because something new and fresh would happen.
It did seem like director Edward Zwick thought that we might get bored of watching Cruise and the samurai interact for more than an hour, so he threw in a random fight against assassins/ninjas at the mid-way point, seemingly just because. It’s mentioned in passing that it was the doing of a businessman who’s working with America for acquiring weapons, but after that, the assault is more or less forgotten about. Sure, it was fun and it did help advance some character relations, but it certainly came out of nowhere.
The performances are all-around solid, with the two leading performances from Cruise and Watanabe carrying the most weight. I know that a lot of people don’t like Cruise, for numerous reasons, but I’ve always thought he’s a good actor, and he gets a lot of time to shine here. Just don’t go in expecting an action film, because The Last Samurai contains much more drama and dialogue than you’d expect from an action film.
I enjoyed The Last Samurai. It won’t fully appease those looking for a pure action film — despite the fact that the action scenes are quite well-done — but in terms of drama, characters and most other areas, it’s a very good film. I had fun watching Cruise’s character learn the ways of the samurai, come to appreciate their culture, because as he’s doing so, we are as well. Obviously we’re not learning sword fighting, but just observing that is fine by me.