Review: The Last Samurai (2003)

“From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen such discipline.”

*This review may contain spoilers*

The Last Samurai is an action drama directed by Edward Zwick (Defiance, Blood Diamond), starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe and Billy Connolly. Inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, American Army Captain Algren (Cruise) is taken prisoner by a group of samurai warriors who have formed a rebellion against a westernising 19th century Japan. After poor conditions forces Algren to stay for the winter and initially reluctant to understand their culture, he begins to develop emotional attachments with his enemy and to their harmonious way of life.

After first watching The Last Samurai in my early teens, I remember vividly the emotional and epic battle scenes that are underpinned by one of Hans Zimmer’s most warming scores. 17 years on from its initial release, I was not surprised to see just how well this film has aged. Visually, this movie is still astonishingly beautiful, from the colourful shots of serene and authentic Japan to the strikingly fierce and elegant armour of the samurai. However, I was completely taken back by the lack of appreciation for the emotional drivers that clearly went over the head of a younger me. The core meaning behind the film isn’t the exciting battle scenes or its ridiculously high budget costume design, but its authenticity, relationships and the interconnections we all share. The Last Samurai leaves a lasting impression, as it challenges viewers on an emotional level to review preconceived ideas and it does so through its culturally naive lead, Captain Algren.

Algren’s character is introduced as a drunkard suffering from PTSD, who is completely unable to see anything beyond himself and his role as a military Captain. His reluctance to even try and understand the culture of his captors is evident, through a dramatic fight scene against Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada) to his refusal to introduce himself. Algren is physically and emotionally unyielding, stuck in the ways of his idea of culture that has only left him broke and tormented by nightmares. This is where the brooding drama begins to play out, as we watch Algren slowly and conflictingly begin to fall in love with his new surroundings. Again, the tells can be subtle: when he leaves his muddy boots by the door or when he dresses in traditional Japanese attire and begins shadow-fighting like an excited child. These scenes are charming and service a more sympathetic lead, but ultimately build to one of the brightest points in the film, that being the relationship between Algren and samurai lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). You don’t need to understand the craft to appreciate the factors that bind every scene the two are together, such as the script, the quirks of Katsumoto’s delivery and the convincing chemistry between these leads to name a few. Such a fantastic performance from Watanabe had me smiling with every line, but also sent me scrolling through his filmography to see more. However, there is one performance that cannot go overlooked. Koyuki Kato is absolutely selling every emotion being felt by her character, Taka, the wife of a samurai who was killed by Algren. Koyuki has arguably the hardest part to play, given her multiple layers of emotion combined with minimal lines. Despite this, Taka remains rooted as a respectful, shy and grieving character who, similar to Algren, carries conflicting feelings, bolstered by an incredible performance sold perfectly through the eyes. Koyuki and Cruise also share an excellent scene that replaces the cliché romantic kiss or sex scene, in which Taka sensually dresses Algren in her late husbands under armour, with the score doing most of the storytelling. Possibly the most emotionally charged moment in the film and expertly matched to Taka’s character, this visual scene was another expert avoidance of modern cinema trope.

Upon release, The Last Samurai received some backlash against its American lead, giving omens of the “white savior” trope that Hollywood is still, to this day, using and abusing. I could understand where these critics were coming from, only if they hadn’t seen the movie. The film takes this common annoyance and turns it on its head, giving us an insensitive American lead character who comes to terms with his own ignorance. I recognise the “west is best” mentality that is commonplace in the demographic, which had me that much more invested in the slowly shifting mentality of Algren’s character. The film can be viewed as a commentary against this very idea and it is demonstrated with such sophistication, behind a real passion for Japanese culture. A lot of scenes were filmed on set, if not Japan then in some very similar looking parts of New Zealand, which provides a constant visual appeal that is contrary to the opening scenes in America. The silky soundtrack runs alongside some gorgeous shots, one in particular of Algren training with a sword over a postcard worthy sunset. The stunning cinematography extends to an epic concluding battle scene, bringing fast yet believable choreography with fire and gatling gun carnage, that balances action with emotion and serves the narrative rather than taking over. Wide shots give scale to the huge scenes compiling of thousands of actors, many riding horses and all wearing intricately designed costumes. The guerrilla style plan has the audience questioning whether the samurai can win a seemingly impossible fight and solidifies the epic stature that many critics have come to agree on.

With a 2 hour 40 minute run time, The Last Samurai is packed full with many characters and sub-plots that may stretch the audience thin towards the end of the second act. Unfortunately, pacing is an issue, with some aspects feeling somewhat unnecessary, albeit relevant. I found myself clock watching at 1:40, with the entire rescue scene feeling like a reason to introduce more action. Understanding the significance of Algren’s decision, the scene is not poorly made in the slightest, just perhaps elongated to forced effect. The film may also have benefited from more of the subtle humor that was effective during Algren’s introduction to the Japanese village, to smooth the experience for casual viewers and remove the need for additional action scenes. Even if the lengthy run time begins testing your patience, the final act should remedy anything negative you may have to say about the film as a whole. A conversation between the young Emperor and Algren ties the plot up nicely, with a line that tugs at you one last time: “I will tell you how he lived”.

The Last Samurai is a film that feels timeless. Every shot feels planned, every character feels alive and every relationship is unique, interesting and layered. The film is rich in culture and themes, providing strong messages behind an outwardly epic action drama. The acting is unsurprisingly top notch, but it is the chemistry between the actors that brings the scenes to life and forces your attention, despite the stretched run time. I give The Last Samurai a 9/10!

If you liked this review, please comment or share this post for others. If you have any similar or, even better, conflicting opinions of The Last Samurai, please comment to open a healthy debate.

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