Top critical review
9 of 10 people found this helpful
flawed but impressive exploitation of ignorance and history
on May 18, 2004
To someone who's actually studied a little Asian history, this was an enjoyable but weird film to watch. Let me present this scenario:
An American of Eastern European descent makes a movie in which a Polish Jew becomes a disciple of Prof. Ernst Haeckel, noted zoologist and early proponent of ideas associated with Nazism: racial war, that Germans were the most superior race of all, and complete suppression of any opposing viewpoints.
Wouldn't that strike you as strange?
And yet that's pretty much what you get with "The Last Samurai" - an American movie based on the Meiji-era Satsuma rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, an Imperial loyalist who advocated a return to traditional Japanese values and (incidentally) the military conquest of Asia to establish an all-encompassing Japanese empire loyal to the divine emporer.
Do Saigo's values sound familiar? They should. The Japanese role in WWII was founded on similar notions.
So in order to create a viable and sympathetic "Last Samurai," director Zawick and screenwriter Logan created a fictional Katsumoto to replace the historical Saigo. This way, they were able to focus on a pastoral outlook of samurai life and discipline - which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In doing so, they created a very pretty film filled with very pretty images and highly sterilized ideas. What's bad about it is that the film warps history (badly) and is filled with countless cliche's - sakura blossoms, seppuku, calligraphy, etc.
The plot is essentially "an American faced with the horrible reality of his Western way of life abandons his roots and finds truth in another culture." Captain Algren, scarred by his role in the Indian Wars, accepts a commision from a big-business-controlled Meiji emporer to train the Japanese army (recently armed by the US) and to take out a band of rebel samurai. These samurai are led by Katsumoto, a samurai of impeccable honor who opposes the Westernization of Japan because of its corruptive influence. Algren is taken prisoner by Katsumoto and comes around to his captor's viewpoint during his captivity. He joins Katsumoto's rebellion and learns bushido, the "way of the warrior." In a final all-out onslaught, Algren and Katsumoto lead the rebel bunch into a battle against the new Westernized Japanese army. The rebels are slaughtered, and Katsumoto, mortally wounded, commits seppuku while commenting on the perfection of cherry blossoms. The young Meiji emporer, on hearing the manner in which this loyal samurai perished, rejects Westernism and gives all of the evil businessman's money to the people. Algren returns to Katsumoto's village, apparently to live out the rest of his days as in pastoral rural peace.
Could we get any more cliche'?
It's a great piece of eye- and mind-candy - the shining highpoint in the century-long Western infatuation with Far Eastern culture. It's a lovesong to the romantic ideas of Orientalism - a throwback to the days when American housewives wore kimonos and played mah-jong. It's the same myopic viewpoint that helped make Bruce Lee the myth he is today, rather than the footnote that he deserved to be. It's a fable that expounds the ideals of bushido, rather than directly face the full gamut of samurai life. The rolling shots of New Zealand (why not shoot the movie in Japan?) are gorgeous, the swordplay is gracefully violent, and the natural earth- and woodtones are so peaceful and Zen-like. This movie is perfectly marketed to an American audience still flirting with Zen, to whom green tea flavoring is trendy, and who buy Japenese paper lamps sold at IKEA.
I can certainly understand reviewer "minnanouta's" violent reaction to the film, although I don't share it. Koreans in particular are bound to hate this movie, given the invasion they suffered during WWII - an invasion once designed and supported by the real "Last Samurai." Americans and Europeans, still in the throes of "yellow fever," will love this flick. Other Asians will scratch their heads, go "hmmm," and say, "Oh, Americans made this movie. That makes sense, sort of."
This could have been a great movie, had it presented balanced viewpoints from both Katsumoto and the industrial tycoon who opposed him. Had this film actually portrayed history, it could have been wonderful - the ambiguities and impurities to both sides of a tenacious struggle in which there is no one correct way. The Meiji Restoration was a tumultuous period in Japanese history, and the struggles of the period were highly layered and complex.
Instead, Zawick and Logan gave us a fable and a fairy tale, and so their historical narrative is severely weakened. It's a gross over-simplification of something very real and very relevant to modern times - but it's eye-catching and well-photographed, so it gets two stars. Add one star for the wonderful screen presence of Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, the one character in the movie anyone cared about.
If you're interested in more accurate portrayals of Japanese and samurai life, I suggest any of the Kurasawa samurai epics. Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog" is an interesting modern meditation of bushido, and many arthouse Yakuza flicks deal with issues of honor and loyalty in grittier, more human terms (check out "Beat" Takeshi's "Brother").
For great samurai reads get the Dark Horse reprints of "Lone Wolf and Cub," Eiji Yoshikawa's "Musashi," and Yukio Mishima's "Patriotism."
[Edit] An infinitely better depiction of the Japanese samurai spirit is "Letters from Iwo Jima." Sure, there are no pretty sakura blossoms, kimono, or katana duels - but the values so prized by the samurai - loyalty, bravery, and sacrifice - are displayed in a Thermopylae-type last stand by soldiers who knew that they were likely to die in order to buy time for their homeland.
[note: since this review was originally posted, "minnanouta" has rewritten his/her review. The original review was just as short as the current one and contained some rather invective words about this movie.]