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In 1876 Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a Civil War hero who became disillusioned with politics and ideals during the Indian Campaigns, and then he became a drunk. An envoy from Japan offers him a job training the Emperor's first modern army, which will be used to suppress an army of Samurai who are rebelling against the Imperial government's modernizing agenda. Mired in self-hatred and disgusted by the irony that killing is what he does best, Algren declares that he'll kill anyone for $500 a month and sails for Japan. Against his better judgment, Algren leads an ill-prepared regiment of novice soldiers against the Samurai, and he is captured. The leader of the Samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), treats Algren well, ostensibly so that he may learn about his enemy. And Algren grows to respect this imposing man and the ancient traditions of the Samurai that Katsumoto is fighting to preserve in the face of a rapidly emerging modern Japan.
"The Last Samurai" is a terrific example of what Hollywood does best. It is a epic of legendary proportions. It sets the personal stories of a few heroic individuals against a sweeping and beautifully photographed historical background. It is a great story, but not a realistic one. It's a grandly entertaining myth. The Samurai culture is idealized. The characters speak not as real people would, but in moving and thoughtful monologues. Even when they are speaking to each other, they are actually speaking to the audience. But Hollywood does these larger-than-life tales like no one else, and "The Last Samurai" is epic filmmaking at its best.
Tom Cruise is an obvious choice for such a large-scale project that requires that its cast have great screen presence so as not to be lost among the fantastic costumes and sets. Cruise's screen presence is up to the task, but I'm not sure his thespian skills are. Cruise's mannerisms are too modern for a man who grew up in the mid-19th century. But that is a minor flaw since "The Last Samurai" does not pretend to historical accuracy in its ideas, only in its environment. Tom Cruise is adequate here, but Ken Watanabe steals the show as Katsumoto, spiritual and military leader of the Samurai. His presence on screen is more than up to the film's epic proportions. I have rarely seen such charisma on a movie screen. He successfully embodies the concept of the warrior-poet in one character. I look forward to seeing more of Ken Watanabe in Western films, as well as Japanese. There are notable supporting performances from Koyuki as Taka, a woman who takes Algren into her home when he is injured and captured, and from Timothy Spall as a British translator.
Much has been made of "The Last Samurai"'s playing fast and loose with history. This is a film that aspires to bring an engrossing and monumental story to its audience before it aspires to accuracy in detail. My knowledge of Japanese history is sketchy at best. But it appears that the larger events of "The Last Samurai" are based in fact, while the details have been invented to serve the story. The rebellion of the Samurai and its great battle with the Imperial Army in the film closely resemble the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, in which the Satsuma Samurai, led by Saigo Takamori, engaged the Imperial Army. It turns out the way it did in real life, too. The film's Katsumoto is based on the very real Japanese hero Saigo Takamori, who helped usher the Shogunate out of power and restore the Imperial family to power before eventually leading an armed Rebellion against the Emperor on account of the policies of the Meiji Restoration, which instituted sweeping reforms intended to modernize Japan. The Meiji Restoration did make it illegal for the Samurai to wear topknots and swords, as we see depicted in the film. The government's Ministers did have more power than the Emperor Meiji, who served primarily as a symbol of national unity. So I would say that the political climate and the major events depicted in "The Last Samurai" are real, while the story itself is not. Writer John Logan has used this environment to tell a story about the personal journey of an American and the clash between modern realities and traditional cultures.
"The Last Samurai" has often been compared to Kevin Costner's 1990 epic "Dances With Wolves". The two films are similar in that they are both about a disillusioned Civil War veteran who finds redemption and a sense of identity in a traditional culture that is on its way to extinction -or at least assimilation. But the Samurai were not harmless or innocent as the American Indians of "Dances With Wolves" may have been. The Samurai were politically influential and militarily powerful. And they were not marginalized after their defeat. Quite the contrary. "The Last Samurai" also departs from "Dances With Wolves" pacifist themes in asserting that the suppression of traditional cultures, by force if necessary, was necessary for Japan's survival in the modern world.
I highly recommend "The Last Samurai" as an excellent example of signature epic filmmaking. It's a well-paced story that holds the audience's interest even at nearly 2 1/2 hours in length. Ken Watanable's performance is thoroughly enjoyable. The battle sequence is breath-taking and utterly spectacluar. It will even appeal to the martial arts crowd; there are lots of sword fights. It's a melange of history and fiction, but I see no reason to sweat the details since "The Last Samurai" isn't claiming to be anything more than that.
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on June 30, 2004
Ray Bradbury once wrote a short story about medieval knights jousting with an oncoming train. Naturally, they got flattened. The story was an allegory of old versus new, modernism versus traditionalism. This movie is that short story expanded to feature length and moved to the Orient. In the place of the medieval knights is a true historical figure, Saigo Takamori, who led a rebel army to glorious defeat in the Satsuma Rebellion, a futile insurrection against the Japanese government during the early days of the Meijin Restoration.
As far as history is concerned, about the only thing the movie got right was Saigo's last valiant (or quixotic) mounted charge into the murderous firepower of the modern Japanese Army. Saigo was not the reactionary champion of Samurai privilege and custom that the movie depicted. He was one of the chief architects of the dismantling of the Shogunate and the dragging of Japan kicking and screaming into the modern world. For a time, he was even the commander in chief of the modern Japanese Army.
Many are recognized as great decades after their death. Saigo was that rare individual who was rightly recognized as great by his contemporaries. It makes for a fascinating story to learn how such a man could end up dying in a futile rebellion against the government he helped to create. But you won't find it in this movie. For the real story of Saigo, read "The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori," available from Amazon.com.
While the movie got the sequence of events and the motivations of the protagonists wrong, the scenery, costumes, and weaponry appeared to be quite authentic. Most Samurai of Saigo's time practiced swordsmanship with cane swords. This practice lives on in Japan in the sport of Kendo. Saigo, however, subscribed to a school of swordsmanship that prescribed the use of hardwood sticks. The movie accurately depicts Saigo's disciples practicing with hardwood sticks. Watching the movie depiction of that practice readily shows why most Samurai used cane swords.
Another area the movie got right was the archery with the assymetrical bow. When we Westerners think of Samurai, we think of them as swordsmen. The Samurai were primarily archers, and the movie accurately reflects the importance of archery to the Samurai.
Notwithstanding the many inaccuracies of the movie, it is a stirring adventure of epic proportions, and quite enjoyable viewing. To borrow a phrase from another source, it is a movie for guys who like movies. Just remember as you watch this very good movie, it is not, I repeat, not history.
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on December 14, 2003
This film was a bit long, but really quite interesting. While I wouldn't say that Tom Cruise or any of the actors for that matter gave an oscar performance, this film was interesting in the way it contrasted West and EAst. Moreover, the film's main character Nathan Algren seems resistant to the West and its ideals as he is haunted by memories of fighting the "Indians." Through his interaction with the samurai, he comes to realize the rootlessness of the West. The West seems bent on doing, while the samurai focus on being. It is through Algren's observations of samurai connection between mind and body that he finally rejects the West and its ways. This film was also interesting in its rich symbolism, and of course I was glad that there was no gratuitous sex scene. Sure, some films might call for sexual displays, but this film wasn't one of them.
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on March 24, 2004
"The Last Samarai" is one of the greatest films released in 2003, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. Its hardhitting impact is intense enough to keep audiences' eyes wide open through the whole movie. Its written plot of a US soldier changing his life for the better in Japan is brilliant. Despite the war themes, there are some great heartwarming scenes, namely when the US soldier starts healing his pains from his US war battles. As he begins learning Japanese traditions, he begins learning more about himself, which plays a crutial part in the film. As this develops, the drama also develops, which keeps audiences interested. This allows the conflicts between the two sides to be brought out as brilliantly as it was. His friends' life stories add an additional unique flavor. The war scenes are uniquely intense. Few other movies have thought of such original war scenery. This teaches audiences that there is no one way to fight a war or to solve a conflict.
Its Oscar-nominated 1870's Japanese setting is flawless. They prove that they did their research to construct such an elaborate set. The war scenes are desplicted as brutal as they should thanks to the special effects. The costumes are accurate from those times. Such great background offers an improved sense of this masterpiece film.
Tom Cruise's underrated role as US soldier Nathan Algren is his best in years. His two years of training to prepare for his role paid off. He never loses his intense sense of emotion for a second. The pain and agony expressed are as pure as if he actually lived it. Ken Watanabe's Oscar-nominated role as Samarai leader Katsumoto rightfully places him in the spotlight. This performance makes acting appear easy when it's actually the opposite. He proves that he will become a big-name actor in the next following years. All other actors also performed their roles beautifully.
"The Last Samarai" is great for those looking for a unique war movie with emotion. This is sure to please many audiences. This is destined to be a classic in the following years as it deserves.
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"The Last Samurai" is an excellent film, respectful of its source material even while telling a fictional story. The "foreigner joins a warrior culture, taking on their strange dress and winning their respect" story is well-represented on film and in history, from Bonnie Prince Charlie to "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dances with Wolves," as well as the Japanese-themed "Shogun," which is based on the life of Miura Anjin/William Adams. Here, Tom Cruise is the stranger in a strange land, and the Samurai of Japan are the warrior culture.
Being no stranger to Samurai films of Japanese history, I was pleased by all aspects of "The Last Samurai." Both the modernizing Meji government and the past-looking Samurai of the period are well represented, although the Samurai come out looking much better. The warrior code of Bushido is not explained, and the lifestyle is completely romanticized, yet this is a movie and not a history text. Emperor Meji is well-played, which surprised me. He is neither hero nor villain. And there are ninjas, which improves every film.
In the vein of the big Hollywood epics, "The Last Samurai" serves up healthy doses of sweeping score, beautiful vistas and Japan-landscape eye candy. The country has rarely looked so beautiful, although I bet some technicians spent plenty of time computer-erasing the omni-present power lines. The samurai armor,while not historically accurate, looks beautiful on film. There are more than a few scenes that leap beautifully from a Kurosawa flick. A great looking cast helps as well.
To this day, Japan has difficulty rationalizing tradition and modernization, as can be seen in books such as "Dogs and Demons." "The Last Samurai" has some good lessons for modern Japan, and some good entertainment for us all.
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on December 13, 2003
The notion of Honor is as far removed from our current everyday existence than the idea of a beleaguered Civil War Colonel (Tom Cruise) going to Japan in 1876 to train the Emperor�s Army in the new way of fighting an enemy: that is with guns and cannons and without swords.
In these modern times, we have put ideals like Honor, Obedience to a Code of Ethics and Allegiance to an Ideal in little boxes and placed them on a shelf along with our copies of Lincoln�s speeches and Aristotle�s �Poetics.� They are available but unread.
In the world of �The Last Samurai,� we see an honorable though innocent world in which a man�s word is his badge of honor and to break it is tantamount to death.
Nathan Algren (Cruise) is a defeated man, both in spirit and in health: he has committed untold atrocities in the name of the Union Army which haunt him so much that gallons of whiskey do little to quell the pain. Cruise plays Algren with a heretofore untapped (except maybe in �The Fourth of July�) reservoir of pain and inner fire. Cruise is so much of a contemporary man that he usually has trouble making anything other than that believable. But here he is simply magnificent: psychically conflicted, physically stooped over by, not only his consumption of alcohol but by unresolved pain and guilt: his Algren has an inner life consumed by self disgust and revulsion that director Edward Zwick shows us in flashbacks of such power that they invoke horror in our hearts.
Algren is captured by a group of contra Samurai, trying to hold onto their ideal world and while being held captive, learns the ways of the Samurai that he eventually adopts as superior to what he has experienced in his life up to this point. His chief captor, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is fascinated by Algren and his reputation as a first class soldier, but in the end it is Algren that learns more from Katsumoto than vice versa. Algren experiences a world with the Samurai that he knows is doomed, because of and despite its adherence to a code of ethics based on human and humane principles that he recalls from his life in the U.S. before the Civil War. And in many ways this break from the feudal to the modern in Japan is very much like our break, after the Civil War from an agrarian society to an urban based modern one: from the innocent to the worldly, from keeping things outside our borders to inviting them in.
As a whole, �The Last Samurai� is breathtaking to watch but the scenes of hand-to-hand combat are thrilling: gruesome yet beautiful. And the last charge of the last battle of the film works, not only on the level of an unmatched fight between the old guard (the Samurai) and the new (an army outfitted with rifles) but on the cosmic level as a symbol of the last dying hope of an honorable world in a last desperate gasp of a conflict with the new, modern world, hell bent on proving its superiority yet obviously lacking in moral fiber and resolve.
�The Last Samurai� gives us a glimpse into the feudal yet honorable world of the Samurai: a world in which a man was judged by his character, his love of family and friends and his good deeds and not by his bank account or the size of his stock portfolio. And shamefully, it is a world we will never see the likes of again.
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VINE VOICEon April 22, 2004
The story follows a disillusioned American Civil War hero, Captain Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, as he goes to Tokyo to train the Japanese army, who are embroiled in a battle with the remaining traditional Samurai. The Americans are there for the money, and that money is provided by the Emperor's Westernized advisors who want the Samurai out of the picture so that they may continue be the power behind the Emperor and increases their own wealth. In an early battle however, Algren is captured by the Samurai and held by them for the winter. During this time he learns the way of the Samurai and eventually ends up fighting alongside them - breaking his allegiance to the country he once fought for.

Ken Watanabe in his performance as the samurai leader Katsumoto dominates the screen. Through Watanabe we see that the samurai are noble and intelligent. Hiroyuki Sanada was impressive as Ujio, the tough, brutal, yet loyal and disciplined Samurai.

This film has amazing sets and battles. The sword fights are well rehearsed and the cinematography is well orchestrated. The costumes were striking and good replicas for a period movie. This film reminded me of Dances with wolves, which I also liked. Its not about which culture is more superior, it is about our mutual willingness to listen and learn from each other.
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on December 21, 2003
Even though he earns a major paycheck, is a huge box office draw, and is a helluva nice guy, Tom Cruise really doesn't get his due respect as an actor. I will admit that at first I thought this was gonna be stupid, but I was way wrong. Some might describe The Last Samurai as Dances With Wolves meets Braveheart, but it really does stand on its own. I'm not saying the storyline is anything new, because it's not, but these are three-dimensional characters you really come to care about by film's end. That's what modern films need is 3d characters! My only complaint about the movie is that there is one perfect -- and very powerful -- ending but we are spoon-fed two more endings after that. Aside from that assumption to the audience's lack of imagination, The Last Samurai is a nearly perfect example of it's genre and is certainly one of the best offerings of 2003. OH AND I ALMOST FORGOT!!! The fighting is so awesome! I mean wow! It's so great!! 2nd best movie of the year.
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on December 9, 2003
When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought, "Oh man, another 'artistic' Tom Cruise movie", but then I saw newer trailers for it and I decided to go see it. Tom Cruise is a really talented actor. I always thought he was an egotistical maniac and played himself in movies. You know, a wealthy womanizer with too much time on his hands, but this time he wasn't. The movie is about an alchoholic Civil War Captain who takes a job to go to Japan, to fight off rebels who are disgracing the Empire. The Captain, (Cruise) is taken hostage by these rebels and he finds out they are samurai. He learns many things about these people and why they stay samurai instead of converting to a regular army. Honor. They believe in practicing their heritage from their ancestors and the Captain becomes accustommed to that. There are then many battles and they were very well done. The acting from everyone in this movie was superb. The movie was alot like "Dances with Wolves". It was great to walk out of this movie having liked it, after I thought it was going to be bad.
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on December 30, 2003
A film by Edward Zwick
The year is 1876. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a Civil War hero. Officially, he is also a hero in the fight against the American Indians, but Algren is tormented by what happened. He has nightmares and flashbacks of the slaughter of the Indians. He is selling his story as a stage act (with the intent to sell rifles for the company putting on the show), but is trying to bury his memory in whiskey.
Algren is contacted by his former military commander, whom he hates with a passion because of the Indian slaughter. His commander has an offer for him from the Japanese. Algren is being recruited to train Japanese soldiers in modern warfare. Japan is trying to modernize and step away from some of its past traditions. To be specific, Japan is trying to separate from the Samurai tradition. The Japanese military is also trying to put down a rebellion from Samurai rebels who claim that Japan's modernization is happening too fast. Algren accepts the position (the money is good), and begins to train the Japanese. Even though they are making improvements, they are not yet ready for battle when they are commanded to fight against Katsumoto's (Ken Watanabe) Samurai rebels. The Samurai soundly defeat the army in the battle as the army is so undisciplined that they break ranks at the first charge. Algren is isolated and is fighting for his life. When Algren can fight no longer, one of the Samurai is prepared to kill him, but Katsumoto decides to take Algren prisoner. Even though it took some time to get here, this is where the movie truly begins.
Algren is in the care of Katsumoto's sister, Taka (Koyuki). We are taken on a journey with Algren as he is nursed back into health but still deals with the scars of his past. Algren must spend the winter as a prisoner because when the snow falls, there is no way out of the village. During this time, Algren learns about the samurai through conversations with Katsumoto and he begins to come to peace with himself. There also seems to be a gentle love interest forming between Algren and Taka, but so much of it is unspoken and shown throw gesture and glances.
I thought this was a beautiful movie. The cinematography was just stunning and while the film may have had a slower pacing, I found it incredibly engaging. Edward Zwick is the director of the underrated "Courage Under Fire" and "The Seige", "Legends of the Fall" and the excellent film "Glory". He doesn't make bad movies. "The Last Samurai" is one of the year's best thus far, and I would definitely recommend it.
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