30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Not Kurosawa, But Still Engaging Story of the Lost Ideal,
First of all, if you want to see the real samurai in film, see Kurosawa. He is, and will be, the definite master of the genre (or any genre of film) and "The Last Samurai" does not change his undisputed status. Still Tom Cruise's new film has several merits of its own, and to watch the fictional Japan with great Japanese cast is worth a look.
Disillusioned and alcoholic American officer, Tom Cruise's Nathan Algren, is hired to train the Japanese army. The time is in the 1870s, when Japan's new government is struggling to establish its rule over the country, and rebellious "samurai" (techinically there were no samurai at that time, though) are unstable elements in the new-born nation.
After the bloody battle, Nathan is captured alive by the leader of rebel samurai Katsumoto (brilliant Ken Watanabe). Katsumoto keeps the wounded American within his village, knowing that the coming severe winter will shut down any access from outside. Moreover, Katsumoto says, he wants to "see his enemy."
After the sagging middle part, while the film portrays the gradual understanding between Katsumoto and Algren, it gives occasional actions using Japanese swords (including those of ninjas which tells that Hollywood still do not understand). Wait to see when it finally leads to the big action scene, of which very authentic and dynamic power is undeniable, even though it is still tainted by Hollywood ending. All Japanese audiences know (and grieve to see) that the Japanese soldiers would not "kneel" that way on the battlefield.
If anything should be recommeded, that is its production designs and Watanabe's acting. The sets of Japanese village and Japanese town (of Yokohama 130 years ago) are literally perfect. (Think about they were mostly bulit in the field of New Zealand or the backlot of Hollywood studio.) Being myself a Japanese who experienced many sad cases of misunderstandings of Western films, I can testify that there are no strange things coming from so-called "Orientalism." Surely they did homework.
And Ken Watanabe. Watanabe's samurai is far better and rounded than Tom Cruise's rather (cliched - ?) American. In fact, Cruise is good, but his performance is clearly enhanced by Watanabe's much subtler and more charismatic acting. In him you will be looking at a new Yul Brynner of "The King and I," with his dignity and slight touch of humor this late great actor so easily had shown. And many Japanese audiences know that Watanabe once suffered from leukemia, and this fact might have lent his convincing portrait of "The Last Samurai" a solemn tone.
To be frank, Edward Zwick's idea about "Bushi-do" or ways of samurai looks too "Westernized" to us. The film shows the armoured samurai riding the horse, but actually, this battle style had already been out-of-date around this era. Any Japanese know that before the Meiji era (which the film depicts), we had a very long peaceful time that lasted about 250 years, and during the period the samurai underwent many changes. And though Katsumoto insists on using swords, the fact is samurai used early-style rifes back in the late 16th century. The film is engaging, but just do not take the film as the historical facts about samurai.
Incidentally, there is a book called "The Last Samurai" by Mark Ravina about a real-life, well-known historical figure Takamori Saigo, whose life is one of the possible inspiration of Katsumoto.