Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai is Dances With Wolves — or A Man Called Horse — transplanted to Meiji Restoration Japan, with noble samurai substituted for noble savages. Its central idea is that the modernization of Japan was akin to the taming of the American West, and, to make sure we get the point, the movie gives us Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a Civil War hero who later fought at Little Bighorn, but was more traumatized by what he saw his country doing to its indigenous people than he was by Custer’s defeat. At the invitation of a former commanding officer, the now-dissolute Algren, working as a sideshow pitchman for Winchester (“the gun that’s winning the West”), is presented with an unexpected choice: He can travel to Japan as part of an American contingent charged with training that country’s first modern army (one that uses modern firearms in place of sword and arrow), or he can stay in America, living out his days in a state of drunken remorse. In other words, not really a choice at all.
Here, then, is the Japan of 1876, two decades after Commodore Perry first opened the country to the West and nine years after the enthronement of the 15-year-old Emperor Meiji — a Japan primed to take its place on the global stage following two centuries of self-imposed isolation. Under the new government, all remaining vestiges of feudalism are being quickly eradicated from the land, resulting in particular hardship for the 2 million samurai stripped of their generous hereditary stipends and estates. There are psychological indignities as well — edicts commanding samurai to cut their hair in Western styles and to cease wearing swords — and for some, it is simply too much to bear. One such samurai is the renegade Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who helped to bring about the new Japan but now feels betrayed by its rapid Westernization. As “a hero to those who honor the old ways,” he has turned reluctant leader of an armed rebellion.
Algren is training the very soldiers intent upon stopping Katsumoto in his tracks. But when the two armies first clash, in a foggy forest out of which Katsumoto’s warriors materialize like shadow soldiers on ghost horses, the ill-prepared garrison is decimated and a badly wounded Algren taken prisoner. Having slain Katsumoto’s brother-in-law on the battlefield, Algren seems a likely candidate for execution. Fortunately for him, the captor takes a liking to his captive — we’re supposed to believe that the two men recognized something in each other on the battlefield, a shared ethic — and allows him to be nursed back to health (by his own widowed sister!). In short order, a downright cuddly friendship ensues between the two nominal enemies. Conveniently, Katsumoto speaks fluent English, enabling him and Algren to engage in a series of philosophical discussions about the nature of man and the makings of modern warfare. The American tells the samurai about Custer’s disreputable Last Stand — contrasting it with that of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae — while the samurai introduces the American to his warrior code and to some handy Japanese phrases. (Watanabe, for his part, plays these corny scenes with such commanding, regal bemusement that we expect to hear him say “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” ) Before long, the two will find themselves fighting side by side.
There was, in fact, a real samurai uprising — or, more specifically, a series of mini-uprisings — during the years depicted by The Last Samurai. The movie’s Katsumoto is a fictionalized rendering of Saigo Takamori, the former interior minister who spent four years in exile training his own counter-military force, only to be felled in the Satsuma revolt of 1877. Algren, while completely invented, seems at least distantly related to the Civil War captain Leroy Lansing Janes, a missionary who led a revolt of his own — a Christian one — in Japan during these years, earning the nickname “the American Samurai.” But the only history that bears a real influence on The Last Samurai is the history of Hollywood moviemaking, and the unfortunate way it has of turning extraordinary stories into hopelessly ordinary ones. Zwick has been down this road before; with Glory (1989), he showed us black troops fighting for the Union during the Civil War through the eyes — and for the edification — of yet another young white officer.
And yet, Glory was affecting in ways that evade The Last Samurai; for all its unthreatening dramatic choices, it resonated with authentic experience, and the scenes given entirely over to the black soldiers were vibrant and touching. Here, Zwick and his co-writers (Marshall Herskovitz and John Logan) put authenticity on the back burner while cooking up all sorts of analogies and metaphors that probably sounded better on paper than they play onscreen. The point that the samurai are like the Indians (and that by joining their fight Algren can somehow redeem himself for his past trespasses) is made ad infinitum — even though it’s not a particularly convincing point to begin with. The Indians, after all, were a native people eliminated or forcibly corralled onto reservations accounting for a fraction of the land that they once called their own, whereas the samurai were merely a privileged social class unsettled by political changes that stripped them of their power and influence. And while Western encroachment on Japanese interests was undeniably responsible for accelerating Japanese cultural reforms, the movie’s perpetual finger-shaking at the U.S. comes across as a bit naive, even — given the prevailing winds in U.S. foreign policy — opportunistic. (As Zwick has it, the sole reason for the suppression of Katsumoto’s rebellion — and, by extension, the suppression of the real Japanese samurai rebellions — is Japan’s interest in furthering its trade relations with America.)
Nothing about The Last Samurai, however, rings as false as Tom Cruise, who reportedly spent eight months researching and training for this part, and who gives a performance that, unfortunately, feels as though it were eight months in the making. Cruise can wield a sword with the best of them, and he’s impressive on horseback too. But is there any other bona fide superstar onscreen today so apt to confuse tense with intense? With Cruise, this wasn’t always the case; when he was younger, he sparked with promise, giving strong character performances in both Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. Watching those performances, you felt that Cruise had something to prove to himself, to the world. Then the actor hit it even bigger, developed a degree of creative control over his movies that few actors ever achieve (and that most would do well to avoid) and began doing cautious, overly calculated turns where he seemed terminally outside the character, never letting us too close, always keeping one eye cast on maintaining his hard-earned celebrity. In effect, Cruise stopped being an actor and took up the full-time job of being Tom Cruise. (This is true of nearly every recent Cruise picture with the exception of Magnolia, where he was deftly cast as someone whose whole life is a put-on.)
Having noted all of the above, however, I must also note that The Last Samurai, which was shot on locations in Japan, New Zealand and California, is a film of awesome scope, and that many of its epic affectations are legitimately earned. Enormous attention has been paid to the finest details of set and costume design. In cinematographer John Toll’s eye-pleasing wide-screen compositions, every blade of grass seems to have been positioned for maximum effect. (It may, in fact, be the most extraordinary grass captured on film since The Thin Red Line, which Toll also shot.) Then, when the film reaches its climactic battle sequence, the computer technology that has created entire digital armies for the Lord of the Rings movies is used ever so sparingly — for the most part, we’re seeing real men in real armor on real horseback — and the result is thrilling. It’s clear that Zwick grew up watching and loving the films of Akira Kurosawa and David Lean and that he’s trying to uphold a certain tradition of epic-scale filmmaking. It’s unfortunate that the Lean and Kurosawa films he seems to be channeling here are the late-period ones in which both directors’ indulgences of pictorial grandeur had come to take precedence over human drama. The Last Samurai is Zwick’s Kagemusha, his Ryan’s Daughter. Still, there are stretches in which it’s possible to sit back and let The Last Samurai wash over us, in the way that we might take pleasure in a prefab Oriental antique that we know is phony. But then we snap out of the trance and find ourselves craving something more.
THE LAST SAMURAI | Directed by EDWARD ZWICK | Screenplay by JOHN LOGAN, MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ and ZWICK | Produced by ZWICK, HERSKOVITZ, TOM CRUISE, PAULA WAGNER, SCOTT KROOPF and TOM ENGLEMAN | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide