Last Samurai, The (2003)

The best parts of this decent Hollywood-style samurai epic are the heart-to-heart conversations between Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, backed by a lush, emotional score by Hans Zimmer.  

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dir. Edward Zwick
2003 | USA/Japan | Action/Drama/War | 154 mins | 2.35:1 | English & Japanese
PG13 (passed clean) for strong violence and battle sequences

Cast: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe
Plot: Set in the 1870s in Japan, a cynical veteran of the American Civil War embraces the samurai lifestyle and code of honor after he is captured, despite his initial mission to destroy them.
Awards: Nom. for 4 Oscars – Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing
Warner Bros

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Identity, Culture
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Mainstream

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No

The film that turned Ken Watanabe into a hot acting property in the 2000s, The Last Samurai saw him nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Katsumoto, the leader of a band of samurais who are considered political rebels by some factions of the Japanese government. 

Trying to adapt and co-exist with an increasingly modern and industrialised Japan during the tail end of the 19th century, these disciplined warriors and their families retain the values and codes of honour of their ancestors despite the pressure to conform to a new world order. 

To be a samurai is to serve, but at the risk of being eliminated from the annals of their country’s tumultuous history, they seek to defend their honour.  So how does Tom Cruise fit into the narrative? 

An American veteran who has fought successful battles against the Indians, Cruise’s Capt. Nathan Algren is tasked by the Japanese to teach them modern warfare tactics… only to be captured by Katsumoto’s men. 

“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”

The Last Samurai is a decent Hollywood-style epic with its fair share of bloody action and violence.  The skirmishes are relatively well-staged, but the final battle lacks distinctiveness and a true sense of spectacle.  That being said, the best parts of Edward Zwick’s film are the heart-to-heart conversations between Katsumoto and Nathan. 

Though these scenes of daily life in Katsumoto’s beautiful village are slower-paced than usual, Hans Zimmer’s lush Oriental score does help significantly to accentuate the nuances of cross-cultural communication and the samurais’ commitment to their cause, not to mention also adding considerably to the action. 

There is also at least some commitment to having some conversations in Japanese so that it is not entirely ‘Hollywood-ised’. A tale of honour, respect and courage, there are genuine lessons to be drawn from seeing the film, which may not often be the case for movies riding primarily on the thrill of the spectacle. 

Watanabe would go on to star in movies like Memoirs of a Geisha (2006), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Inception (2010). 

Grade: B+




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