A film that has divided film fans and historians, and a bigger hit in Japan than in the west, “The Last Samurai” holds up as a stellar example of Hollywood’s white-man saviour narrative, whilst romanticizing the samurai. Setting aside the criticisms we cast a discerning critical eye over Tom Cruise’s period drama to see how well it captured the essence and spirit of an important turning point in Japan’s history.
Tom Cruise stars as Nathan Algren, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran haunted by the massacre of Native American civilians at the Washita River who finds redemption and purpose among the last of the samurai fighting to preserve their heritage.
Timothy Spall plays Simon Graham, a British interpreter for Captain Algren and his non-English speaking soldiers. Billy Connolly as Zebulon Gant, plays an ex-soldier who served with and is loyal to Algren, convincing him to travel to Japan and train their Imperial Army. Tony Goldwyn plays Colonel Bagley, Algren’s commanding officer whose role it was to train the Imperial Army.
The ensemble Japanese cast is led by Ken Watanabe as Lord Katsumoto, a warrior-poet who was once Emperor Meiji’s most trusted teacher, leading the fight to preserve the samurai way. Koyuki Kato plays Taka, Katsumoto’s sister who harbours anger at Algren for killing her husband but comes to respect and fall in love with him. Shin Koyamada takes the role of Katsumoto’s son, Nobutada, Lord of the village that the Samurai are encamped in and who, like his father, befriends Algren.
Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Wolverine”, “47 Ronin”) is cast as Ujio, a fierce samurai loyal to Lord Katsumoto and who, under his orders, teaches Algren the art of Samurai sword fighting. Seizō Fukumoto plays the Silent Samurai, an enigmatic elderly man assigned to follow Algren as he travels through the village.
Masato Harada takes on the role of Mr. Omura, an industrialist and pro-reform politician with a distaste for the old samurai ways, preferring the westernization of Japan whilst making money through his railroads. Nakamura Shichinosuke II takes on the role of the historical figure Emperor Meiji.
Embittered American civil war veteran, Captain Nathan Algren is hired to train conscripts for the first standing Imperial Army in the use of firearms and modern warfare. When his party is attacked by rebel traditionalists Algren is wounded and captured by their leader Katsumoto. As he is nursed back to health, Algren becomes enamoured with the samurai way and soon joins their cause.
Director (and co-writer) Edward Zwick teamed up with “Gladiator” writer John Logan, along with producing collaborator Marshall Herskovitz, cinematographer John Toll (‘Legends of the Fall’, ‘Braveheart’), and stunt coordinator Nick Powell (‘Braveheart’, ‘Gladiator’) forming a cinematic tour de force for the mother of all epic Samurai war stories.
Two Major Battles
The film features two major battles that bookend the story; the first featuring the Samurai raid on the Japanese railroad pitting the ill- prepared Japanese army against Katsumoto’s unrelenting samurai.
It features a mix of phenomenal martial arts displays and authentic military tactics as the samurai emerge out of the forest mist, to lay waste to the untrained army. They are almost like supernatural beings appearing out of nowhere with a force unrelenting and unstoppable leaving the inept Japanese Army, like the terrified slave in “Gladiator”, trembling to their deaths.
Japanese Martial Arts are Powerfully Portrayed
Throughout the film Zwick and Powell set up a contrast of action (in- between the political power play) scenes that show both the beauty and poise of Japanese martial arts – Algren’s Kendo training, and a lone Samurai practicing Kyūdō (archery) – as well as its bloody and brutal side. The film’s two assassination scenes are certainly packed with the latter whether it’s the stealthy ninjas storming Katsumoto’s home, or Algren staring down the sharp blades of sword-wielding assassins in Tokyo.
The storming of Katsumoto’s compound is brilliantly choreographed pulling in a mix of panic-ridden chaos, with brutal and intense battle scenes in a classic ninja vs samurai skirmish. Arrows and shurikens hurl through the air sending their victims to the ground with force, and steel swords clash with equal skill and ferocity.
Ken Watanabe & Hiroyuki Sanada Give Impressive Performances
Here Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada in their athleticism as action performers remind us of the heady days of Toshiro Mifune and Sonny Chiba. The suspense and danger exude off the screen in this scene to the point where you can viscerally chew the tension. It is helped with Cruise also getting in on the action, showing off his sword and jiu-jitsu skills with fear and urgency as he tests his recently learned skills.
Algren’s ambush in Tokyo is a stylishly shot and fairly bloody sequence which pulls off that most masterly of cinematic techniques (seen in “Sherlock Holmes” and “Never Back Down 3”) giving the viewer a glimpse into Algren’s mind as he maps out the scenario in his head before executing his very deadly blend of slice and dice.
How does Tom Cruise’s Action Hold Up 17 Years on…?
When the scene is replayed in slo-mo we can see numerous intricate sword strikes working in some bone-breaking judo and jiu-jitsu with Cruise performing them all with the ease of a life long budo-ka. These action scenes interspersed with the film’s historical inspirations and political power plays build up the tension to its inevitable, tragic finale.
For the final charge as Algren and Katsumoto face down Omura and Bagley’s imperial guard, Zwick and Powell put together an emotionally intense battle.
The futility of Katsumoto’s samurai, calling on all their warrior skills against the heavy arsenal of the modern army comes across as symbolic of not just fighting on a battlefield. As Algren, wounded and bullet-ridden falls, the look of anguish on his face as he watches his comrade-in-arms hit the field almost symbolises his witnessing the fall of the samurai way.
It culminates in a moving and powerful scene between Katsumoto and Algren showcasing the power and versatility of both actors, leaving more than a small lump in one’s throat.
Once again ‘East meets West in Hollywood’, a clash of cultures ending with mutual respect and redemption played over and over in action films throughout many decades in films such as “The Yakuza”, “The Challenge” and even “Black Rain”. “The Last Samurai” however carries with it a certain sadness, evoking similar sentiments to “The Last of the Mohicans” in that we too are witnessing the end of an age with a heavy heart.
Whilst certain aspects have been ‘Hollywood-ized’ there is still much to take from a film that even Kurosawa would give a thumbs up. Notably the emotional intensity of the battle scenes, and the painful story of a man devoid of hope who finds it in the most unlikely of places. Tom Cruise’s performance is a welcome return to his more heavyweight turns in films such as “Born on the Fourth of July” and he certainly pulls no thespian punches.
The action is gritty and authentic with plenty of clashing steel on the battlefield, and various skirmishes, but it is without doubt the powerhouse performance of Ken Watanabe whose deep and powerful presence has made the first world star from Japan since Toshiro Mifune.
Along with Hiroyuki Sanada, the Japanese cast dominates in every respect as the real stars in their very own story. “The Last Samurai” is a stirring story of redemption and preservation of a way of life packed with indelibly memorable performances, stunning cinematography and fights that thrust palpable emotions that you can almost feel in your own chest.
With a powerful music score courtesy of Hans Zimmer, this is a film deserving of the moniker epic.
- Tom Cruise spent two years preparing for the role including learning Japanese and took instruction in Kenjitsu.
- This was the first English-language film for Ken Watanabe.
- The village swordsmith in the film is real; his name is Shoji Yoshihara a “Mukansa” level swordsmith. Mukansa translates as ‘without judgment’ and is the highest ranking swordsmith. Due to its very high quality, a ‘Mukansa’ sword cannot be judged in any competition by a panel.
- The film was generally well received in Japan and raked in higher box office receipts than in the US. Japanese critics praised it as an improvement on previous Hollywood portrayals of Japan. By contrast, “47 Ronin” – another Hollywood fictional account of a period in Japanese history which also starred Hiroyuki Sanada – performed poorly in Japan.
- Stunt coordinator, Nick Powell fought as part of Team GB Taekwondo, was a silver medalist with the British Wushu team, and competed in the London Fencing Championships.
- Hiroyuki Sanada is a very skilled martial artist having studied Shorinji Kempo and Kyokushin Karate. He is also a protege of the legendary Sonny Chiba having trained at the Sonny Chiba Japan Action Club.
- The “kanji” – Japanese characters – that appear on posters for the film actually translates to “Bushido” which means “Way of the Warrior”.
- Watanabe’s character, Katsumoto is based on the legendary samurai Saigo Takamori who led the Satsuma rebellion in 1877.
- The film depicts at the battle of Shiroyama, that Katsumoto asked Algren to help him commit Seppeku (aka harakiri) and to die with honour yet in reality the exact manner of Lord Saigo’s death is unknown. Witnesses confirmed he was shot in the hip, and the manner of his death was deduced from his remains that were found later.
- The swords used in the film are folded Steel Orchid Katana made by Paul Chen. These are normally blue in colour but were painted red to match the armour of the samurai that Algren kills in his first fight with Katsumoto’s men. It is the same armour that Taka (Katsumoto’s sister and the samurai’s widow) dresses Algren in for the final battle. In all, seven live blades were purchased for the production from Ameurasiart in the United States.
- Tom Cruise was nearly killed on set in the middle of a scene with Hiroyuki Sanada. Cruise was on a mechanical horse which malfunctioned and failed to duck as Sanada swung his sword. Luckily Sanada stopped the sword an inch from his neck.
- “I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have joined the new.” – Lord Katsumoto
- “I have dreamed of a unified Japan. Of a country strong and independent and modern.” – Emperor Meiji
- “He hoped with his dying breath that you would remember his ancestors who held this sword, and what they died for. May the strength of the samurai be with you always.” – Captain Nathan Algren