FILM REVIEW: News Weekly
The Last Samurai
, April 10, 2004
Ignored or belittled even by American generalist magazines that take film-reviewing seriously (National Review, Crisis, Esquire, American Conservative), The Last Samurai has fared still worse in Australia, on no more readily fathomable grounds than that Tom Cruise is no longer Mr Nicole Kidman. Those deterred by such ad hominem cant are depriving themselves of a rare cinematic spectacle. We seem to be in at least a silver - probably a golden - age of the screen epic. This one, less uniformly brilliant than Gods and Generals or Master and Commander, still manages to be a movie for adults (as distinct from that Orwellian misnomer, an "adult movie").
It treats - with, by Hollywood standards, considerable verisimilitude - one of the 19th century's most astonishing episodes: the 1877 uprising led by Saigo Takamori against Japan's pro-Western administrators. Clad in mediaeval armour and bearing no weapons more modern than swords, bows and arrows, Saigo's samurai forces held out for months against all that Tokyo's generals could hurl at them.Conflict
Giving the whole conflict its quintessentially Japanese character was the fact that Saigo himself indignantly rejected the title of rebel; he longed to rescue Emperor Meiji from those Westernisers whom he accused of selling Japan down the river to appease bullying and money-grubbing American gunboat diplomats, Commodore Perry's heirs. (These heirs, like most of Washington's appointees since the Civil War, upheld the economic gospel summarised by Timothy Garton-Ash in a 1985 Spectator
article: unfettered global trade in which, nevertheless, no American is ever permitted to lose money.)
Against a conscript army using Western artillery and trained on Prussian principles - Japanese civil servants lost no time in realising what Krupp technology had achieved for Prussia in 1870-71 - even Saigo could not last forever, though his troops sold their lives at a fearful cost, often in the most hideous hand-to-hand combat. On September 23, 1877, rather than endure the disgrace of surrendering, Saigo stabbed himself in the stomach. A faithful retainer upheld the bushido
warrior code by beheading his dying master, before himself being cut down by enemy bullets.
There is something intensely Elizabethan, indeed Shakespearean, about all this; how, one wonders, could it have occurred in the age of the telegraph, the machine-gun, and the limited liability company? After surviving an ambush by imperial shock troops, Saigo (whom The Last Samurai
renames, for some reason, "Katsumoto") is inspired to write a poem; Sir Philip Sidney or Sir Walter Raleigh would have done the same thing, but Kitchener or Garnet Wolseley would never even have dreamt of doing so.
Anyone who knows Kurosawa's late cinematic masterpiece Ran
- an amalgam of Lear
relocated amid 16th-century Japan's feudal wars - will appreciate how well the Shakespearean spirit can survive a Nipponese rendering.
Tom Cruise, whatever you might have expected, proves stunningly good. He plays Algren, a (fictional) American captain and Greene-like "burnt-out case", haunted by memories of butchering the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, seething with contempt for General Custer's foolhardiness, and marinated in whisky. Discovered in San Francisco by Japanese emissaries, he ends up training Tokyo's seemingly hopeless recruits with some success, despite the language barrier.
Captured by Katsumoto and with every expectation of a ghastly death, Algren instead is kept in genteel captivity while the ever-curious samurai chief - in fluent though accented English - picks this young Californian's brains. (Picks them metaphorically, that is, although picking them literally would have been a more conventional samurai response.)
He metamorphoses from ugly-American greenhorn (to a guard wearing traditional costume: "Why do you look so angry? Oh, I understand, they've made you wear that dress") into diligent student of the Japanese tongue, proficient wielder of a wooden sword in mock combat, and passionate champion of Katsumoto's cause against the very men who hired him to begin with.
The ultimate outcome can be readily enough predicted from the above; the details are beans that no mere reviewer has a right to spill. Least of all should he hint at the bizarre method by which Algren and his photographer friend Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), a bumptious Englishman who five decades ago would invariably have been played by Robert Morley, free Katsumoto from his own jailers.
Like numerous British - but all too few American - costume dramas, The Last Samurai
is cast, top to bottom, from strength. Billy Connolly has an early cameo role as an Irish sergeant: with delightful results, if you can forget how improbably complete his resemblance is to the Billy Connolly of recent ING commercials. As Algren's (again Greene-like) ex-brother-in-arms Colonel Bagley, Tony Goldwyn strikes exactly the right note of mercenary cynicism (Katsumoto's early triumphs lead Bagley to remark "That sonofabitch thinks he can win").
Shichinosuke Nakamura - superbly portraying the introverted yet obstinate monarch - evokes John Lone's unforgettable rendition of the hapless Pu-Yi in The Last Emperor
. Masata Harada well captures the lubricious double-dealing of Home Minister Okubo (here called "Omura"), who in real life found that smacking around samurai was - pun not intended - a double-edged sword: in 1878 six unreconstructed Saigo fans murdered him.
Nevertheless, walking (or, rather, riding on horseback) away with the movie is Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. With what must be the most commanding physical and vocal presence of any Japanese actor since Toshiro Mifune went to the great samurai reunion in the sky, Watanabe seems about 10 feet tall.
Be warned: thanks to battle scenes not only protracted but so gruesome that they make Gladiator
look like Gidget, The Last Samurai
could usefully have acquired an R-rating rather than the MA classification it now sports (enduring its bloodshed will perhaps be a useful exercise in stamina for those of us currently too squeamish to attend The Passion
). Every third soldier seems to get decapitated.
Yet there is stunning beauty too, and not solely in Hans Zimmer's eloquent neo-Prokofiev music. The scene where Katsumoto and his comrades first loom through the sylvan mists will haunt you for your whole life. If an Italian or Russian director had devised it, every film studies course in Australia would be citing it as a triumph of composition. Since the director here is not Eisenstein or Bertolucci but one Edward Zwick, it will probably go unremembered.The Last Samurai
asks questions that, to put it as blandly as possible, have lost none of their resonance in 2004. When does true patriotism lie in fighting against, rather than truckling to, corrupt governments? What does a nation gain, and what does it lose, by modernising and Westernising itself under less than tactful American patronage? What price a sovereign who is considered literally a god, while in political terms being wholly powerless? Far from being "escapist", The Last Samurai
is an admirable history lesson, at least as relevant as today's newspaper, and a good deal more sustaining.Postlude
: any reader who has found the slightest interest in this review is implored, before heading to the local multiplex, to track down a wonderful book - all self-respecting campus libraries should stock it - called The Nobility of Failure,
by the late Nipponologist Ivan Morris. Chapter Nine furnishes as scholarly, and as poignant, an account of Saigo's life and death as can be conceived. On this chapter, much of the previous paragraphs' historical information unblushingly relies.R. J. Stove