The 'Last Samurai' Goes to Hollywood (and Is Done Justice, Sort Of)

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or belittled even by American generalist magazines that take film-reviewing
seriously (National Review, Crisis, Esquire, American Conservative),
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”).

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 medieval armour, Saigo’s samurai forces
held out for months against all that Tokyo’s generals could hurl
at them.

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 Westernizers
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 summarized by Timothy
Garton-Ash in a 1985 Spectator article: unfettered global
trade in which, nevertheless, no American is ever permitted to lose

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
and Macbeth, 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 Australia’s 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 is a grueling exercise in stamina even by
The Passion’s standards. 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 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.

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 modernizing and
Westernizing 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. A much more recent and well-reviewed book well worth, from
all accounts, consulting: The
Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori
released in December 2003], by Emory University’s Mark Ravina.)

21, 2004

J. Stove [send him mail]
lives in Melbourne, Australia; is a Contributing Editor at The
American Conservative; and has been frequently published in VDARE,
Chronicles, and The New Criterion. A slightly different
version of this article appeared in the April 10 issue of Melbourne’s
News Weekly.


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