The Last Samurai

The battle scenes in Tom Cruise's latest blockbuster are superb - so long as you ignore their moral message.

Sandy Starr

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‘We cannot forget who we are or where we come from.’

So says Meiji, the 122nd emperor of Japan, after he is shown the error of his ways by American soldier Nathan Algren in the new film The Last Samurai. The year is 1876, and the emperor, manipulated by his corrupt advisers, had given the go-ahead for Algren to train Japanese conscripts in the use of firearms. The aim was for these soldiers to suppress the few remaining feudal warriors resisting Japan’s industrialisation and entry into international trade. But when Algren hands Meiji the sword that belonged to the leader of the slaughtered samurai, Meiji realises that he made a mistake.

Meiji is in the process of establishing links with America, a power that – while unscrupulous in its outlook – will nonetheless bring his country some of the benefits of nineteenth-century industrial progress. But it takes a rebel American soldier (Algren, played by Tom Cruise) to teach the emperor a far starker moral than even the soldier’s imperial superiors are willing to promote: Know Thy Place.

Meiji’s realisation that ‘we cannot forget who we are or where we come from’ is an idea that we have become receptive to in the twenty-first century, when the celebration of ethnic and cultural differences threatens to overshadow our common humanity. While The Last Samurai is a historical epic, it expresses the particularly contemporary outlook described by Kenan Malik elsewhere on spiked, where ‘to be radical…is to display disenchantment with all that is “Western”…in the name of “diversity” and “difference”‘. As Malik points out, this fashionable objection to Western values is misinformed, because ‘the Western tradition is not Western in any essential sense, but only through an accident of geography and history’ (All cultures are not equal, by Kenan Malik).

The basic plot of The Last Samurai is a morality tale, whereby Cruise’s character – an alcoholic veteran of the American Civil War ashamed of the part he played in the slaughter of Native Americans – becomes a convert to the ancient moral code of the samurai. The film combines the kind of epic spectacle that has become fashionable again with the success of the Lord of the Rings films, with the moral perspective on history of films such as Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans.

Like these last two films, The Last Samurai depicts the Western fantasy of Going Native, where a white man defects to those whom he feels bad about oppressing, and assists them in their (usually doomed, but no less noble) struggle against their oppressors. The Last Samurai‘s underlying message is unambiguous: Boo! to the introduction of trade, industry and mechanised transport into nineteenth-century Japan; Hooray! for the rural simplicity and quaint ritual suicides of the local samurai.

The filmmakers are careful to dress up their message in terms that will not offend anyone. The ‘Last Samurai’ could be interpreted as referring to Algren (an American after all, rather than a native of Japan), or as referring to the noble band of samurai that he joins. The only time the film trips up is in casting the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as an Irishman, his grating Scots accent unsuccessfully modulated to try and make it resemble an Irish brogue.

How to make it look as though it is Cruise’s singular destiny to join the samurai and match them in their skills, without belittling them in the process? Have them consistently better him in combat, but then have him display superhuman resilience by repeatedly coming back for more. How to milk the sexual tension between Cruise and the Japanese woman who nurses him back to health and sobriety, given that he killed her husband in battle, and a tryst between them would appear to go against the samurai’s much-vaunted honour? Have her undress him to strap him into her late husband’s armour, and then allow a single fleeting kiss before they realise it’s just not on.

This last scene is one that Cruise’s fans will be expecting – the patented Cruiser Torso scene. In every one of his recent films, Cruise ensures that there is a sequence in which he can display the rippling muscles of his upper body, regardless of whether or not this is appropriate to the story. These scenes are always carefully framed so that Cruise looks like an imposing giant, rather than the 5’7″ at which he actually stands. But such preening, while amusing, is an established part of Cruise’s star persona, and it serves him well in The Last Samurai.

Cruise has done a remarkable job keeping himself at the top of the Hollywood A-list over the past decade, when you consider that he took a three-year sabbatical to make the arthouse-flavoured Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick; that his reputation didn’t benefit from his starring role in the decidedly odd remake Vanilla Sky; and that instalments in his pet action franchise – the Mission: Impossible films – only come out at intervals of four years or more (the third one’s due out next year). The Last Samurai, on the other hand, which has both broad appeal and a substantial performance by Cruise, should replenish his stock of A-list fame for a good time to come.

Also noteworthy is Cruise’s charismatic costar in the film, the Japanese actor Ken Watanbe, who plays the samurai leader Katsumoto. Watanbe performs with such conviction and humour, that by the end of the film you almost feel like confronting a hail of bullets alongside him. Director Edward Zwick – responsible for the earlier revisionist epics Glory and Legends of the Fall – also deserves credit, for making the film’s half-hour climax of a handful of ill-equipped warriors running headlong into gunfire look both interesting and dignified.

Just about all of The Last Samurai’s combat sequences, from the intimacy of Algren’s village training in samurai sword techniques to the epic scale of the samurai warriors’ last hurrah, are riveting. And the film should whet your appetite for Japanese actor/director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s forthcoming samurai film Zatôichi, a revival of Japan’s 40-year-old Zatôichi franchise about a blind master swordsman.

But unlike the good-natured Zatôichi films, The Last Samurai tries to make a political point – and not a very savoury one at that. Most regrettable is the film’s hostility to the notion that people in general, and the Japanese in particular, might seek to transform their world for the better. ‘Do you believe a man can change his destiny?’ Katsumoto asks Algren. ‘A man cannot know his destiny’, replies Algren. ‘He can only do what he can, until his destiny is revealed.’

As it happens, the destiny of the samurai does not need to be ‘revealed’, because it is obvious from the film’s outset – to die a painful but highly entertaining death, and be happy about it.

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