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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003

Cutting it close

Makers of 'Last Samurai' do their work

A line of infantrymen hesitantly peer off into the misty woods they're traversing -- a murmur of sound has them spooked. These straw-hatted, musket-bearing soldiers represent the new, "modern" army of Emperor Meiji, and they're led by American Civil War veteran Capt. Nathan Aldren. But they're about to get a lesson in good, old-fashioned shock and awe.

News photo
Tom Cruise with the cast of "The Last Samurai" (above) at a recent news conference and (below) in a still from the movie.
News photo

War cries and the sound of thundering hooves rise from the mist. "Samurai," mutter the infantrymen, their eyes darting around in panic. Aldren tries to maintain fire-discipline, hoping to unleash a volley just as the mounted warriors are upon them. But as the enemy horsemen rush headlong into his line, his men break, scatter and run, and are slaughtered to a man. All except Aldren, who is taken prisoner.

This is the first glimpse the world got of the new Tom Cruise project, "The Last Samurai," a few scenes from which were unveiled at a press conference at Roppongi Hills last week. Shot in Japan (Himeji and Kyoto), New Zealand and a Warner backlot in Los Angeles, "The Last Samurai" -- which will open in December -- is a $100 million Hollywood attempt to make a Japanese jidaigeki (period drama) with the impact of "Gladiator" or "Braveheart." Cruise and director Edward Zwick turned up with nearly all the Japanese cast -- jidaigeki regulars like Ken Watanabe, Shun Sugata and the supercool Hiroyuki Sanada, as well as kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura and model/actress Koyuki -- to hype the first major Hollywood-does-Japan flick since 1993's "Rising Sun."

Cinemagoers who remember that film -- as well as dreck like "Black Rain" and "Pearl Harbor" -- know that American directors rarely manage to get Japan right, with awkward mannerisms and speech patterns, and costumes that invariably leave Japanese audiences feeling bewildered. It's easy to imagine "The Last Samurai" marching off the same cliff of cultural miscomprehension, but despite the storyline's similarities to the television miniseries "Shogun" -- bearded gaijin is enlisted by enemy samurai warriors; slowly acclimates and falls for demure, kimono-clad beauty; then suffers from torn loyalties -- it seems the filmmakers have done everything possible to get their on-screen Japan right.

Director Zwick is a history buff and a stickler for detail, and it shows. Actor after actor attested to the production's deep commitment to research and accuracy. Ken Watanabe, who plays a rebellious samurai modeled on Takamori Saigo -- who fought to the bitter end against the Meiji administration's centralization and modernization -- admits he had doubts when he first read the script. "Most of the staff were American, British or New Zealanders, and there were hardly any Japanese except for a few advisers," he said. "Right from the beginning, I spoke with Sanada-san, and we agreed that we would speak up if there were any points that didn't feel right. But that turned out to be unnecessary; the filmmakers had a very deep understanding of the samurai."

Sanada added that there were some compromises "between reality and entertainment, between making it authentically Japanese and comprehensible to audiences overseas," but said, "I'm proud of the results." Masato Harada noted that there's certainly nothing as wince-inducing as when the Emperor off-handedly says "Domo!" to Richard Chamberlain in "Shogun."

Certainly, the film looks right, from its massive temples and rustic villages, to floral kimono and antiquated yoroi armor. One point of concern, naturally, is Cruise's attempts to deliver dialogue in Japanese: A brief scene with Koyuki, however, revealed language skills that, however basic, sound better than many foreigners who've been here for a few years. Cruise handles the scene with an appropriate awkwardness, putting to shame the incomprehensible nihongo of Sean Connery -- playing an "old Japan hand" -- in "Rising Sun."

When it comes to swordfighting, the staple of any chanbara flick, Cruise is utterly convincing. "I trained for eight months prior to shooting the film, and I put on 20 pounds [9 kg] for the movie, to be able to carry the swords and wear the armor," said Cruise. "But it was great, because as I was developing the character, my body was changing and I was becoming more and more like Aldren." Sanada, who along with Watanabe tutored Cruise in the finer points of swordplay, said simply: "He's really tough. No matter how many hours we filmed each day, he'd still want to do one or two hours of training afterward. I did give him a little advice regarding Japanese kenjutsu (swordfighting), but whatever I told him, he'd absorb it right away. And as he got better, his stance became centered lower, and he really started to look like a samurai."

Perhaps the greatest praise for Cruise's immersion in his role came from Sugata, who's had a decades-long career in jidaigeki as the kirareyaku, the "guy who gets slashed." Said Sugata: "I was doubtful that Americans could really do swordfighting, but they had studied it in depth, they had seen all the Kurosawa films, so the American staff were even telling Sanada and me what to do! I was really impressed by Tom Cruise. I mean, sure, he'd practiced, but I know from 40 years of experience that if you just practice for a couple of months, you can't do it right, but he was perfect. I could feel the passion and commitment he put into this film."

Sugata went on to say that "The Last Samurai" would be a wake-up call to the Japanese film industry that had regarded chanbara as a domestic specialty. "Now I feel we just can't sit back and assume it's our specialty, because no Japanese film has done this so well."

Obviously, the film is a canny move for Cruise, who knows on which side his bread is buttered; the actor has a huge following in Japan -- witness even Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angling for a photo-op with him -- and, sure enough, he'll be back in December for the opening to give it another push. Beyond that, the post-"Crouching Tiger" (and "Matrix") mini-boom in Asian action seems to still be on the upswing, although it remains to be seen if fans of the fantastic, looney-tunes fights of Hong Kong cinema will go for the gritty realism of "The Last Samurai," which largely avoids computer-graphic effects.

But beyond that, Cruise -- a Scientologist who neither drinks nor smokes and who has increasingly taken on physically demanding roles -- seems genuinely fascinated by Bushido and the "Hagakure," the way of the warrior.

"Bushido is really the reason I wanted to make this film," said Cruise. "I strongly identify with those values of honor, loyalty and passion. It's a very powerful code; those are wonderful things to aspire to in a life."

OK, so perhaps he's laying it on a bit thick. But for an actor who got by for so long on pure charm, he's certainly willed himself into a more mature performer, with depth and gravity, in films like "Magnolia," "Minority Report" and "Vanilla Sky." Here's hoping "The Last Samurai" shows him at his best.

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