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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003
Glory be, he can swing
Like a black hole that sucks in anything within its gravitational pull, Hollywood has been assimilating every national cinema that can compete with its own product. After remaking French comedies or importing Asian wire-action stunts, it was perhaps only a matter of time before they got around to Japanese jidaigeki (period drama). After all, every Hollywood director who comes to town is sure to mention the massive influence of Akira Kurosawa. With "The Last Samurai," director Edward Zwick moves beyond the "influence" bit to try and actually make a Kurosawa-style flick with a Hollywood-size budget.
Of course, past American attempts at depicting Japan on the screen have been laughably bad. (Remember "Shogun"?) These days, though, the size of the Japanese box office alone commands a bit more respect with regards to cultural accuracy. What's more, star Tom Cruise seems truly intent on returning the love of his audiences here by "turning Japanese" onscreen -- and you can be damn sure he doesn't want anyone snickering at any slip-ups.
I'm happy to report that in "The Last Samurai" Emperor Meiji doesn't greet Cruise with a cheerful "konnichi wa!" Nor do the samurai wave their swords around like a bunch of drunken pirates. Zwick, who brought an eye for historical detail to his Civil War flick "Glory," has obviously done his homework.
How well? Suffice to say that in one scene, where a band of mounted samurai ride through a shrine's gate, I turned to a Japanese friend I was viewing the film with and said, "Look -- they even knew to put small stones on top of the torii." To which my friend said, "Stones on torii?"
"The Last Samurai" is a grandiose epic that seeks to mix historical accuracy with the needs of a Tom Cruise blockbuster. For the most part, it succeeds. The film lightly fictionalizes Takamori Saigo's heroic but doomed resistance to the forces of Emperor Meiji and modernization in the 1876 Satsuma Rebellion, with Cruise playing the invented -- but plausible -- character of an American officer hired to train the Emperor's new Western-styled army.
Unlike many a historical drama, Zwick's film attempts a bold, revisionist view of the events it covers. Central to that viewpoint is Cruise's character, Capt. Nathan Algren, a veteran of Custer's campaigns against the Native Americans. When we first see Algren he's an embittered drunk, reduced to working as a sideshow huckster hawking Winchester rifles, the gun that "won the West." While Winchester portrays Algren as a "hero" in the victory against the "savages," Algren himself is filled with self-loathing and nightmares of the retaliatory massacres against Indian villages in which he took part.
The Emperor's representatives manage to persuade Algren to come to Japan and train their troops, but his heart isn't in it. Even as he sails across the Pacific, Algren writes in his diary, "I have been hired to suppress the rebellion of yet another tribal leader -- I am beset by the ironies of my life."
Upon arriving in Yokohama -- the bustling street life of which is beautifully re-created here -- Algren is quickly put to work training a conscript peasant army in fire and drill. Upon the insistence of the evil Omura (Masato Harada) -- a rail baron much like those in westerns, an agent of heartless industrialization -- Algren and his troops are committed to battle prematurely, to suppress the rebellion of local daimyo Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). In a heart-stopping scene, Katsumoto's armored horsemen charge and break the thin line of musket-wielding infantry, slaughtering them to a man. All, that is, except Algren, who is taken prisoner by Katsumoto.
Algren, who suffered many wounds, is nursed back to health by Katsumoto's younger sister, Taka (Koyuki), and his brother Nobutada (Shin Koyamada). Hardened warrior Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada) is less welcoming, eager to put Algren to the sword as soon as possible, but Katsumoto's intention is to learn about his enemy. Algren is surly and uncooperative, but as he slowly acclimates to village life and gets to understand something of the code of honor that drives Katsumoto, he warms to his supposed enemies, a twist more than a little reminiscent of "Dances With Wolves."
The bond that forms between these two men -- the love interest of the demure Koyuki notwithstanding -- is at the heart of this movie, and it's played out with a convincing edge by Cruise and Watanabe. (Although the idea that an anti-modernization daimyo could speak fluent English is a bit of a stretch.) A typical exchange has the two disagreeing on Custer's Last Stand: Algren sees the defeated cavalry colonel as "arrogant, foolhardy," while Katsumoto is of the opinion "he died a very good death."
Algren's eventual rejection of his own world and adoption of the samurai way -- right down to donning armor and learning how to wield a katana -- is a theme that works on two levels. First and foremost, it's an inherently conservative criticism of capitalism, harking back to a golden age when values other than money -- long-forgotten codes like honor and duty -- were still capable of inspiring men. By holding up the samurai in this regard, Zwick's film conveniently ignores the fact that they were a fairly despotic feudal elite; certainly the peasants who could be cut down in the street for not kowtowing to their samurai masters did not feel so bad about the social change in Meiji Japan.
Zwick, however, is a romanticist and aims to highlight the chivalry and courage of an earlier age. The film's penultimate scene, in which Katsumoto's samurai sacrifice themselves in the hundreds and the last survivors are mowed down by Omura's machineguns, marks the undoubtedly brutal victory of progress and efficiency over human will. In a sense, it's the polar opposite of what "The Matrix" has to say. (And it's also a steal from "The Wild Bunch," thus reinforcing the long tradition of cross-pollination between jidaigeki and westerns.)
In one way, though, Algren's dedication to becoming more Japanese than the Japanese -- mastering kenjutsu, donning a kimono and geta -- mirrors the experience of many foreigners here, particularly the ones you meet in Kyoto. Indeed, much of Algren's recovery in Katsumoto's village plays like "Tom Cruise's Japan Homestay": He tracks mud onto the tatami, learns how to use chopsticks and even engages in language exchange over the dinner table. This need to "explain" Japan for non-Japanese audiences is the clearest reflection of its Hollywood progeny.
It's tolerable, though, as is the film's occasional reversion to cliche: The sakura seem to be in prominent bloom for weeks, while the shakuhachi gets blown every time Cruise enters his Zen "no mind" state while sword-fighting. But these are excusable sins in a film that looks gorgeous and never fails to excite. Particularly good is a ninja assault on Katsumoto's village during a festival, which is executed with blazing ferocity.
Ultimately, this film will sell here on the novelty of Cruise speaking nihongo and dueling it out with popular jidaigeki stars such as Sanada and Watanabe. Expect to hear lots of rapturous squeals of "kakko iii!" as you leave the cinema. Is Cruise in sexy armor cooler than Keanu Reeves in designer shades? You decide, but in the acting department, Cruise wins hands down.