The Last Samurai (2003) review

Rated: 3 / 5

So the actions scenes are great and all, particularly during the last act. The movie is made well, paced well, acted well, it’s all well-constructed. In the past I enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

Nowadays, the political undertones are too loud for me to ignore for my honed-in senses. It’s not that the film bashed what happened to the indians during the late 1800s, and drew parallels with that to what was going on in Japan during that time period that bothered me that much (though it probably should’ve bothered me more than it did). It’s that it eventually led to the same shit they pulled in Dances with Wolves, and Avatar.

“Why do you hate your own people?”

You know, that whole thing about feeling so ashamed about the actions some significant figures from your own country have done, and acquiring admiration for the sincere/noble ways of another country/culture that you find admiring more than your own, that the protagonist decides to abandon his country/culture and embrace another. Because that worked out so well in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. And it’s not just that I have a problem with abandoning one way of life to embrace another (it depends on the context and reasoning for it, and how much loathing and biased rebuke is involved), even if it’s a thinly veiled rebuke of American history (at the expense of having little to no rebuke of Japanese history; no one is ever fully in the right in these events).

It’s also that this film is so bloody hypocritical about it. A respectable portion of the film is all about reminding the Japanese emperor (and thus the Japanese themselves) that he must not forget their past, where he came from, and must honor it rather than turn his back on it. This can be done without abstaining from transforming the country for the better, acknowledging that change is necessary. And this message completely flies over the head of the American protagonist himself. It never occurs to him that he should take what he has learned from one culture, and utilize it with his own, in his own homeland, in his way of life, for the sake of changing that country for the better. All while still acknowledging and honoring the past, both the goods and the ills, knowing where they came from so they can know where they are going and why.

This oblivious irony is the biggest fault of the movie, unless you start digging into the actual history. Then it just becomes insulting.

First of all, Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren, is completely fictional. Not only that, but Americans weren’t the ones in Japan around that time, organizing trades with leaders, taking sides in a civil conflict, etc. It was the French. And Cruise’s character is based heavily on the Frenchman Jules Brunet. An individual with a military history who went to Japan and eventually sided with the Shogunate forces against the Imperial forces. Even going so far as to resign from his position when the French were ordered out of Japan, so that he could go north with the men he trained, and attempt to gain and hold ground for the Shogunate forces (who didn’t just use swords in battle, they also had guns). Obviously the rebellion failed, but he actually returned to France, with his abandonment of the French forgiven, and he continued his career in France. After learning about his story, all I could think was that the film would’ve been so much better had it been historically accurate to his tale (seriously, his entire story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, without many, if any, liberties needing to be taken), and not been some made-up bullshit about some fictional American figure made for the purpose of stirring up some American-guilt (and making up fictional stuff to do it). And don’t even get me started on him referencing Custer’s Last Stand, which took place in June 1876, while this rebellion (inspired by the Battle of Shiroyama) took place in September 1877. The timespan for making all those events happen plausibly based on this film’s logic is just a little far-fetched. But hey, Tom Cruise can become a master samurai in less than a year, so what do I know?

And that’s not even getting into Ken Watanabe’s character Katsumoto, who is based on the real life figure Saigo Takamori. I’d rather not get into much detail about him. Let’s just say it’s a little closer to reality than Cruise’s character just on the sole basis that he’s based on a real Japanese character, which is better by default than being based on someone with a nationality that wasn’t even present in any sort of position represented in the movie. And he did lead a rebellion against the Imperials. But unlike Star Wars, this rebellion failed. The ironic part of it all is that he helped establish this Imperial rule before rebelling against it.

There’s so many interesting layers as to the actual historical stories that inspired the film, it just seems crazy they would toss them all aside to wind up with the final product we got in theaters. The worst part being is that this change from Shogunate rule to Imperial rule was an overall change for the better. Opening up trades with other countries as opposed to being xenophobic and closed off via sakoku (resulting in falling behind technologically). Which makes the whole thing even more ironic because it seems like the film is taking a pro-sakoku stance (siding with the Shogunate samurai way of life, which is also misrepresented for what it actually was). So I guess Hollywood is ok with this sort of portrayal when it comes to other countries.

I still find this movie entertaining for what it is (even though ninjas weren’t around during that time period). Primarily because I’m a bit of a sucker for this aspect of Japanese culture (even if it’s made by Americans who don’t know anywhere as much as they think they do about it, which ends up just being fantasy culture instead of actual culture). I’m a sucker for Samurai stuff in general, unless it’s over-stylized to shit like with 47 Ronin (2013), Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), or The Warrior’s Way (2010). I just find myself having to stomach more bullshit than I used to in order to enjoy it. Back in the day, we just made fun of how quickly Tom Cruise’s character became a master swordsman (which, to be fair, took longer than Rey did to become a master Jedi, so at least we had somewhat better standards back then). Nowadays it’s all this other stuff piled on top of it. But at least there’s those samurai films from Japan during the 50s-70s that are entertaining enough (usually in a bittersweet way).

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