“They say Japan was made by a sword.” The “they” who say this are not identified in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, but this initial voiceover conjures — briefly — a certain gravity. This will be a film about violence and legend, about national origin and mythic history. The camera sweeps over mountainsides and meditating men, warriors weighted with a sense of mission and fate. The film cuts to Tom Cruise, and now you know: this is no splendid saga of a people or a culture. It’s a star vehicle, straight up.
It’s a grand vehicle, to be sure, with horses, martial arts, and vast armies, not to mention Cruise’s shiny shoulder-length hair flowing just right, in snow or mud as well as in wind. As Civil War veteran Captain Nathan Algren, he’s introduced in 1876, depressed and drunk, literally a sideshow act selling Winchester rifles and raging at atrocities he was ordered to commit, in particular under the command of one General Custer.
This last memory — which trauma recurs in various slow motion images, and leads Nathan to describe the General as “a murderer who fell in love with his own legend” — grants Nathan a semblance of self-righteousness, underscored when you meet his former commanding officer, the aptly named Colonel Bagley (typecast Tony Goldwyn). Chillingly mercenary and not a little smug, Bagley shows up with Nathan’s friend, the bighearted Sgt. Zubulah Grant (Billy Connolly), with an offer of seeming redemption. The new gig entails training soldiers for Japan’s anxious Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), besieged by rebel samurai warriors (still endeavoring to serve the Emperor, they are hard put to understand his decision to demolish them). Nathan is skeptical but also desperate, and so he agrees to teach this newly conscript army to shoot Winchesters (this contracting is supported by the U.S. government).
Predictably, Bagley makes a crucially bad decision when he sends forth the troops when Nathan says (and quite ably demonstrates) they’re not ready. Following a bloody battle with the samurais (during which Bagley characteristically retreats to the rear), Nathan fights valiantly, killing a Warrior in Red Armor before he is wounded and taken prisoner by the unspeakably charismatic samurai warlord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who would steal this film completely if not for its incessant worship at the shrine of Cruiseness).
Though Katsumoto has been dismissed as “another tribal leader,” Nathan is soon convinced otherwise. Carted back to Katsumoto’s mountain village, Nathan is subjected to a Dances With Wolves-ish recuperation and reeducation, nursed back to health by the widow of the Red Armored fellow. Taka (Koyoki) is visibly unhappy about this arrangement (in fact, she spends most of her onscreen time in tears, her flawless face framed in tender close-ups), but does her duty as assigned by Katsumoto. Nathan, being the crass American, is slow to realize the precise nature of the pain he’s inflicting by his very existence, and remains determined to demonstrate his manly fortitude under the most trivial of circumstances.
When he’s not eating meals with the widow and learning Japanese from her adorable young children, Nathan finds himself led about the village by an elderly guide he nicknames “Bob” and mocks mercilessly (“You’re angry because they make you wear a dress”). “I continue to live among these unusual people,” he writes in his diary (and speaks in helpful voiceover). “I’m treated with a kind of benign negligence.” At the same time, thanks to a series of “conversations” with the conveniently English-speaking Katsumoto, Nathan gradually comes to revere Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, especially as it’s not so foreign to his own way of honorable man’s thinking.
Impressed by his hosts’ discipline and perfectionism, as well as their hand-to-hand combat skills, Nathan trains to fight like a samurai: here, his epiphany comes (ironically, considering who’s playing the part) when he learns not to perform for an audience. “Too many mind,” observes a teacher. He needs to stop minding, stop thinking, only to serve, to feel. Eventually, he’s so sharp that he comes to the defense of Katsumoto when the Emperor sends deadly ninjas to attack him in his village.
As Nathan must eventually come to terms with his part in the serial decimation of ancient ways of life, he must also return to his “people” (and those who originally hired him) back in Tokyo. But as he finally recognizes the absolute destructive power of “modern” U.S. industry, weaponry, and international contracting, Nathan is also the means for the film to undermine its own carefully constructed respect for this very traditional culture.
He not only decides to throw in with Katsumoto against the unscrupulous Japanese general and Bagley, he also reminds Katsumoto of his own vital values and time-honored codes. Seppuku is not helpful here; stand and fight, urges Nathan, even if it’s only another form of ritual suicide. That the white man becomes the most ferocious, respected, and committed Samurai in sight is odd, and not a little appropriative.
The inevitable climactic battle scenes (which seem a long time coming, since the film, so unsubtle, moves glacially) incorporate images and ideas familiar from director Zwick’s other march-into-certain-death war movie, Glory. The valiant Samurais follow respected rituals and even engage some cunning subterfuge, but are no match for mechanical weapons, big guns wheeled in and aimed directly into their ranks. The sheer scope of the brutality surely indicts the West and Bagley as its representative, as well as the Japanese officers who purchase such power rather than earn their men’s respect or enter into battle alongside them.
Such politics are simplistic in the way that Dances With Wolves was simplistic — greedy men are bad, no matter what race or nation claims them. But The Last Samurai‘s veneration of old-school principles is just as surely undercut by its lack of nerve, namely, its use of Nathan as that most familiar icon, the grandly galloping hero, hair flying.