The Last Samurai, the new film from Edward Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, and Legends of the Fall) and starring Tom Cruise, is the story of a jaded American Civil War captain who finds his soul among the Japanese samurai. It has “Oscar contender” written all over it: a lavish spectacle, a grand historical plot, a major star, and just the right dose of anti-Americanism to please the Academy. But despite its glorious cinematography and its laborious commitment to historical detail, The Last Samurai feels false throughout. The filmmakers have so little confidence in their story or their own storytelling ability that they must tell us explicitly and repeatedly what its lessons are, and why it’s significant.
Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War hero enlisted, in the years after the war, to fight the Indians. Haunted by his involvement in the massacre of innocent Indian women and children, an alcoholic Algren is soon recruited by the Japanese government to aid in the suppression of a Samurai uprising, a protest against the modernization of Japan.
The mercenary and cynical Algren takes an untrained Japanese army into battle and, after slaughtering a few samurai, is wounded and taken captive. His captivity is part detox, part Eastern philosophy lesson, and part love story. One of the men Algren killed during the uprising was the brother of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the rebellion, who takes it upon himself to hold philosophical “conversations” with Algren. Adding to the drama and reflecting in her own way the samurai code is Taka, Algren’s chief caretaker during his recovery and the wife of the man he killed.
Soon Algren converts to the samurai way of life and finds himself opposing not only the Japanese government but the American representatives as well. As if the parallelism between America’s destruction of the Indians and the Japanese government’s war against the samurai were not obvious enough, Algren makes it explicit when he explains his willingness to side with the samurai: “The white men have come to destroy what I have come to love.”
The problem here is not the negative judgment of the American treatment of the Indians or of the Japanese attacks on the samurai. No enemy of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville described the American treatment of the Indian race in a tone of facetious disgust: It is “not possible to destroy men while better respecting the laws of humanity.”
The problem, as is so often the case with Hollywood, is that a simplistic moralism replaces dramatic nuance, political complexity, and depth of character. Tocqueville may have been blisteringly critical of America in the famous “Three Races” section of Democracy in America, but he also saw great and enduring good in the American experiment. In The Last Samurai, the judgments are a trifle less sophisticated. The officials of the Japanese government, who easily manipulate their feeble, childish emperor, are all power-hungry bureaucrats, as is Algren’s American military superior. Algren can achieve redemption only in Japan because the film’s America is utterly void of honor and nobility.
For all the alleged adulation among the filmmakers of the ancient samurai code, The Last Samurai subordinates the story of the samurai struggle to the story of Algren’s transformation, and is thus more an American tale than a Japanese one. And this diverts the film from its focus on the tragic conflicts in Japanese life in the 1870s: between old and new, between feudalism and capitalism, between honor and profit, between battle as an exercise of courage and as an exhibition of technology, and between memory and forgetfulness. If the story and its characters were more subtly crafted, The Last Samurai might have achieved the tragic note to which it aspires.
The contrast with the magnificent films of Kurosawa, where Japanese life comes dramatically and tragically to life, is striking. The Last Samurai comes closest to Kurosawa in its cinematography; early scenes of samurai emerging from fog in the forests calls to mind some of the most memorable settings in Kurosawa’s films. With The Last Samurai, the viewer has the sense throughout that the filmmakers and actors are attempting self-consciously to imitate a foreign tongue and to depict a lost culture, which they admire, but from a distance.
In this respect, Cruise was an unfortunate choice for the lead. He never makes us forget that it is Tom Cruise the actor on screen. Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise playing an American soldier who learns to play a samurai is a serious distraction. As Algren, Cruise is initially jaded and cynical and then whimsical–he tells the emotionless samurai assigned to watch over him, “You’re unhappy because they make you wear a dress.” Finally and predictably, he emerges as the noble embodiment of the samurai ideal; when Katsumoto concludes despairingly, “the way of the samurai is not necessary anymore,” Algren responds earnestly, “what could be more necessary?” We’ve covered this ground, from starting point to conclusion, with Cruise often enough already. One half expects Taka to turn to him at the end and say, “You had me at hello.”
That expectation is a grave obstacle to the ostensible goal of recreating late 19th-century Japanese culture. The Last Samurai may have Oscar buzz, but history will scoff at the notion that it is anything other than a third-rate Kurosawa imitation, an unintentional parody of the master.