Russ bought me a copy of The Last Samurai on DVD for my birthday, and I watched it last night for the first time (it is one of many “must see” films that I didn’t see at the cinema). Russ bought me it because he knows I like “all that Japanese sword waving and stuff”.
I know at that time of its cinema release, some reviewers criticised casting Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren but I thought he, and the film as a whole, was superb. The attention to detail in the customs, costumes and locations was excellent (to my non-historians eye at least). The story is, of course, blatant in its disregard for historical fact, but to criticise it for that is to miss the point entirely.
What The Last Samurai sets out to do is to capture the mood and spirit of the age; to explore and explain the philosophy of the Samurai for a modern Western audience (no easy task). It tries to show the conflict between the historical brutality of ancient Japan, and the necessity of embracing modern technology and foreign influence that has made Japan such an economic force in the modern world, and it does this faultlessly. The bruising bokken training sequences and savage sword fights demonstrate the unequalled skill, grace and ferocity of the Samurai, but ultimately are as brutal and tragic as the horrifying scenes of carnage at the hands of the American trained soldiers armed with Gatling guns.
Tom Cruise pays the role with great physical skill and energy, and manages to hold his own against the superb Ken Watanabe as Lord Katsumoto. I am not ashamed to admit that the tragic but inevitable outcome to the final battle had my lip trembling more than a little.