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"The Last Samurai"
A video presentation of these notes is available here
Welcome to my page of thoughts and ideas on "The Last Samurai", directed by Edward Zwick, written by John Logan, and starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. This is not intended as a review of the film, but rather a discussion of what I saw as its main themes.
When we meet Nathan Algren for the first time, he is a man riddled with guilt over his part in the slaughter of innocent women and children during the Indian Wars in America. Clearly in a state of depression, he bears his suffering and guilt with the aid of liberal doses of alcohol, and is employed as a celebrity salesman of firearms by companies who exploit his deeds and fame for their own commercial gain. However, he must live with his knowledge of the truth compared to their embellished and sanitised account, cynically churned out to make a profit. He is something of a lost soul, finding it hard to live with himself, yet accepting money for this, and then a contract to help quell a rebellion in Japan, but he sinks ever deeper into self-contempt and depression.
He is hired to help "modernise" Japan's army and help extinguish the remains of the rebellious few samurai who still stand for the "old ways", and who must go in order to make way for the more modern and technological age.
Here we are introduced to one of the central themes in the film: Modern versus Old, or even (and perhaps more tellingly) Commercial Considerations versus Tradition and Values.
Japanese culture and society are portrayed as having been dominated by honour, principle, loyalty and dignity, but these values are now at odds with the commercial interests of the main protagonists or instigators (and main beneficiaries) of this move to modernise Japan, Omura and his family. These beneficiaries do not necessarily include the Emperor, who does indeed wish to join the old with the new, but most of all he wants what is best for his people.
After losing a battle with the samurai "rebels", Algren is taken prisoner by their leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who is impressed by his courage and determination. Among his samurai captors, Algren rediscovers a sense of honour and purpose, and finds a renewed sense of worth and dignity in the traditions and ways of those he was sent to destroy.
One criticism I found levelled at the film is that once again the "white man" saves the savages. While it is true that Algren goes on to play an important part in the uprising, it should be pointed out that Algren was a broken man when captured, and it is as a result of adopting the ways of his "enemies" that he is "saved". He helps lead the uprising not because he is a "white man", but because he is courageous, has become a samurai, and wishes to support his new-found friends in their cause.
To say that one of the main themes is Modern versus Old is indeed accurate, but it is also incomplete in that we should consider the potential side-effects of this modernisation. In this instance, Algren has been dispatched to destroy the "old" in the shape of the principled and loyal samurai. Why? What purpose is to be served in doing so? Within the context of the film, Algren's actions are to advance the commercial prospects of Omura and his family, under the guise of the modernisation of Japan, a movement which may be impeded or stopped by the traditional samurai and their influence on the Emperor. Here we have a return to the theme at the beginning of the film where Algren is disgusted by those who try to profit from the pain and suffering of others through crass commercial exploitation. In Japan, Algren finds a focus in defending age-old tradition and values not so much against modernisation for its own sake, but against what it can bring with it - the reduction of life and society to a mere money spinning commercial exercise lacking dignity and honour.
Another criticism I found is that Algren is a "Hollywood Hero", and that an upbeat Hollywood ending was tacked on to the film.
Algren is indeed a hero in that he stands (eventually) for principle, but are these principles not the true "heroes" of the film? Algren is himself "converted" - not by any character in particular, but by the way of life of the samurai, a way of life which respects and demands loyalty, dignity and honour.
I agree that the positive ending is not entirely in keeping with the general direction of the film, but personally I'm happier to think that such an outcome is a possibility. I prefer to be given hope rather than have grim pessimism driven home. A hero shows us possibilities and a way forward, and perhaps even hope for the future. Of course this has to be realistic rather than sugary, self-righteous and without value, but equally, nihilistic ventures can leave us with no hope, no solutions, and no inspiration. The main purpose of this film is surely to cause us to reflect on life's possibilities while offering us optimism and something to aspire to.
The film has also been accused of being historically inaccurate, but I find this criticism largely irrelevant as the film-makers did not set out to provide a historical account of political and social events in late 19th century Japan. They have clearly used this context (vaguely inspired by genuine events) as a construct to drive home their warning about the dangers of commercialism at the expense of principle and values.
As for the film itself, I have to say I hardly noticed the time pass and I consider that one of the greatest accolades you can give a film. I thought it was well paced with beautiful photography and had an intelligent and adult script, with music that conveys and enhances the mood and emotions of the piece.
The performances were uniformly excellent, with Cruise and Watanabe doing justice to the touching and thought-provoking script they were given.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some value.
I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss further the film, or my thoughts about it. I can be contacted at email@example.com
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