Movie Review: The Last Samurai

Contrary to what you might think, the eponymous last samurai is not Tom Cruise, but the rebel leader Katsumoto—or perhaps the entire rebel army. “Samurai” is, after all, both the singular and plural form.

The Last Samurai is another one of those stories, where the protagonist representing imperial {America, Britain} is told to lead an attack on primitive but noble people, but instead ends up appreciating their way of life and eventually joining their struggle against the imperialists. I’ve heard this genre called “Movies White People Need to Stop Making”; similar examples include Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, and Avatar.

As an example of this genre, The Last Samurai does not fare too poorly (spoilers): the rebellion ends in defeat, the pretty girl does not throw herself at the protagonist (and indeed may not be in love with him at all, until the final scene), and the protagonist does not become the universally-respected leader of the “tribe”. These minor positives don’t really change the underlying hubris, though.

Besides that stigma, The Last Samurai is a fairly enjoyable action-and-character-growth movie. Yes, it’s fairly predictable, no, there’s not any great content in the “character growth” part of the movie. Pretty much the only intellectual appreciation I can get here is how the two cultures continue to be alien to each other—the unexpected differences and the unexpected similarities are probably the truest parts of the story of the protagonist’s conversion to Japan-dom. And then there’s some cool sword-fighting and such, even if there’s a bit of named-character plot armor.

The Last Samurai is historical fiction, but it is based on real rebellions in Japan in the 19th century. After centuries of closed borders, modern American ships entered Japanese waters and forced them to open up; the Meiji emperor then did have to play catch-up with modern technology, and the feudal system of samurai and daimyō was replaced by a more modern capitalist class system…since swords and arrows really cannot stand against even 19th century guns. There were actually several rebellions against the new ways, but they all ended in defeat against the superior firepower of the modern soldiers. The main difference here is that Americans were hardly the sole power in Japan at the time; Wikipedia says the armies were Prussian-trained, and the inspiration for Captain Algren, the protagonist, was a French man named Pierre Brunet.

As with any movie that has Japanese in it, I amused myself by comparing the sentences I understood with the subtitles. Most of the time the characters simply spoke too fast, but other times I found a few mildly significant differences. My brother pointed out that most of the conversations were probably written in English and then translated, and then not translated back even if that made the subtitles not match so well.

The music was unmemorable. The scenes were pretty good from a cinematographic standpoint, of course contrasting the beauty of Katsumoto’s village with 19th-century Tōkyō. And apparently the casting was very honest, using actual Japanese actors for all the Japanese characters.

(spoilers about the ending) The ending was very awkward. I understand that it’s necessary for Katsumoto’s last message to get back to the emperor, but it’s really a shame that Algren survived to do it. I can’t think of an alternative, but…the whole movie sort of hinged on Algren already being a dead man, and then he’s the only one who lives. Did he learn to live again in the village? I guess that’s what we’re supposed to think, but then we get Taka being a reward. Ugh. I was kind of hoping she’d pull an Éowyn and do her part on the battlefield, but…well, I guess that wasn’t really in samurai culture. Still, Algren should have died with Katsumoto.

I also wish Algren had been able to act as Katsumoto’s second, as cliché as it would have been. Or that someone had been his second—maybe the commander who ordered the guns to stop firing. Apart from the in-universe pain of having to slowly die from his hara-kiri, it was foreshadowed way back at the end of the first fight.

But I’m very glad they didn’t win. Only in Return of the Jedi do bows and arrows beat guns, and the real story is that the samurai lost. That is how the world works.

The movie is inconsistent about the value of human life, treating Custer’s Last Stand as a folly but Thermopoli Thermopylae (300) and the rebellion itself as noble. I guess this is in line with how we view things now (modulo now being ashamed of the whole campaign against Native Americans), but it doesn’t make for much of a moral. If anything, the movie is nostalgia for the samurai’s way of life, but (a) the real world doesn’t and didn’t work like that, and (b) most people today wouldn’t actually want to live like that. (Samurai hipsters?)

A final note, which I mentioned to my brother while we were watching the movie. Japan has had a noble military past, and still has some military culture (some of it quite controversial). But after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I feel like there is a feeling that Peace really is important, that it is worth trying to avoid military conflict, that the country would be happy never going to war again. The time of the samurai is over, but so is the Meiji era that followed.

Three movie reviews in a row is not really a good thing! Neither is three posts in two months. I’m actually working on a quite long post, however, that’s a little different than most of what I’ve done before—you’re supposed to learn something from it. (We’ll see how that goes.)

I’m afraid I won’t be posting a review of the The Hunger Games movie. I saw it in theaters with my family a few weeks after it came out, despite initially not having much interest. The casting was pretty good, the cinematography had some problems, the data dumps were mostly well-handled, and the pacing sometimes felt a little funny, but what made me unable to review it properly was the deliberate ignoring of several details that the book specifically calls out as important. I didn’t think I had such an attachment to the book (it’s not great literature by any means), but the things they changed felt like they would have been fairly easy to get “right” without cost. (One of the most glaring ones for me was how every district had matching costumes.)

The other reason I couldn’t review it was because I couldn’t answer the most important question for reviews: who should see it? The target audience is teenagers, and most of them will enjoy it (hopefully stealing the Twilight fans as intended), but that doesn’t really answer the question. My family did enjoy it.

As for the Hunger Games books, I’ll controversially say that #3 was my favorite, because of the way it ended (or rather, the way it didn’t end), and leave it at that.