The Last Samurai (2003)

the last samurai

“What’s a hero to do when there’s no more great battles?”

The Scoop: 2003 R, directed by Edward Zwick and starring Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, and William Atherton

Tagline: In the face of an enemy, in the heart of one man, lies the soul of a warrior.

Summary Capsule: A haunted man lives in a community of people he once considered savages and comes to respect them. Tom Cruise plays Kevin Costner.

Lissa’s rating: Ooh! Oscar! Pick me! Pick me!

Lissa’s review: It’s that time of year again. December. Holiday lights, Christmas music on every station all the time, crazy malls, and Oscar-winning movies. Yes folks, if you want an Oscar, release your movie now.

The Last Samurai is an epic movie, and I’ll tell you right now, it wasn’t designed for watching. Not really. This is not a movie to pop into your DVD player over and over, and quote from memory. Uh-uh. This movie was designed for one single purpose, and that was to win Oscars.

The Last Samurai is the story of Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War hero who seems to have spent more time fighting Indians than he did Confederates. He’s hired by a Mr. Omura (Masato Harada) on behalf of the Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) to train the Japanese army in the ways of Western combat, particularly against the dissenting element of the samurai led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). During the first skirmish, Algran is taken prisoner by the enemy, and kept in the village of the samurai for the winter, where he learns to respect this different way of life.

The plot is fairly straightforward, with few twists and turns. I guessed the ending long (long, long, long, cause this is one of those movies where it’s best not to get the giant Coke) before it came. And actually, we’ve seen this plot before, back in the early 90’s. As we left the theater, hubby said, “Y’know, they could have called that Dances With Samurai.” He’s right on the money — the concept, plot, mood and themes are very similar.

Since this film will be worth it’s weight in little gold statuettes, let’s see how it’s going to fare, at least in my worth-less-than-onion-peelings predictions.

Best Actor: I predict that there will be two unwashed, unshaven, manly rugged swordswingers in the running for best actor this year. Both have learned fighting techniques. Both learned to say lines in languages not their own. Both spend a lot of time looking solemn and pondering their destiny. Both have worked for an insanely long time for the role they’re playing this December. But Viggo Mortensen is barely a blip on the Hollywood gossip scene, and Tom Cruise has been around for a while. Sorry Viggo, but even though I think you deserve it, if a sword swinger takes home the Oscar, I doubt it’s gonna be you.

Did Tom Cruise do a good job with the role of Nathan Algren? Well, yeah. He did. His Japanese sounded pretty good, he looked very soulful and tortured, with just the right touch of cockiness to bring him to assured herodom, and I’ve gotta admit, the guy can handle a sword. Is the role of Nathan Algren worth doing a good job with? Eh. He basically runs around looking soulful and tortured, fighting, refusing to give up in a fight, and writing in his journal. Haunted and complex are not the same thing, and Algren is a bit on the two-dimensional side. But then, Russell Crowe won for Maximus, who brooded and fought the entire movie, so Nathan Algren should be right up the Academy’s ally.

Best Supporting Actor: The bid would be going to Ken Watanabe, who played Katsumoto. Is it a supporting role? Normally I’d say no, but since Velma Kelly was considered a supporting role in Chicago last year, why not? The role of Katsumoto is basically the King of Siam with a samurai sword. (Actually, if you want the truth, I think Ken Watanabe (whom my husband says looks like The Rock) prepped for this role by watching The King and I and Anna and the King. The delivery reminded me very much of Chow Yun Fat’s portrayal of the King.) Katsumoto is a likable enough character and a convincing warrior, and he’s got the misunderstood nobility down to a science. But good luck finding the flaws- despite the fact that this man leads very bloody battles, much more attention is given to his “civilian” side.

On a side note, Nobutada, Katsumoto’s son, is officially the samurai version of Legolas.

Best Supporting Actress: This would be Koyuki, who played Taka. And this is one that I was actually impressed with, for the most part. Koyuki plays her role with the reserve you would expect from a Japanese woman in this timeframe, but there’s a lot beneath the surface. Koyuki had the advantage of having what I thought was the most interesting character — Taka’s conflict between her culture and her emotions is one of the bright spots of the movie — and she played it very well.

Best Visual Effects/Cinematography/Sound Effects/Costumes/That sort of stuff: It’s a beautiful movie. The scenery is stunning, and the costumes are rich and eye-catching, particularly the samurai armor. The battle scenes are wonderfully choreographed, and I enjoyed watching the fighting, both in the one-on-one sequences and the battles. It’s violent and graphic without being unnecessarily gory, which is great, because I hate gagging when I’m trying to eat Whoppers. I know war is bloody and terrible. I don’t need to choke on a malt ball to believe it.

Best Movie: Aside from Best Actor, this is the one they’re really after. Without a doubt. In fact, it got to the point where it was distracting because I sat there and thought, “Man, they’re really pandering to the Academy with that line/sentiment/expression of deep thought.” There’s nothing really bad about this movie, but it is very slow. (I think the slow pace is either supposed to express the dignity of the samurai life, or stretch the movie out to the acceptable time for a Best Movie, cause there seems to be a rule that they can’t be under two hours.) And while I desperately want Return of the King to win best movie, I suspect that it’s going to be The Last Samurai or Cold Mountain. See Justin’s How to Win an Oscar article for why.

But here’s the real question: is it worth you seeing? You, the non-academy member who has no effect on the Oscars (and can probably care less)? Short answer, yes with an ess, long answer no with a but. Like I said, there’s nothing really bad about this movie, and if you like historical dramas or lots of cool fighting, this is definitely a movie worth seeing. I’d even say see it in the theaters, because the fighting is worth seeing on the big screen. But only see it in the theaters if you go to a matinee, have an entertainment book coupon, or someone gave you free passes for the holidays and you’ve seen both Return of the King and Love Actually. It’s a good movie and I enjoyed it, but I suspect it will fade into oblivion in my memory eventually.

And that, more than anything, is a sure sign it will win that Oscar it’s craving.

Sue’s rating: Hai!

Sue’s review: So it’s like this. I’m wandering around the new movie store in town, when I happen to notice Dreamer sitting on a shelf. For those without pre-teen daughters who make you watch things like this, Dreamer is a story about a racehorse who is severely injured but then nursed back to health with the love of a young girl. (I know, I know. I want to gag too.)

Anyway, at one point of the movie, the young girl and her father visit a stud farm with the hopes of breeding their invalid mare to make marketable babies. One of the stallions they meet is named Giant’s Causeway. This made me chuckle because I know that Giant’s Causeway is a REAL horse and is in fact the son of a mare named Mariah’s Storm who is the actual REAL horse that the movie Dreamer is based on. Giant’s Causeway is also the father of a very good colt who missed running in the Triple Crown races because he broke two ribs in a freak starting gate accident during the Blue Grass Stakes. This is sad, but I don’t think he’d have had a chance in the Derby or Belmont since he seems to be more of a sprinter and would have had trouble with the distance.

ANYWAY, the name of the unfortunate colt with the busted ribs is First Samurai. (Who will almost undoubtedly meet Kevin Bacon at some point, I know.)

And that meandering stream of consciousness is the only reason I found myself renting The Last Samurai. Get it? First Samurai? Last Samurai?

Yeah, my brain is a really frightening place to live sometimes.

Okay, moving right along.

First of all, I have to both agree and disagree with Lissa on this movie. I agree that it might more aptly have been named Crouching Wolf, Dancing Dragon. However I must disagree on it’s Oscar generating mojo. In fact, I’ll bet it gets shut out at the Oscars, but feel certain that it will go on to win Best Foreign Film at the Awards Of The Japanese Academy. Considering that Lissa wrote her review in 2004 and I’m writing this in 2006, I can afford to be supremely confident in my predictions.

Anyway it seems that I’m at least a few hundred words in and have yet to say anything meaningful about The Last Samurai.

It’s good.

It’s hard to dredge up a barrel full of enthusiasm when the plot suffers from historic inevitability. Still, it’s a good movie, built very capably on the framework of “Epic Feature to be cc’d to the Academy”. The characters are suitably and torturously flawed, the cinematography is lovely, and the fight choreography is first class. But yeah, it’s all been done before.

Lissa’s already covered the plot, so I won’t rehash it again; but what sets this apart a little, and the reason I do like it, is the Japanese Emperor’s rather unique role in the conflict between the modernists and the Samurai. Usually in matters of war, even civil war, the opposing teams each have their own central authority figure. A Lincoln and a Davis if you will. (Or a Palpatine and Yoda if you won’t.) In this case, as much as the opposing sides detest each other, the one thing they all hold in common is their absolute and unquestioned fealty to the Emperor. He is, in their eyes, a god. With a single word he can disband the modern army that’s being built by the fat-cat faction. With another word, he can order every Samurai to commit ritualistic suicide. And just to add to the intrigue, both groups are granted access to him. It’s not like he’s unaware of the issues or hasn’t heard both sides of the argument. The conflict doesn’t have to happen at all. The fact that it does is probably a pretty good reason as to why men shouldn’t be granted god-like status — especially kids who are just barely old enough to sprout facial hair.

As far as the rest of it goes, the story of Aldrin is decent. I don’t think Tom Cruise brought anything special to it — unless you count that his pearly white teeth showed up brilliantly against splattered mud. Ken Watanabe however was perfectly cast and is probably going to be inducted into my top-twenty “hubba-hubba” list on the strength of his performance.

So yeah. A good movie. Certainly better that Dreamer.

Oh, and last I heard, First Samurai was feeling much better.

"Whoa whoa whoa, we was just talking! Isn't that right, pal?"
“Whoa whoa whoa, we was just talking! Isn’t that right, pal?”


  • Tom Cruise narrowly escaped potentially fatal injuries after a sword was swung within one inch of his neck while filming. He and his co-star Hiroyuki Sanada was acting out a sword fight scene when the incident happened. Sanada swung a sword at Cruise who was on an off-camera mechanical horse at the time. But the machine reportedly malfunctioned and failed to duck at the right moment. Sanada stopped the blade just one inch from his neck.
  • One of Japan’s most renowned samurai, Saigo Takamori (1828-1877) helped to pull down the Tokugawa shogunate and to restore the Meiji emperor. He then watched in anguish as the Meiji government, in its drive to modernize the country, stripped the samurai of all that made them samurai – the representatives of Japanese tradition, honor, and glory, if also feudal privilege. Ravina’s biography takes a revealing look at Saigo, and examines him both as a legend and as a historical figure. Saigo’s understanding of samurai honor led him first, to overthrow the shogun in the name of the emperor, then to support a radical reformist government, and finally to rebel against a government he had helped to establish.
  • When assisting in “seppuku” or “hara kiri”, a samurai would leave a bit of skin at the front of the neck when he decapitated the person. This way the head would not roll around and so the the body could be buried whole.
  • The armor the samurai wear is from the mid- to late-Sengoku Jidai era in Japan, over 250 years before the Meiji Jidai era the film takes place in.
  • This movie marks the 100th score for composer Hans Zimmer (Rain Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, Crimson Tide, Thelma and Louise).
  • Somehow Tom Cruise seemed… tall?????

Groovy Quotes

Bagley: What’s a hero to do when there’s no more great battles?

Higen: Will you fight the white men?
Algren: If they come here, yes.
Higen: Why?
Algren: Because they come to destroy what I have come to love.

Katsumoto: You believe a man can change his destiny?
Algren: No… But I think a man cannot know his destiny. He can only do what he can, until his destiny is revealed.

Katsumoto: I have introduced myself. You have introduced yourself. This is a very good conversation.

Nobutada: Jolly good.

Captain Algren: Sergeant Gant, did you hear my order?
Sgt. Gant: I did indeed, sir.
Captain Algren: Good, then you will obey it. Now!
Sgt. Gant: No disrespect intended, sir, but shove it up your ass.

Sgt. Gant [shouting at Japanese soldiers]: Right, you little bastards! You will stand up straight or I will personally s***-kick every far eastern buttock that appears before me eyes!
Captain Algren: Well done, sergeant.
Sgt. Gant: When you understand the language, sir, everything falls into place.

Katsumoto: The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Dances With Wolves
  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
  • Braveheart

One comment

  1. Nice review. I’ve only watched this movie once, not long after it first came out on video (rented from a video store; how quaint is that?), but I still remember large parts of it. Original or not, it was good enough to leave a lasting impression with me!

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