Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 15, 2003 Herald Journal
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Strong cast assembled for 'The Last Samurai'


Comparisons between Warner Brother's new release, "The Last Samurai," and the best selling novel and popular 1980 television mini-series "Shogun," are inevitable.

Both involve a white man, captured by a Japanese Samurai warlord, who gradually becomes absorbed into the Samurai culture and then tries to defend it against other Westerners. And both are very fine productions.

The story of "Shogun" is set when Europe first made contact with Japan, an insular country that only begrudgingly opened it's doors to interaction with outside cultures, and even then under very strict rules.

"The Last Samurai" is set much later, when the Emperor of Japan was actively seeking to modernize and westernize.

Herein lies the prevailing conflict of the film: one of the last Samurai warlords, Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe), is opposed to the changes, which he perceives to be driven by the greed of dishonorable men.

One of these is Emperor's advisor, Omura, who just happens to own all the newly constructed railroads in Japan - railroads that have been raided by the Samurai.

Omura recruits two American military officers to train Japanese government troops.

Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a hero of the Indian Wars, but is deeply conflicted about the atrocities he was ordered to commit against the Native Americans. Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) is the commanding officer who gave Algren those orders.

The first assignment of this new Japanese regiment is to route out the Samurai warriors. But the battle goes badly, and the Samurai take Capt. Algren prisoner. Katsumoto claims that he keeps Algren alive so that he may know his enemy.

Gradually, Capt. Algren takes on the ways of the Bushido warrior, and ultimately fights along side Katsumoto against the American led Japanese troops.

This film is wonderfully rich in all the trappings of this period of Japanese history ­ the armor and weapons, the awkward juxtaposition of ancient Japanese architecture and modern Western conveniences, the lovely Japanese countryside.

A great deal of the Japanese language is spoken, with subtitles, and it appears that the culture is accurately represented.

The battle sequences are spectacular, though I was a bit peeved with the use of editing and close-up shots to construct one-on-one combat sequences, instead of longer scenes of choreographed stage combat.

But those of you who have read my reviews in the past know this is my perennial gripe with recent films ­ the swordplay is not believable to me; though I will credit "The Last Samurai" with some of the best fight sequences I've seen in a while.

"The Last Samurai" was well directed by Edward Zwick, who also directed one of my other favorite war movies, "Glory."

A fine cast was assembled, including one of the best performances yet by Tom Cruise. But I don't believe Cruise, mega-star that he is, could have carried this film without Ken Watanabe's portrayal of Katsumoto.

Watanabe is well-known to Japanese audiences, but this is his first English language film. He manages to strike the perfect blend of ruthless warrior, poet, scholar and beneficent ruler.

My favorite performance in this film, however, was by the actress Koyuki, who plays the wife of a Bushido warrior killed by Capt. Algren.

Her inner turmoil is painfully but subtly evident as she is ordered to care for the injured Algren, and comes to a crisis when she asks Katsumoto to give her permission to kill herself because she can't bare the shame.

Eventually, she is won over by Capt. Algren's allegiance to her people, and one of the most moving scenes takes place when she ceremonially dresses him for battle in her dead husband's armor.

Though the story is predictable ­ you pretty well know the gist of it if you've seen the previews - it is beautifully told, and the entire movie makes for an evening well spent at the cinema.

If you're old enough to remember "Shogun" (that was over 20 years ago!), and you enjoyed it, you'll love "The Last Samurai."

"The Last Samurai" is rated R for strong violence and battle sequences, including a few beheadings (my wife insisted that the next two movies we see don't have a lot of people getting killed).

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