The Last Samurai (2003)

Action, Drama, History, War
Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, William Atherton
An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.
With high production values and thrilling battle scenes, The Last Samurai is a satisfying epic.
  • Warner Bros. Pictures Company:
  • R Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 05 Dec 2003 Released:
  • 04 May 2004 DVD Release:
  • $111.1M Box office:

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Cruise and Watanabe conquer with great performances9/10

It is said that the only thing constant is change. Old ideals die off, and new technologies replace the inefficiencies of yesteryear. The young usually have little trouble adjusting to change, but traditionalists are often dragged into the new era either kicking and screaming or silently resolved to remove themselves completely.

"The Last Samurai" manages to capture a little of both, with Japanese men living in a world in transition from ancient bushido rituals of honor into a more modern empire of industry and trade. A sweeping historical epic that hints at the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa's finest work while also invoking the melancholy of a Shakespearean tragedy, the movie is a reminder of the cost of high ideals and danger of industrial conformity.

It's 1876, and Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is an alcoholic wreck of a man. A veteran of the Civil War as well as General Custer's Indian campaigns, he drifts from one situation to another ostensibly looking for work but really seeking refuge from his inner demons of slaughtering innocent women and children.

Opportunity knocks in the form of an old Army acquaintance Colonel Ben Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), who has accepted work with a Japanese businessman named Omura (Masato Harada). Omura has been charged with recruiting American war vets as military advisors to the new Japanese Army. Emperor Meiji, under advise from Omura and other parties, is interested in modernizing his nation's military with rifles and other armaments.

In order to unify the nation, the powers that be must first take care of civil dissidence within Japan. The samurai, led by charismatic chieftain Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), are violently opposing the invasion of Western culture into their islands. Bagley foolishly sends his ill-trained soldiers into combat against the samurai, and during the resulting massacre Algren is captured and taken to the samurai's village.

During the course of the winter, Algren slowly gains the trust of his captors and in turn is given free roam over the village. He fights with Uijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), who dislikes the American from the beginning, and is given food and shelter by Taka (Koyuki), the wife of one of samurai he killed during battle.

Katsumoto meanwhile seeks to learn about his enemy, and begins to respect Algren as a fellow warrior. Also interested in the American is Katsumoto's son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada), intrigued by Western culture. Algren finds the first peace he has known in a long time, and begins to adapt to the ways of the samurai. He acts as a surrogate father to Taka's children, learns to sword fight with a kitana blade and begins to respect the culture that he originally sought to destroy.

But during Algren's absence the Japanese Army has had better opportunity to prepare themselves, and time is soon approaching that will determine the fate of the samurai and the future of Japan.

"The Last Samurai" is beautifully filmed by John Toll, the same cinematographer who worked on "Braveheart." The comparisons are obvious with moments of silent reflection and loud explosions of fury, both powerfully captured on film.

Director Edward Zwick brings the same determination to the screen that he did more than a decade ago with "Glory." The attention to period detail is near flawless and the movie never releases its grip on the audience.

As Algren, Cruise grows from suicidal depression to driven idealist quite realistically, drawing on the standard dishonored warrior archetype while giving him touches of humanity. Cruise's only shortcoming is his lack of dramatic range, and as such it never seems like Algren has any sinister intent even when acting selfishly. Never for a moment is there a doubt that he's destined to be a hero.

Cruise is also overshadowed in every scene by Watanabe, who makes Katsumoto a honorable man who is shocked by all the dishonor threatening to overthrow his country. Philosopher, poet, family man and warrior - Katsumoto wears many hats, and is realized through Watanabe perfectly.

Other smaller roles are captured by strong performances as well, including Goldwyn who brings class to the standard villain role as Bagley, Koyuki who plays Taka with quiet sadness and torn loyalties between her fallen husband and his killer who she is growing to love, and Koyamada who makes Nobutada young and headstrong but still sympathetic and honorable.

"The Last Samurai" only suffers during a protracted finale that screams of studio interference. The ending smacks of being safe, clean and Hollywood, something that almost betrays to whole film.

The movie is still strong enough to become a modern day classic. Like "The Wild Bunch," it speaks to those curious of what became of warriors who outlived their time. Timeless issues of honor, loyalty and redemption as well as the clashing of ancient culture versus new technology remain omnipresent. To remain in the past in foolish, but to forget it entirely is disgraceful.

Nine out of ten stars. Destined to be remembered for some time, this movie honorably deals with its subject matter.
Brilliant!10/10

I was skeptical about this movie because not every high-budget feature with Tom Cruise is guaranteed depth or serious acclaim, although it may gather at the box office. And Warner Bros put me through TORTURE to see this pic - changes of times AND locations, over and over. I felt like was on an survival test, an unbearably annoying treasure hunt over weeks and was frankly ready to give it a negative review (which I'm writing on behalf of a
publication). However, I found the movie truly and unequivocally remarkable and cannot contain my review in 350 words.

First, the experience was powerful. Edward Zwick was a masterful director. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. The action, sets, scenery and story - even the dialogue - were riveting. Clearly, a ton of historical and cultural research and care went into the script, sets, costumes, casting. They didn't just Hollywoodize Kurosowa's "Seven Samurai" as a Tom Cruise vehicle. Nor was it Dances with Wolves or Seven Years in Tibet, two PC-preaching pics of yesteryear. It was a lot more like Braveheart meets Seven Samurai with elements of inculturation a bit reminiscent of Wolves and Seven Years.

Rarely does a movie have excellent acting across the board, but all the Japanese actors were outstanding, and the Americans and Europeans were excellent ... Tom Cruise was at the top of his game. His Independence Day angst combined with his moral nobility in A Few Good Men and The Firm. Ken Watanabe as co-star exemplifying bravery, wisdom and nobility was outstanding.

In spite of this historical epic being "in vogue" at present, there were surprisingly few cliche story elements. Even the requisite (American-made movie) romance with Take (Koyuki in this role was wonderful) furthered the cross-cultural elements of the plot in such a way that neither culture was violated - and above all the `chemistry' was discreet in Japanese fashion, taking a necessary backseat without overshadowing the main story line, actually adding richness to the process of "going native" for Captain Algren (Cruise). The subplot went far beyond an added market draw. Very tasteful and artful scriptwriting, with many colorful, developing characters.


The thrust of the film was the Western-Japanese cultural divide, differing concepts of value and valor and the political issues surrounding Japan's efforts to "Westernize." [cross-cultural studies have become a cinematic trend: Lost in Translation, Beyond Borders, The Missing, Japanese Story, etc.] Where most of the other films fell short (and The Statement was an abomination], this film succeeded brilliantly. The differences between the two cultures were considered and portrayed without completely bashing one (except in the political arena, but even there, the Japanese seemed to be inviting their own downfall, in many ways). There was no simple scapegoat or cultural domination message. The American Civil War captain, Nathan Algren (Cruise) goes abroad as not only a war hero but also a cross-cultural and linguistic expert. Being in Japan, (at first as a mercenary hired to train Japanese in Western ways of war), he takes on the study of the people and their language. Although Algren's sometimes superhero abilities are a bit of a stretch at times, taking the native language seriously is unique in American filmmaking (and American culture, hence our lowly reputation when traveling). Usually the American walks into the foreign scene and the pic automatically shifts to all-English. I was truly grateful to find the dialog half in subtitles because half the characters were Japanese - and Algren was speaking with them. Secondly, this movie honors both cultures for their recognized strengths, even in their distinctiveness. For example, when the woman who is hosting Algren (in captivity) makes dinner, he helps her. "Japanese men don't do these things," she tells him. "But I'm not Japanese," he says (in Japanese). Algren is not ashamed to uphold his homeland customs (although this was 1876... pre-sensitive 90s man era, long before women's lib let alone men entering kitchens) when his own cultural customs or inclinations are ways of caring rather than domination. Another and more important example: Algren demonstrates American resilience and perseverance when he rises again repeatedly after defeat. This baffles the Japanese who are accustomed to falling on their swords in shame after defeat, for them a noble death. In these and many other ways, the Japanese Samurai (especially Katsumoto, Watanabe's character) and Algren learn to appreciate each other's ways. In many respects, the film moves past the usual PC party line [of Dances with Wolves, Seven Years in Tibet and most others of similar ilk out of Hollywood] and reflects on the beauty and dignity in the midst of difference between the two worlds, and how much they need to learn from one another without money or domination as a motive. The dignity of the young Emperor Meiji finding his own cultural center, at the end, was especially moving. Overall, the film had depth and substance with brilliant work in almost every area of production and performance. The editing was marvelous - although it's long, there's no unnecessary material remaining. Not a moment of boredom. Props all around!
One of the most beautifully crafted films ever made.10/10
If you have NOT seen the film then stop reading this review and go rent, buy or borrow it right now! What are you waiting for? This is a 10 out of 10 must see.

The casting, location, storyline and direction of this film is simply excellent. I say this is Tom Cruise's finest acting hour. A story of honour, integrity, tradition, courage and love entwined with great battle scenes, beautiful scenery and superb acting, especially in the lead roles of Cruise and Ken Watanabe.

For me personally I have no faults with this film. I do not possess a vast knowledge of Samurai history other than what we see on TV and read in magazines so cannot comment on it's depiction of true Samurai legend. A real gem.
Wonderful Film10/10
I disagree with a lot of the reviews of this film. Yes, it is true that it does glorify a lifestyle in an exaggerated and unfairly sublime way, but I think we're missing the point. This film is romanticism vs. modernism. It's purity vs. corruption. It's not so much the premise or believability, but the substance behind it.

Tom Cruise is an actor who is both idolized (by fans) and ridiculed (by critics) In this film he dazzles us as a drunken U.S General haunted by a bloody past. I was pushing for him to get an Oscar Nod, but alas, None came. "The Last Samurai" wasn't particularly well received and that was disconcerting to me. I'd recommend it to anyone with a taste for romance and for anyone who simply longs for a little less "celebrity wedding" and a little more "help the old lady across the road".
Beautiful10/10
After my third viewing, I can finally admit that this film has me. I enjoyed it during its theatrical run, enjoyed it more the second time around, and now, I can only say that I love it. The cast is exemplary. Tom Cruise is so good in this film that it is very often easy to forget he is Tom Cruise. Easily his most powerful role and best performance since Jerry Maguire. Ken Watanabe, however, is incredible in every scene - acting with a rare sensitivity and intensity and breathing life into a character much larger and more human than the grand story of which he is a part. Though the entire cast is excellent, I feel that I must also single out Koyuki and Shichinosuke Nakamura for, respectively, the female lead and the emperor, for the subtle strength and believability they each give their very challenging roles.

The story takes place during the early modernization of Japan, in the 1870s and 1880s. The Emperor's power has been weakened by the political and economic power of his cabinet, by his young age, and by the political influence of the United States and other western powers pulling the strings of his cabinet and supplying modern weaponry and tactics to the modernizing Japanese army. Cruise plays Captain Allgren, an alcoholic veteran who has seen and participated in too many massacres of innocent people, and is offered an opportunity to reclaim some of his honor by helping to train the Japanese military in the use of firearms. When he arrives in Japan, we learn that the first test of the Japanese army and its new weapons will be against a rebellious group of samurai who believe themselves to be in the service of the Emperor and Japan, but resist the Emperor's cabinet and the influence of western nations. In the power void left by a passive emperor, Japan seems poised to enter into a civil war against its own values, faith and honor. During the first attack on the Samurai, Allgren is captured by the Samurai and begins a spiritual, physical and philosophical journey which will bring him a level of self-respect his own culture could never supply.

My interpretation of this journey is that Allgren has found a place and people that offer him redemption, where, in his own world, he can find none. But Allgren's is only a small part of the story - which ultimately revolves around what is right for Japan, for the subjectivity of a whole nation, and how to portray such a subject from its own perspective. Traditional Japan is treated with empathy here, not aggrandizing exaggeration, as some of the film's critics seem to suggest. This is not a film about what is objectively right and wrong, but a film about struggling to understand and empower tradition as a means to control and benefit from change. I find no grand moral statement here, but rather an intense, sympathetic, human drama with a strong sense of honor and sacrifice.

Edward Zwick has made a film which operates well at every level, carrying simple but profound philosophical ideas, but avoiding the mistake of making these ideas and the characters that express them super-heroic. Ultimately, this beautifully shot film conveys powerful messages about war, tradition, ethics, honor and culture, which, though not particularly original, are sensitively and intelligently brought forward. There is a lot of action, including some remarkably well-acted sword fighting and martial artistry, but none of it seems unnecessary and the whole film is truly tightly woven. My highest recommendation.