"The Last Samurai" could have been good.

Spoilers, unboxed. . .

Ebert used to say “they shouldn’t remake good movies. They should remake bad ones.”

That thought has been in my mind since I recently watched “The Last Samurai”.

“The Last Samurai” could have been good.

Long epic, set in Japan. Broken down old drunk war hero rediscovering the pride he once had. Directly forced to be with the type of people that haunt his memories.

Not to mention, guns and swords and fights and explosions and action.

Beautiful Japanese countryside and architecture.

And a good tragic ending that really couldn’t have gone down any other way.

But, it was directed by a guy who made “The Siege” and written by a guy who wrote “Gladiator”. Masters of subtlety, they are not.

Did one really feel for the fallen heroes at the end? They weren’t human - they were just “symbols”, it seemed. The movie didn’t let you “love” Japan. It just gave a couple of silly examples of why Tom Cruise changed.

The music could have been plucked out of any old Bruckheimer movie – it was one of the most uninteresting, most disconnected soundtracks I ever remember hearing. Was there anything Japanese about it at all?

You know, Tarantino farts better soundtracks.

If this movie were directed, by let’s say, Sam Raimi, Ang Lee, or Sergio Leone, or (naturally) Kurasawa, it could have been a classic.

As it was, it was just a pretty forgettable tale that never developed the weight that it hinted at.

It’s got that glossed over, Hollywood, impersonal feel to it.

Now that I said it – I guess that’s it. It’s just an impersonal movie, and that’s too bad because it could have been great.

Just my opinion. I just wish that movie was better.

Well, damn…

I really really liked that movie. One of my favorites.

Takes all kinds… I guess.

I dunno - are doves native to Japan? I’m sure he could have fit an excuse for someone to have imported a bazillion of them over so that Ang could have a nice slo-mo shot of them as someone walked across a doorway. Plus, it’s unrealistic to have your hero use dual pistols when they’re one-shots and you have to constantly reload them. Woulda completely cramped Ang’s “style”.

Aside from the ending where Algren somehow miraculously survives two hundred thirty eight shots to 98% of his body, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and consider it one of my favorites. I can see where some people would think it was a bit sterile and impersonal but I personally thought it was very beautiful.

Dude, I think you’ve confused Ang Lee and John Woo.

Ang Lee did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

John Woo is the one who sneaks onto movie sets to release “dramatic” flocks of pigeons.

Crap, you’re right. I apparently successfully purged the name “John Woo” out of my memory.

Yup, Lee would’ve rocked the microphone on “Last Samurai”.

I enjoyed Last Samurai, but I think you’re right… it was good, but it could have been really good. And those are the most frustrating movies of all.

However, I place the blame squarely on Mr. Cruise. In some ways I think he’s underrated as an actor. And this role seemed to fit his niche very well. How many times have we seen him play the flawed hero, the golden boy who’s lost his way, who redeems himself by movies end? It’s his specialty, and he’s good at it. However…

I really don’t think Cruise can be an action star (despite the fact his action movies have made $millions). Sure he’s fit, and he throws himself into his roles, and I’m sure he could kick my ass, but really! He’s almost a midget, and he’s got that nose.

Seriously, standing next to Ken Watanabe and the other samurai in the movie, he seemed like a child among men. Several of them (the old samurai and the angry swrodmaster in particular) really made me feel they were hard-core, to the bone tough guys, and that made Tommy look bad in comparison. And not for one second did I see any reason why Ken Watanabe’s character would find Cruise’s character interesting.

My last complaint is the very ending. Not that everyone died but Cruise, but the very Hollywood last scene with the young Emperor finally standing up for himself, inspired by the noble white guy.

OK, my really last complaint was the nagging voice in my head throughout the movie that, well maybe it’s good that the samurai got wiped out, because, well maybe they were noble, but they sure weren’t for equal rights, and democracy, and all those other kind of things I tend to think are good.

I thought you’d be complaining about the last scene in which Cruise returns back to the village and sees the wife of the guy he killed. How Hollywood cliche’ can you get? “Sorry I killed your husband but hey, I’m hot, your hot, I get along with your kid, lets live happily ever after!”

I enjoyed it. It isn’t in my top 10, but I enjoyed it.

I thought the movie certainly looked very pretty. The acting was generally pretty good. Ken Watanabe was fantastic, which is hardly surprising, but even Cruise handled himself well. The problem I had with the movie wasn’t with anything that happened in it (Well, at least up to the point where the samurai abandon the easily defended bottleneck to charge a mass of riflemen and gatling guns. Everything from that point on was stupid beyond the belief, most especially the final scene with the Emperor) Where the movie failed was in what it was about. It failed thematically.

The Last Samurai presents us with an insultingly simple proposition. Things that are new are bad, simply by dint of being new, while things that are old are good, because they have been around for a long time. We are meant to root for Watanabe and Cruise because they represent tradition, but the movie utterly fails to convince us why tradition is a good thing. They are the heroes of the movie because they are the main characters. The film does nothing to justify their position as superior to that of the fat industrialist they oppose. If, perhaps, they had included scenes of slums filled beyond bursting with deplaced farmers who have come to the city seeking factory jobs, maybe they’d have something. Or the fat industrialist having “lazy” workers beaten. Or a thousand year old Shinto shrine torn down to make room for a shoe factory. Something. But, no, there’s no particular reason to be opposed to the industrilists other than the fact that the actors who play them aren’t as charismatic as the actors who play the traditionalists.

Now, I know a little bit about history, and I gather that there wasn’t a whole lot to choose between 19th century industrialism and 15th century feudalism. Unless you were part of the top 1% of society, you were going to get screwed either way. At the risk of coming across as a bit of a Marxist, all this movie is about is wether the proletariat gets murdered up close and personal by whatever inbred psychotic that gets crowned their lord and master on the single qualification of who his parents were, or wether they get killed impersonally by a greedy robber baron who cares about nothing but how much money he can squeeze out of his factories. However, industrialism, at the very least, tends to lead towards democracy. So, my natural inclination while watching this movie was to root for the industrialists, because in the long run, that’s what leads to a free and (relatively) equitable Japan some time in the next century.

This makes the film’s ending even more troubling. The message we are supposed to take away from Cruise’s last meeting with the emperor is that, even though Watanabe and his faction have been wiped out and the industrialization of Japan will continue apace, the nobility of their sacrifice will ensure that the samurai spirit and respect for tradition lives on in the hearts of every Japanese citizen etc. etc. All I could think when I saw it was that this worship of tradition and the samurai way is what led directly to the monstrous military cult that dominated the nation in the first half of the 20th century, and led to such atrocities as the Bataan death march and the rape of Nanking. Frankly, it seems that Japan would have been better off in the long run if the traditionalists had just folded shop and applied for jobs at the nearest factory. Maybe something in management.

Tom Cruise is 5’7", as am I. I had no idea that we were midgets.

I agree. The Last Samurai could have been good, if Tom Cruise wasn’t in it. What a horrid load of ego he has. The Littlest Samurai, indeed. What’s with this crap about not doing a project unless it centers around you being the most special thing ever to have lived? Humbleness in a great man makes you even greater. Does no one in Hollywood understand that anymore?

Well, this is Scientology emmersed Cruise we’re talking about here so forget I said that. The man wouldn’t recognize his own overbearing ego if it were fellating him. And really, that’s what the whole premise of the movie felt like to me. A giant one-man circle jerk.

But it was beautifully filmed. The Japanese characters were interesting. The conflict was compelling, and would have been more so with more scenes to flesh it out, as Miller said. Why have Cruise in it in the first place?

Now that I think about it, it might have been interesting if a Japanese-American son of immigrants, or a half-Japanese American were the main character. But Tom Cruise? Feh. What a waste of film.

I just saw it and thought it was entertaining.

Sure, it is a cliche and I was really irritated by Algren & Taka story line. That could have been omitted and redeemed most of the rest of the movie.

What slayed me is the thought that an American spends winter in japan and masters in a few months what has taken the rest of the best their entire lives to master.
The fat interpreter guy who barely knew Algren before he is taken prisoner agrees to go into where Watanabe is being held to help him escape. Utter and complete nonsense.

Ken Watanabe is hot, hot, hot.

The sets were stunning.

This is one criticism I see a lot that I don’t think holds any water. Algren was an accomplished swordsman and decorated soldier long before he ended up in Japan. He was a cavalry officer, which means most of his fighting was done with a saber, and he was apparently damned good at it, considering how much he was being paid to train the Japanese army. He didn’t have the polish and refinement of someone who had spent their entire lives learning how to handle a sword with the ceremony and precision of a tea ceremony, but he knew plenty about using a sword to keep himself alive and prevent others from doing the same. Now, I don’t know much about swordfighting, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that ten years bloody experience on the field of battle beats a life time of practice with wooden swords nine times out of ten. He didn’t master Bushido in one winter, he learned enough about it to overlay some of their techniques on what he already knew about sword fighting, which was substantial.

Besides which, while he was being taught by the greatest Japanese swordsmen of the day, he never fought any of them: he fought toadies and assassins working for the industrialists, who almost certainly would not have studied swordplay with the dedication and passion displayed by the traditionalists.

Considering how common this reaction was, I think they erred by not foreseeing and addressing it in the film itself. Maybe a scene where Cruise shares something from the American/European tradition of swordfighting, or a debate about the strengths and weaknesses of the two styles. Europeans had been killing each other with swords just as long as the Japanese; I’ve never bought into the idea that the Japanese style was inherently superior straight across the board. But, apparently, the filmmakers did, because the film consistently fetishizes everything about feudal Japan as being innately superior to anything remotely tainted by Westernism, from how they fight to how they brew tea.

Is that a direct quote from Cruise? I wonder how that jibes with his excellent performance in Magnolia, where his character was pretty severely flawed, if not downright despicable.

Which was irelevant. Well, for the most part. Timing and distance control would help out a lot, but just about everything else he would have to forget as it would help him little using a Katana.

I agree, but you must remember that by this time the sword had been largely relegated to the duel and the occasional sabre charge on horseback by Europeans/Americans. It was becoming a sport and all of the true European Martial Arts of the medieval and renaissance period were gone. Lost to time and the encroachment of firearms. :frowning:

I agree though, Japanese swordsmanship was in no way superior to medieval/renaissance styles and tecniques. It’s just that they kept their tradition a live longer.

I mentioned this in another thread on The Last Samurai, but part of what got Japan into trouble in the late 19th/early 20th century was those unequal treaties that we see being offered to the Emperor by the foreign dignitaries. There was also pressure on Japan from the major world powers of the time to prove itself to be “civilized” (by Western standards) instead of nasty little Oriental barbarians. This meant industrializing…and building an empire. There’s a case to be made that they’d have been better off never opening up to the West in the first place, but that wasn’t something Fillmore/Perry gave them a lot of choice about.

It’s unfortunate that the movie didn’t bother to make any of this clear, as it seems to be the only possible justification for making the samurai the heroes. As you said, we were shown nothing to make us believe that the “bad guys” were really all that bad, or that the way of the “good guys” was in any way preferable. The unfairness of the treaties gets I think a one line mention, and we just have to take it on faith that they are unfair because no one explains what the problem is.

Damn, Miller. Are you a film professor? Great analysis of the film. I hadn’t viewed it through that thematic lens.

Me, I’m not good at the political ramifications of the story. I usually watch movies for (and interpret movies through) their characters – do they change? Grow? Believably? From that perspective, I enjoyed The Last Samurai very much. Tom Cruise’s performance was excellent. I had forgotten how good he really is, even if I’m tired of hearing my wife and mother-in-law rave about how gorgeous he is.

Every character in the movie, from the leads to the extras, was somebody, and that’s how I analyzed their reactions. They’re individuals, not symbols.

Is there that much difference between a saber and a katana? They’re both curved swords that rely more on a razor sharp edge than overwhelming strength. I’m sure there are many substantial differences, but it seems knowledge would be more portable from a cavalry saber than, say, a claymore. Regardless, I was thinking more along the lines of training someone up from being a total novice, where you have to train them out of things like flinching from near misses, or hesitating before delivering a killing blow. I know from past debates that you know more about swordfighting than I do, but I think the difference here is short enough that it passes muster as movie logic, if not real-life logic.

That does bring me to another beef with the film. Watanabe’s character was supposed to be a military genius. Sorry, but if he were a military genius, he wouldn’t be fucking around with swords in the 19th century. Swords maybe more elegant, traditional, spiritual, whatever. But they aren’t half the military implement as a basic rifle in terms of ease of use, manufacturing, and killing power.

Anyway, my point stands that most of the people Algren kills with the katana are not necessarily people who would have been that much more talented than he was. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it’s basically just a bunch of latter-day ninjas, some thugs in the street of… was it Kyoto?, and a bunch of peasants armed with rifles (the last of whom kick his ass anyway). The movie doesn’t establish any of them as being nearly as well trained as the traditionalists tutoring Algren, and the basic thematic conflict of the film would indicate that they would not have put more than a cursory effort into mastering an outdated weapon. You could make a pretty good argument that he could have survived most of those fights without the bushido training at all, just by using the skills he learned as a veteran soldier back in the states. He was supposed to be pretty bad-ass before he ever got to Japan.

I gotta say, whatever my other reservations about the film, the scene where he’s ambushed in Kyoto(?) was great. I loved the way they showed him acting by instinct, then flashed back to the same fight in slow motion as he realized intellectually what he’d just done by pure reflex. Very, very cool way of showing what I suspect is a pretty accurate example of how people think and react in a real fight.

AlbertRose: Thanks! I agree that, at least up until the last twenty minutes, the movie worked fine on a narrative level. And I think Cruise is generally under-rated as an actor. Most of the movies I can think of where he really stunk had so much else wrong with them already it wouldn’t be fair to single him out (Mission: Impossible 2, for example). If Last Samurai had tried to be a straight up action movie, and not a “message” movie, I probably would have liked it more. But the message it was sending was so inept, it just spoiled the whole thing. Not that it didn’t have its moments. And just taking it on a visual level, it was amazing. Fantastic cinematography! The shot of San Francisco at sunset on Nob Hill, right at the beginning, was breathtaking. There’s a lot that the movie got right, even when it was getting them wrong: the samurai armor, for example, was all wrong for that period, but it looked so great up on the big screen, that who cares? Definetly a movie worth seeing at least once.

Of course the real historical figure that character was based on was among the first to modernize his feudal forces, which is why he was central to overthrowing the truly medieval army of the Shogunate. And of course in RL the rebels had plenty of rifles, some artillery, and no calvary.

But hey, I’ve been criticized before for nitpicking the historicity of this film, so I’ll just stop there :D.

  • Tamerlane

As for showing the destruction being wrought by the rapid modernization, they did show a traditional village – with Shinto temple, if i read the roof ornamentation correctly – being put to the torch to make way for the railroad. In his director’s commentary, Edward Zwick talks about how the studio was a mite concerned with how he built an expensive village set, and then only showed it on screen as it was being destroyed.

And, for what it’s worth, here in Kagoshima, where the Satsuma Rebellion started and ended, audiences were utterly enraptured. The Last Samurai had a very extended run. Theaters were packed full for months. And audiences were weeping at the end. (I, on the other hand, was annoyed at the way the gaikokujin was the only one to survive. How Hollywood. :rolleyes: Other than that, I enjoyed it.)

It was kind of…interesting…to be able to leave the movie theater, walk for 10 minutes, and come upon castle walls that still bear the scars and bullet holes of the final battles of the Satsuma Rebellion.