The first time I saw the trailer for The Last Samurai, I could not suppress a chuckle. Tom Cruise seemed comically larger than life, dressed-to-kill as a samurai. Here is a man who does not know his limitations, I thought. Does he realize he’s… um, not Japanese? Alright, I confess, I sided with Nicole (and her career) after the breakup. Until I heard that Ken Watanabe had received an Oscar nomination, I wasn’t even remotely interested in what seemed like another film driven by Cruise’s ego.
Ah, but Ken Watanabe is an actor much deserving of an Oscar nomination, not to mention a win. In The Last Samurai, Watanabe plays the noble Katsumoto, leader of a radical group of Samurai. Watanabe is brilliant as Katsumoto. He quickly steals the show. He is funny, wise and lovely. It is his character that sets the tone for the entire film. The Last Samurai is, surprisingly, a twist on the quintessential “buddy” film and an action packed spiritual masterpiece.
Meanwhile, Civil War veteran and pained alcoholic Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is sent to Japan to train the Emperor’s troops to defeat the samurai. Algren is rebellious against authority that includes an infamous Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). Embittered by a past experience under Bagley’s leadership, Algren is aggrieved and vividly unhappy. Cruise’s usually arrogant, pretty boy veneer is thankfully nowhere to be found. He is as sympathetic as Custer is revolting.
The Last Samurai really begins when Algren is captured by the Samurai. After watching him fight, Watanabe finds himself drawn to Algren’s self-destructive cool and fight-till-the-death combat style. Though it would seem that Algren is there for Watanabe’s amusement, it is Algren that begins to learn something about Samurai culture and, eventually, himself while being held captive. Algren is quickly seduced by his surroundings, signing up train and fight side by side with the Samurai.
The film is a masterful period piece. Luxurious landscapes abound with actors clothed extensively and dramatically in Japanese wardrobe at the forefront. The Last Samurai goes all out to make sure that you feel as if you’ve been transported to traditional Japan. It is easy to get lost in the epic story and dazzling landscape. The beauty of the Samurai honor code is tantalizing at a time when war is less honorable. When Cruise suits up for the last fight, it draws awe and pride… not chuckling.
Though the trailer hints at a romance between Cruise and Taka (Koyuki), Katsumoto’s sister, the romance is as subtle as one would imagine it would be in traditional Japan. The film never draws focus away from the bond that builds slowly but surely between the two warriors, Katsumoto and Algren. Algren finds himself because Katsumoto sees something in him that Algren has long lost. These complicated characters grow, hurt and feel together before our eyes.
The Last Samurai is a spectacular sight. It is a truly grand, wondrous larger-than-life film. It is a credit to hero epics like Braveheart that have drawn too many wannabes like the grandiose Gladiator. The Last Samurai capitalizes on its star power to entice viewers but holds their hearts by enveloping them in the stunning story of two men from different sides of the globe helping each other to find their souls in an ever-changing world that threatens their existence.