The Last Samurai
While Japan undergoes tumultuous transition to a more Westernized society in 1876-77, The Last Samurai gives epic sweep to an intimate story of cultures at a crossroads. In America, tormented Civil War veteran Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is coerced by a mercenary officer (Tony Goldwyn) to train the Japanese Emperor’s troops in the use of modern weaponry. Opposing this "progress" is a rebellion of samurai warriors, holding fast to their traditions of honor despite strategic disadvantage. As a captive of the samurai leader (Ken Watanabe), Algren learns, appreciates, and adopts the samurai code, switching sides for a climactic battle that will put everyone’s honor to the ultimate test. All of which makes director Edward Zwick’s noble epic eminently worthwhile, even if its Hollywood trappings (including an all-too-conventional ending) prevent it from being the masterpiece that Zwick and screenwriter John Logan clearly wanted it to be. Instead, The Last Samurai is an elegant mainstream adventure, impressive in all aspects of its production. It may not engage the emotions as effectively as Logan’s script for Gladiator, but like Cruise’s character, it finds its own quality of honor. —Jeff Shannon Product Description Epic Action Drama. Set in Japan during the 1870s, The Last Samurai tells the story of Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a respected American military officer hired by the Emperor of Japan to train the country’s first army in the art of modern warfare. As the Emperor attempts to eradicate the ancient Imperial Samurai warriors in preparation for more Westernized and trade-friendly government policies, Algren finds himself unexpectedly impressed and influenced by his encounters with the Samurai, which places him at the center of a struggle between two eras and two worlds, with only his own sense of honor to guide him. (Amazon.com)
Warner Home Video
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Review of The Last Samurai, by NCTA seminar participant Barbara Litt
Review of: The Last Samurai (2003)
Review by Barbara Litt, Adjunct Faculty, Department of Modern Languages, Carnegie Mellon University; formerly taught Japanese as a foreign language in the Pittsburgh Public Schools
This film stars Tom Cruise, as a troubled Civil War veteran, Capt. Algren, who is hired by the Meiji government in 1876 to train imperial troops in the use of modern weaponry and fighting. He is captured by a samurai (named Katsumoto, loosely based on the historical figure, Saigo Takamori), eventually adopts samurai values, and fights alongside Katsumoto in his last stand, in what would be the Satsuma Rebellion, but is not identified as such in the film. The backdrop for Algren’s big adventure is the clash between the traditional values of the samurai, and the political expediency of the Meiji government, bent on modernizing to protect itself from the western imperialists. There are a number of plot devices that are definitely Hollywood, not history, and definitely not Japanese. Wikipedia has a detailed plot summary and a well-done comparison of the historical reality with that depicted in the film (there are many significant differences): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Samurai
I watched The Last Samurai to see if it would be useful to show in a high school history or Japanese language class. At 154 minutes, it would have to be stellar to justify showing the whole film. Clips from the film might be used successfully to illustrate certain points in a unit on Asian, or Japanese history. I know of a Japanese language teacher who has shown it and had students analyze the differences between historical fact and fictional narrative. In my opinion, the opportunity cost of using class time that way is high. One would be better off showing clips of authentic Japanese films, such as the excellent film, Twilight Samurai. For a literature class, it would be interesting to analyze these two films from narrative and cultural perspectives, but such an assignment would be more appropriate for a college class. As for a history class, perhaps some clips could be useful to illustrate the period. In my opinion, the most useful historical image was not in the film, but in the accompanying segment, History or Hollywood (which is disappointingly focused on how the film tried to reenact the period accurately, with little of the kind of analysis found in Wikipedia). It shows a photograph of a group of real samurai that clearly shows their lean and hungry faces, their drab, somewhat ragged clothes. This is a contrast to the American stereotype of a samurai.
The film has many battle and fight scenes, replete with violence. The backdrop is war, and battles occur throughout the film, but the gruesome violence is implied rather than shown directly. For example, when a samurai commits seppuku, we see him plunge a blade into his abdomen, but the shot of his second lopping off his head is conveniently obscured by a large tree trunk.
Another incongruous aspect of the film is the Japanese language used. While the film has made attempts at recreating the period costumes and sets accurately (which are discussed on the supplemental DVD), no such efforts were taken with the language. Tom Cruise speaks modern Japanese (with reasonable pronunciation), as do all the characters. The incongruity of samurai speaking modern Japanese made me realize just how much Japanese jidai-geki (period films) have permeated my consciousness.
If Tom Cruise were a big draw with current high school students, or the film was still extremely popular, as it was when it was first released, that could increase the attraction of using it in class, but I don’t think either of these conditions are met at present. Therefore, I do not recommend this film for classroom use.