Are the ways of the samurai so mysterious anymore? If there's any entity of Eastern lore that has found a home in the Western mainstream, it's the samurai -- those sword-wielding, emperor-protecting warriors of Japan. They've become one of the embodiments of the many elements people find fascinating about the Eastern martial arts mindset -- honor, respect, discipline -- and as such a particularly renowned embodiment, they enjoy great popularity, perhaps because they are so classifiable, so historically definable, so unmistakeable. Or maybe it's because they use cool swords. In any case, they've been appropriated everywhere, beginning with the West's love affair with Akira Kurosawa and continuing down through Shogun, "Samurai Shodown," and Samurai Jack. Star Wars is perhaps one of the biggest popularizers of the samurai -- after all, what are Jedi if not Lucas's version of these old-school guardians?
So what could The Last Samurai possibly offer us with its story of a late 19th century American army captain (Tom Cruise) finding himself in Japan, learning the ways of the samurai? Certainly nothing we haven't seen before. Ken Watanabe's character, the samurai leader Katsumoto, says the way of the samurai is to "breathe life in every breath." Cruise's Capt. Algren becomes fascinated by these lives dedicated solely to perfecting the things they do. When he practices a swordfight and gets whipped, an onlooker suggests he's being obstructed by "too many minds" -- as in minding the audience, minding the swords, etc. "No minds," he suggests. And in the back of my head, I hear Obi-Wan saying, "Use the Force, Luke."
I suppose, then, it's not surprising The Last Samurai feels less like it's offering fresh new philosophies and more like it's presenting those philosophies in a nice, neat, summary package. It's like Samurai 101: here are the samurai; here is their way of life; here is what makes them so appealing to Westerners; and here it all is in one classic textbook epic.
"Textbook" may be the key word. Director Edward Zwick and his team pull out all the tricks of the storytelling trade, making clear distinctions between good guys and bad guys and following an all-too familiar story arc of the alienated man who finds enlightenment in a new culture and environment. Characters are stock, from the Algren's evil, racist superior to the tough dude on the good guys' team that starts out hating the hero but then becomes his staunch ally. We get dramatic death scenes in slow motion with the swelling orchestra; teary-eyed goodbyes; pronouncements of ironies -- frankly, I was surprised to see the love interest part of the story so relatively muted. The whole thing has this mechanical feel to it.
Yet, even so, The Last Samurai emerges as a skillful movie. The other side of being textbook involves having reliability -- this movie will work for a lot of people because its classic construction is presented with focus. Zwick has a clear idea of what he wants his story to communicate, and he goes about it well. While impressive in its sets and costumes, the movie puts its big money on a final battle scene that openly desires to rival those found in Braveheart, Gladiator, and The Two Towers. I'm not certain it stands up to those, but seeing so many extras being used to stage a costumed battle on an open field is almost always awe-inspiring to me.
The Last Samurai maneuvers some tricky cultural territory -- after all, even though a man learns to appreciate a new culture, the story is still about that man and his journey. No matter how much the history and story of the samurai tries to take center stage, they are ultimately supporting parts for the hero's story. The hero is never truly dwarfed by this larger force of nature, as he ought to be, within the film's scope. But perhaps it's enough that he finds much to value in what he discovers, because it's really there to show the audience that value.
American viewers may not need this gift-wrapped presentation of the samurai to discover the worth in their ways, but, in this world of crass commercialism, rampant materialism, and self-centered motivations, a reminder never hurts.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for strong violence and battle sequences.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.