Movie review: The Last Samurai (2003)

It was with some trepidation that I watched The Last Samurai. I realized that the movie would contain a mixture of fact and fiction, and my knowledge of 19th century Japan was remedial enough that I wouldn’t be able to discern the difference.

I also don’t have a fondness for Tom Cruise and his typical wooden-style acting.

But I found The Last Samurai fairly entertaining. I was delighted to find that the dialogue was a mixture of English and Japanese. I like Ken Watanabe so seeing him in action was a treat.

The Last Samurai purports to portray the dying days of the samurai hold on feudal Japan as capitalists, with the help of the Meiji emperor, fought to drag Japan into the modern era.

Tom Cruise plays an American war hero of sorts who is down on his luck and seeking to drown the atrocities he committed against Native Americans in a never-ending glass of whiskey. He is convinced, by a former military compatriot, to go to Japan to set up a modern military force for a handsome sum of money. He starts on his task but ends up a hostage of the samurai and comes to more than a begrudging respect of their ways.

The battle scenes, which mostly involve hand-to-hand combat, are intense. The slaughter of lives is a sobering reminder of war. Usually done for less than noble reasons, war is often justified with noble reasons. In this case, the samurai are fighting for the common person, the modern “army” for greedy and power-seeking superiors. If only reality was that clear-cut!

If you can escape into the mythology of the samurai class in Japan, you will enjoy this movie. It is the romantic tale of the powerful who protect the weak losing power and fading into the history books. If you find a culture inane that values honor, including killing oneself out of the shame of defeat, The Last Samurai is not for you.

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