Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Nathan Algren’s Blues : The Last Samurai

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

NATHAN ALGRENS BLUES : THE LAST SAMURAI

1876: Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), an alcoholic American ex-soldier is hired by the Japanese to train their army in modern fighting techniques. The young Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura#), under the goading of his nefarious advisor Omura (Masato Harada) wants to open up his country to western influences but warrior Samurai forces led by the formidable Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) aren’t convinced, leading to civil war. When Algren is captured by the Samurai after a disastrous skirmish, Katsumoto spares his life recognising both his usefulness as an informant and also his innate warrior skills. Fascinated by the culture he discovers in Katsumotos rural village, Algren slowly learns the ways* of the Samurai and ponders his own role in the looming battle between the new and old Japan

In all respects bar one, The Last Samurai is a standard-issue, overblown, big-budget Hollywood star-vehicle a vehicle which isn’t especially well suited to the star around whom its supposed to fit. Cruise (brazenly in Oscar-bait mode) isn’t very convincing as Algren, either sober or drunk especially alongside, say, Russell Crowes blood-and-thunder turn in another of this years 19th-century epics, Master and Commander. Part of the problem is simple over-exposure we’ve now seen Cruise play this kind of heroic role too many times, and his own massive celebrity gets in the way of our empathising with his characters (he doesn’t have this problem when playing against type in Magnolia or, perhaps, the upcoming Collateral.)

Cruises ex-wife Nicole Kidman suffers similar difficulties in her current 19th-century epic, Cold Mountain in both cases, there isn’t enough in either the performance or in the film itself to allow us to forget were watching extremely famous and glamorous people pretending to be period figures living through tough times. (In any case, the whole Way-of-the-Samurai gubbins tends to work much better in unorthodox, apparently incongruous modern settings see Alain Delon in Melvilles 1967 Le Samourai, or Forrest Whitaker in Jarmuschs Ghost Dog.)

The issue of star status isn’t the only parallel between Cold Mountain and The Last Samurai both are geographically phoney: in Cold Mountain, Romania stood in for the 1860s American south; here, New Zealand doubles for Meiji-era Japan. Both are opulently well-appointed, sumptuous-looking films featuring an array of esteemed, award-laden talent on both sides of the camera: Zwick employs Hans Zimmer for his score, John Toll for his cinematography, and the three scriptwriters include Gladiators John Logan (along with Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz). Both films tell stories of men sickened by their experiences of front-line battle conveyed somewhat clumsily here by juddering monochrome flashbacks as Algren relives his role in a grisly massacre which would nowadays be called a war-crime atrocity.

But what would Algren himself be called, if his story took place in a present-day context? It depends who’s doing the calling, of course If, say, Fox News had anything to do with it, Algren would probably find himself demonised in the same way as, say, the traitorous John Walker Lindh during the 2002 American invasion of Afghanistan. Because Cruises character goes a significant step further than even Jude Laws in Cold Mountain a film which justifies and, to some degree, lionises, an act of desertion.

The Last Samurai is about a man who actively and honorably changes sides, taking up arms against his own country. Algren ultimately allies himself with Katsumotos Samurai against forces which include representatives of Algrens own former army (Tony Goldwyns Col. Bagley) and of the United States government: Scott Wilson as Ambassador Swanbeck, whose main motivation in his dealings with the Emperor is explicitly financial. In the current crazed American political climate, Algrens shift is as radical as it is unexpected, and, while its the only area where Last Samurai departs from the requirements of the standard-issue, overblown, big-budget Hollywood star-vehicle its sufficient to compensate for the films shortcomings.

And make no mistake, these are plenty of those: the skimpy characterisation of the only named female character, Katsumotos sister-in-law Taka (Koyuki) – whose feelings for Algren are required to shift from revulsion (understandable, considering he killed her husband) to romance (implausible); dialogue that’s loaded either with exposition (Timothy Spall as English gent Simon Graham) or duff Kung Fu style cod-philosophy (I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revaled, etc etc); the overlong, straining-for-epic running time; an over-reliance on on-screen titles (mostly superfluous) and off-screen narration (mostly from Graham, but with bits of Algrens diaries) the cardboard villainy of Omaru and Bagley; the haziness of the central modern-vs-ancient conflict; the bizarre (but clearly deliberate) decision to have the Emperor look, act and speak like a 19th-century Michael Jackson; Cruises sub-Clint Eastwood tough-guy rasp; Billy Connollys absurd Irish accent as one of Algrens old pals; and, worst of all, the absurd conclusion to the final battle, in which a major character miraculously survives virtually unscratched while all around him/her fall.

This nonsense apart, the combat sequences themselves are stirringly handled, and effectively integrated into the rest of the plot. Spall gets to shout a lot in Japanese (unlike Lost in Translation, this film makes commendably copious use of subtitles). And the stern Watanabe cuts a suitably imposing figure as the poet-warrior Katsumoto his character all the more effective for being based on a real-life person (Saigo Takamori) in a film which otherwise made up largely of convenient fictions.

Algren, of course, is the most convenient and fictional of all: according to Mark Ravina, Takamori did have a western friend, the surgeon William Willis. But Willis had no military expertise, didnt train troops, didnt become a Samurai, and most certainly didnt personally intervene in a pivotal moment of Japanese history, as Algren does here in the unconvincing coda. Williss intriguing story (which sounds more like the Maturin aspect of Master and Commander than anything here) presumably wasn’t heroic enough for Cruises requirements. On this occasion, however, it seems reasonable to let him off it isn’t every day, after all, that Hollywoods biggest megastar ends up playing what is, in effect, an American Taliban.

5th January, 2003

# in accordance with the films end titles, all Japanese names in this essay are presented western-style, with the family-name given second.

* The samurai code of honour, bushido – the way of the warrior based on Zen and Confucian wisdom, its seven principles – courage, honesty, courtesy, honour, compassion, loyalty and complete sincerity – are almost the opposite of everything Hollywood stands for. Perhaps that’s why it appeals to elite players such as Cruise, who seems to be on a personal quest to transcend his movie star status. “Bushido is really the reason I wanted to make this film,” Cruise says of The Last Samurai. “I strongly identify with those values of honour, loyalty and passion. It’s a very powerful code; those are wonderful things to aspire to in life.”
(from article by Steve Rose)

For the sushi-sized samurai review click here

by Neil Young