Revisiting The Last Samurai

A friend of mine recently asked why I revisit films that have been out for years or, in the case of The Last Samurai, 12 years. Some of it is self-indulgence; there are some pictures which I simply love. Others because they deserve to be remembered because they’ve been snowed under by the more or less impressive sequels of their leading actors.

The Last Samurai is a happy medium between the two. The 2003 film was a commercial and critical hit for Tom Cruise in a series of what surely must be his most consistently excellent pictures. 2001 saw the wonderful Vanilla Sky, followed by the 2002, Spielberg directed, Minority Report and then the eponymous 2003 picture of this piece. 2004 was Collateral and 2005’s War of the Worlds ended a quartet of diverse and well-received films. Everything else was really just ‘ok’.

What makes this special? For those of you kind enough to indulge my writing you’ll know of my affection for the composer Hans Zimmer. From the outset, his orchestration, infused with the traditional Japanese instruments Koto and Shakuhachi, makes for a sweepingly sad soundtrack. It is never clichéd but strange and hauntingly lonely; entirely fitting for another time and place on the other side of the word.

The plot is perhaps the clincher on acclaim. It plays with a real life event of the Satsuma Rebellion but adds a complicated, layered story of redemption in Captain Nathan Algren played by Cruise. Algren is embittered and haunted by his experiences and actions of the Indian Wars; prone to flashbacks, drunkenness and he evidently has a death wish.

It has to be one of, if not his finest, performance. The shame of Tom Cruise is that the myriad of tales about his personal life has turned him into the true tabloid celebrity, often ignoring the fact that, his blockbuster pull aside, he’s a phenomenal actor. Angst-ridden and manically depressed he convincingly conveys spiritual growth from nothing into a character prepared to sacrifice his existence for a cause rather than out of suicidal guilt.

Historical epic? Bet your ass it is, it might actually be described as a latter-day return to form for the Western in a manner not seen since Unforgiven. What’s special about TLS is it contains the elemental ingredients that made the Western great: an unfamiliar, isolated backdrop, strange locals and a different landscape. What makes it so good is it accepts that nearly 99 percent of the population knows a Western cliché and instead transplants the genre it to a new Japanese environment in a different time to make it fresh again. The complex themes of redemption and  the search for peace make it Unforgiven meets the historical war scale of Lawrence of Arabia with the fish out of water humour of The Man Who Would Be King.

For this, we find a direction and a script of maturity and purpose that goes beyond the commercialisation you might associate with such a top billing actor as Cruise. Edward Zwick both directs (he also directed Glory) and shares screenplay credits with Marshall Herskovitz (producer of Blood Diamond and Defiance) and John Logan. For those of you who are Bond fans, you’ll recognise Logan as serial James Bond writer who found recent critical acclaim with 2012’s Skyfall.

While cramming a film with talent is no guarantee that it will be worth a watch, the presence of Billy Connelly, Koyuki Kato, Timothy Small and Ken Watanabe make it distinct and captivatingly watchable. Watanabe, in particular, has a ferociousness that goes beyond playing a token ethnic cliche and it is quite proper that in later years he was to find greater recognition in Letters from Iwo JimaBatman Begins and more prominently in Inception.

All together this remains a firm favourite that is tremendously fresh thanks to the great tandem of writing, acting, direction and production that power it. The questions of history and culture, tradition and modernity, are the meat to the bone of a picture that still stands out as exceptional and still delights.

Time to fetch the DVD.

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