Director Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Glory) says he has seen Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai more times than he can remember and that he learned about storytelling, character development, shooting action, and dramatizing a theme from that great masterwork. Maybe so. Zwick’s The Last Samurai does all of those things, but it comes out like a movie made with paint-by-numbers technique. Many fine elements are there–stunning photography, a good premise for a story, enough battle action to surfeit a teenager hooked on video games.
What’s missing is the art that makes a movie more than the sum of its parts. What’s missing is the sensibility to know what to leave out, how to appeal to both the intellect and the emotions while avoiding cheap sentimentality, how to make a point without hammering it into submission. The Last Samurai has pretensions to Kurosawa, but it got stuck in the viscous goop of soft soap.
The premise has promise. A hero of the Civil War and a veteran of the Indian Campaigns, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is now a disillusioned drunk, haunted by the demons of past battles and civilian slaughters. The Japanese emperor, leading his country’s emergence into the modern age, wishes to build an army–in particular to put down an insurgency of the peasantry led by the Samurai. Algren is hired to train the new army, but quickly runs into problems with a weak emperor manipulated by scheming ministers and arrogant superior officers.
In his first battle with the Samurai, Algren is captured, but his life is spared by the Samurai leader, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who admires his courage. Living through a winter season in the Samurai village, Algren slowly learns the ways of the Samurai and he and Katsumoto become friends. In the values of his hosts, Algren finds again the sense of honor that had been lost in the experiences ofhis military career.
Ultimately, of course, there will be a battle between the forces of the emperor and those of the Samurai–a military confrontation that grows out of the conflicts between cultures and between tradition and change.
Even though the designers did diligent research, there’s a patently artificial look to Zwick’s production, whether a glimpse of cable cars atop Nob Hill in San Francisco or the docks of Yokohama which look so squeaky clean one might think they were in the Warner Bros. studios in Hollywood. Where Kurosawa’s Samurai village was poor, made up of small, simple thatch-roofed huts, Zwick’s village (a direct reference to Kurosawa, surely), filmed in a grand tenth century monastery, creates the sense of a Hyatt fantasy resort.
The battle scenes are slickly delivered, carefully choreographed, and endlessly overlong. Zwick has surely seen Kurosawa’s spectacular Ran and seems to allude to it in the final battle. But with all his huge budget and state-of-the-art technology, Zwick never once creates the breathtaking visual art that Kurosawa achieved (at a fraction of what Zwick must have spent) in the massing of the opposed armies on horseback, their colors flying. And if he is going to demonstrate Algren’s courage in doggedly coming back for more when he clearly has been bested by the foe, be sure he will do the same number again later on. And then yet again.
The acting is competent throughout, as convincing as it could be in a script that strews corn around mercilessly. If there is a metaphoric reference to cherry blossoms once, it inevitably will turn up again at a key moment, striving to achieve the spirituality which this film talks about but never embodies.