Edward Zwick’s epic war film The Last Samurai is a tribute to the age-old tradition and culture of Japan while portraying the point of contact between western and the 19th century Japan.
Setting a story at the time of Meiji Restoration, the movie primarily talks about two people: a US war veteran Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) and Japanese samurai warrior Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).
Captain Algren who has been asked to train the Japanese army with modern weaponry finds himself in the middle of a conflict between modernity and the traditional life of people. Just as he was critical of the tactics of US and the manner in destroying the culture of Red Indians, Algren now has to decide his course of action under corrupt Japanese ministry who are now planning to defeat the traditional warlords – Samurais – in order to turn Japan into a modern industrial society.
Armed with bows and arrows, when a small group of samurai cavalry defeated Algren’s ill-trained troops and captivated Algren, the whole story goes into a different direction. Algren learns the ancient tradition and comes to face the reality why Samurai warlord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a protector of the emperor, is now willing to fight a war against the emperor and his army.
Samurai defends their action not just for any political aim but to preserve their ancient tradition and way of living from the invasion of western civilization. Algren joins Katsumoto in defending Japanese people and goes to a battle against the Emperor’s modern army laced with artillery. What happens, in the end, is not just about defeat and victory, but the moral values and line of duty that stand strong.
The Last Samurai is certainly a classic story coupled with excellent acting and great visual beauty. Director Zwick yet again offered something in which he is really good at. His earlier epic war films such as Glory (1989) and Legends of the Fall (1994) show his interest in throwing backlight to an earlier era and picking up complex characters and moral issues.
The film somehow makes it clear that western modernization is not superior to traditional society. Every civilization has a lot to give to the modern world we live in, and hence it becomes important for all to respect the root we have come from. Another thing, I guess, the film The Last Samurai tries to justify is that on many occasions, particularly in war, the men who go to fight often takes side because of their personal loyalty and not for political ideology.
Film: The Last Samurai
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly
Release Date/Year: November 20, 2003 (Tokyo); December 5, 2003 (United States)
Quote from The Last Samurai:
Katsumoto: “Do you believe a man can change his destiny?”
Algren: “I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed.”