Cinema Signal:


Bushido:
The Soul of Japan
by Inazo Nitobe



The Last Samurai:
The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori


. "The Last Samurai"

I like Tom Cruise well enough. So, call it tough love that I recognize his weaknesses as well as his strengths. While he has charm and certainly good looks, he lacks weight, the commanding presence. In brief, he's no Russell Crowe. Would that he were. But does that mean he brings this film down? Not at all, because the payoff qualities here are his sex appeal and his agile athleticism. These don't salvage his lightness of being in dialogue moments; they don't serve him particularly in fostering the image conveyed by his character's accomplishments; but his quickness and physical capabilities prove convincing in the fighting scenes, and they are the backbone of this adventure. As for the romantic potential, Cruise is a slam dunk.

Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) was a courageous fighter in the Civil War and in the Indian Campaigns out west but his accomplishments and exploits on the field of battle have done little to ensure his future. Turning to drink and a starring role in a side show as an ex-military hero recounting (and embroidering) his conquests for an adoring audience, he is clearly one maladjusted dude. So, when his old buddy Sgt. Zebulah Grant (Billy Connolly) appears in the crowd, Algren is only too happy to go with him for a little powwow with the Japanese advisor to emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), Ohmura (Masato Harada) and his old army nemesis, Col. Benjamin Bagly (Tony Goldwyn).

This being a period in Japanese history when isolation was being replaced by an interest in western values and accomplishment, he is offered handsome payment to train Japanese troops in order to control if not destroy what Ohmura characterizes as a bandit band of Samurai warriors making trouble on the border. The money is too good to turn down and he makes the journey across the seas. He has to exert all his training skills to whip the emperor's forces into something resembling a fighting machine. But, even as he drills them with formations and shooting practice, the renegade band, led by the fearsome Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), is continuing his rebellious attacks.

The over-anxious Ohmura demands that Algren lead the men, who are still ruinously ill prepared, against the Samurai. His and Bagly's belief is that their superior weapons and number will square the sides against the lethal enemy and bring them victory. The skirmish that follows is a rout by the Samurai with the imperial forces dead or running for their lives. All, that is, except Algren who, though outnumbered at the end, demonstrates fearlessness and deadly ferocity. When he's finally brought down, Katsumoto, in awe of this inexaustible fighter, brings him to his village encampment in the mountains that he might study his adversary and learn his ways.

Held in the mountain ramparts by winter's ice and snow, Algren is cured of his battle wounds and kept in the care of Katsumoto's beautiful sister Taka (Koyuki) who was widowed by Algren when he killed her husband in the battle. Forced into this temporary exile in such extenuating circumstances, he grows to understand and appreciate the devotion and discipline of Katsumoto's people and the Bushido philosophy that they follow. He trains under the most skilled warrior in Samurai technique with the sword, showing himself to be a tireless fighter who accepts defeat only when he can't move anymore. This characteristic earns him the respect of the men in the village while his abilities become equal to his trainer's. His gentle manner and study of Japanese makes him grow in the affections of Taka's children and, eventually in Taka herself.

The central relationship, though, is the one between him and Katsumoto, which becomes a brotherhood of understanding between warriors. And, when Algren fully understands the situation with the emperor and his political advisors from the samurai perspective, he becomes one of them, joining their epic struggle. He is at Matsumoto's side in the major battle that seems to settle the political issue after a great sacrifice in blood.

The process by which this evolves, while plodding at times, is tempered by director Edward Zwick ("The Siege", "Courage Under Fire") who admits to being influenced by Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai", and writers John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz. They embrace the two main elements of the story: the growth of understanding between people who are alien to each other and the well choreographed, detailed battlefield clashes. In balancing these two elements, Zwick raises the interest level and effectiveness of combat scenes in a way not seen in war films that consist mostly of non-stop action. He pays respectful, if laborious, homage to Japan's ancient culture of Bushido at a time when modern Japan is showing an interest in it as a source of inspiration and integrity.

There is also a real attempt at character development here within the creative boundaries of the Cruise talent. He may be somewhat overshadowed by the immense Watanabe presence but confidence and lack of intimidation succeeds in winning our approval. In his sensitively paced wooing of the reticent knockout Koyuki, bringing her from strined accomodation to grudging respect to devotion, the Cruise magnetism is at its most credible.

[Editor's note: If you want to learn more about Bushido philosophy,
be sure to pick up a copy of "Bushido: The Soul of Japan" by Inazo Nitobe] Click for full list of movie reviews





                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren
From civil war hero to Samurai warrior


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