THE LAST SAMURAI. The best movie of 2003
. A shoo-in for multiple Oscars. You need to see it.
The story: An American war hero travels to Japan to help build their fledgling military. When he ends up in the camp of the last "savage" samurai holdouts, he changes heart.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW - SPEEDING FINES DOUBLED!
So here's the plot. The Last Samurai
is set in Japan
's Meiji Era
, a time of rapid industrialization and modernization. It very loosely chronicles the real-life story of a samurai
named Saigo Takamori
, who led the warriors' last stand against the army of Emperor Meiji
. In the movie, Saigo is converted to a skinheaded intellectual named Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe
), who lives in the mountains and is revered by basically all of Japan's samurai and ex-samurai.
Now, there's a drunken old hero of the Indian Wars named Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise). His old commander, an arrogant wankster named Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), lands both of them jobs helping to train the new Japanese army, which is being led by an industrialist named Omura (Masato Harada).
As the troops are moving from ludicrous skill to questionable skill, they are called upon to defend Omura's railroad from a samurai attack led by Katsumoto. Their general (Togo Igawa), an old retainer of Katsumoto, commits seppuku for leading combat against his old lord. After all the troops run, Algren fights off a bunch of samurai single-handedly, and once he collapses, Katsumoto decides to take him into the mountains and try to learn from him: he orders Algren to be kept in the home of the first samurai that Algren killed.
At first, the lady of the house, Taka (Koyuki), despises Algren, and Algren despises his captors. Eventually, he becomes accustomed to their ways, learns how to swordfight in the bushido style, and all of that fun stuff. He fights off a bunch of ninjas who are sent to kill Katsumoto, and learns enough Japanese to offer Taka a halfassed apology, which she accepts with teary eyes.
So, just as you think that Algren and Taka are going to get it on, Katsumoto gets clearance to go back to Tokyo to sit on the genroin, or Council of Elders. He rides into the city with Algren at his side, but gets stopped at the council for refusing to take off his swords. The boy emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who idolizes Katsumoto himself, doesn't stop the genro from kicking Katsumoto out.
Katsumoto is imprisoned and Algren has to fight off Omura's posse to get to his samurai friend. As he and Katsumoto's son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) spirit Katsumoto out of house arrest, they are attacked by soldiers, and Nobutada dies in a spectacular suicide attack over a bridge.
So back in the village, Katsumoto and Algren prepare to wage their final battle against the Meiji army led by Omura and Bagley. Algren kisses Taka goodbye, and she asks him to wear the late husband's samurai armor and swords into battle. When they finally face off across the battlefield, the samurai discover that the army is better-equipped and better-trained than ever, so they lure an entire company of the army through a pass and pelt them with arrows until they retreat. The battle rages, Lawrence of Arabia and/or Braveheart-style, until the last of the samurai are mowed down by Omura's new Gatling guns. Katsumoto and Algren are the last on the field; after Katsumoto falls, the soldiers cease fire, and Algren helps him to commit seppuku to die an honorable death as all the Meiji troops bow to the ground in reverence to the warrior. (Algren gets to kill Bagley, which seems to make him particularly happy.)
Back in Tokyo, Meiji is about to be forced into approving a treaty with America, but Algren walks in at the last minute carrying Katsumoto's sword, and the sight of the old master's sword persuades Meiji to tell the Americans to bugger off. At the end of the movie, we see Algren go back to the village, presumably to marry Taka and live happily ever after.
Cool parts that make this movie worth watching:
The final battle scene alone is absolutely brilliant. It's more "real"-looking than any battle of this scope you're likely to see in cinema, ever. The cannon blasts, sword clashes, arrows, and general chaos of the whole thing are awe-inspiring.
Tom Cruise is actually really badass as Algren, in what might just be the performance of his career. He plays the role of a drunken lost soul very well in the beginning, and he actually manages to look really good in the fight scenes (which are themselves brilliantly choreographed).
As a whole, the image of late-1800's Japan is perfectly captured in the movie, even though it was actually mostly shot in New Zealand. The Japanese casting is exceptional (calling in a local professional was one of the best moves the producers made), and the sets of old Tokyo are absolutely brilliant.
Stuff that kinda sucks but doesn't detract too much: If you don't have prior knowledge of Japonica, a few of the minor points of the movie will fly straight over your head. For instance, there's one part where a little kid gives Tom Cruise a piece of paper with the kanji for "samurai" written on it. Only the movie never tells you, directly or indirectly, what the kanji means, and it's not clear at all from context, even though the meaning is somewhat essential in understanding Cruise's character's transformation.
Also, the relationship between Tom and his Japanese caretaker seems to be constantly bubbling up, but nothing happens until the very end, which might make some romance-seekers somewhat disappointed.
But overall, this is what Shogun should have been like. It's touching, breath-taking, and not too too blasphemous to history, which is why I give it five stars, and recommend that all of the world's movie buffs see it. If they haven't done so already, of course.