The Last Samurai

Dir: Edward Zwick
2003
Well, me and “the missus” just came back from this film and boy are we disappointed (bordering on anger) on how they dropped the ball on this one.

Now, I have to discuss the ending of this film, so if you’re still achin’ to see it (because of that “Oscar®©™ Buzz” you heard about), then stop reading. Go click on a link, why dontcha.
Back to the issue at hand.
I understand that maybe there’s a lot of people out that who are only just learning about this crazy island called “Japan” and that maybe some people have never seen a samurai film. I’ll let it go, as I will all the long scenes of Algren (Tom Cruise) learning how to say “hashi” or “samui.” It’s wacky, it’s cute, it’s educational. I’ll also let the audiencese have the orientalism that romanticizes the entire culture as this pure and noble people.
But the fact that the filmmakers blew the ending by having Algren live instead of die in the field of battle was, in a word, bullshit. Yep, bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Unko. Kuso. (There’s some Japanese to learn!).
America hates to have its heroes die, especially these days when the Prez avoids military funerals like pretzels, but even before that (the 80s was the sea change). But I could really sense in the theater that the filmmakers could have gotten away with it. The film wins you over to the samurai code of honor, just as Algren is won over, and it would have made sense to have him fall alongside his former enemy, now blood brother, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe, who does the role justice while Tom Cruise still seems concerned about his hair). In fact, the scene is filmed like he does. The entire samurai clan has been mowed down by American machine guns–the way of the sword is over, as are the old ways, and around the corner is WWI, then WWII, then Hiroshima. And Algren had faced his past and his mortality and learned something about honor.
Not only that, but earlier in the film, the story begins to parallel contemporary events in Iraq. When asked if the Western-backed forces will defeat the renegades, the commander says, all hubris, “Of course, we have superior firepower.” Add a few more lines about them being savages, and the script looks back to the genocide of the Native Americans, and forward to the invasion of Iraq and our other imperial adventures. Substitute rail lines for oil pipelines and you’re nearly there.
Of course, this is nothing new; “Dances With Wolves” also towed this squishy liberal line.
But like that film, the Western character can never totally assimilate.
No, he has to survive, understand that he has learned a great life lesson, conquered his alcoholism, and now is ready for a full and happy life.
After the battle, he retuns for an audience with the young Meiji emperor (apparently, it’s easy to bluff your way in to see the mortal deity) and returns the dead Katsumoto’s sword. Algren’s gone all samurai’n’stuff! Why he even offers to take his own life, just like Katsumoto offered earlier! And the young emperor, who hasn’t found his own voice–that is, he hasn’t been on the self-improvement course that Algren’s been on–suddenly realises that the old ways weren’t so bad after all! In fact, he casts out the American businessman (sorry, Halliburton!) and his Japanese representative (sorry, Chalabi!) and announces plans to distribute the wealth to the people (huh?)!
Then a further coda where we see Algren and horse companion returning to the village where Katsumoto had originally taken him when he was captured at the beginning of the film. “Some say he finally found his peace,” says the narrator (who I take to be Timothy Spall, who is quite good in a Charles Laughton way).
Okay, now wait.
First of all, you kill off your best, most charismatic supporting character (Katsumoto), but not the lead, and don’t have that as your closing scene (which would have devastated the crowd, but in a good way). Instead, you give the long closing speech to the teenage emperor, whose English is hesitant and bland, and who offers some crap-o platitudes about Western Influence. And maybe Honor.
Then you have Algren returning to the village–THE VILLAGE WHO JUST LOST THEIR ENTIRE MALE POPULATION TO A WESTERN MACHINE GUN! Do you think the women want to see this Western guy, even though he was on their side? They are going to either starve because there are no men to provide the hard labor, or some roving gang is going to either kill or capture them. Is Tom Cruise going to help?
But really, we’re not supposed to care, because IT ALL WORKS OUT FOR THE AMERICAN. Tom’s studied Zen, he’s dry and at peace with himself. Isn’t that enough? And now he can retire to the mountains and live out his days with the widow of the man he killed at the beginning of the film. Won’t that be romantic?
So, kids, honor can only take you so far. First you have to feel good about yourself.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

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