Recommended. Okay , this is “Dances With Samurai,” not a Cruise Braveheart, but it is very good. Brilliantly written script, great acting and directing etc. Should win some Oscars for sure. It’s the story of an American Civil War Hero, Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, who has fallen into drinking and despair because of his involvement in military atrocities against American Indians (namely killing innocent women and children). He gets a lucrative offer by a Japanese industrialist to come over to Japan and train the Emperor’s troops to fight against the Samurai. Turns out the Emperor loves all things Western and wants to “modernize,” eliminate the ancient ways of tribalism and the Bushido Code. But when Cruise is forced into leading the Emperor’s troops into battle before they are ready, they are decimated by the Samurai, who are born and bred warriors. Cruise is taken captured by the General of the Samurai, Katsumoto, played elegantly by Ken Watanabe. In an effort to understand his enemy, Katsumoto keeps Algren alive and has conversations with him. As Algren gets well, he is drawn in to their disciplined living, and learns the way of the Samurai. In a strange and confusing twist, the Samurai “fight for the Emperor” even though the Emperor does not want them to. And so the final battle arrives where the government troops descend upon the Samurai with Howitzer cannons and gattling guns and a regiment of 2000 men against the 500 Samurai. By now, Cruise has sided with his captors and decides to join them, sealing a sure death.
One of the themes of this film is “discipline and determination.” These are two warriors, one fallen, one noble. They learn from each other (but mostly West learns from East). The Samurai are disciplined and worship honor. The American is determined, he does not give up even when he has lost and he does not kill himself in shame. (Although he lives in his shame and in a way “kills himself” with his drinking). I loved this theme. The Samurai, with all their “nobility” and code of honor and pursuit of perfection do not know the sheer will of American determinism. We don’t give up. The disappointing thing about this film is that it is predominantly the typical “East meets West and West has a lot to learn” movie. Is American filmmaking the only self-loathing enterprise? I am sick and tired of the postmodern accusation that western civilization corrupts everything. “Western civilization is what is wrong with the world.” Anti-Western bigotry is unfortunately a part of this film. The Emperor’s problems are depicted as arising from his desire to modernize and go “western.” In the very beginning of the film, Algren muses sarcastically about American Westward expansion, “Thanks to those who died in the name of technical advancement and commercial opportunity.” Even the bad Japanese guys are the ones who are westernized “capitalists,” seeking profit from their participation in backing the Emperor. Westernism is shown as without honor, honor that is being destroyed by eliminating the ancient way of Bushido. The Emperor is shown as an adolescent, waffling over his decision of whether to eliminate Samurai or not. He is becoming westernized, which is depicted as bad, but finally at the end, when he receives the honored sword of Katsumoto, who was killed wastefully in the last battle, he “becomes a man,” with a “mature” resolution and rejects the treaty with the West that everything was building toward. He finally makes a stand, and grows up by rejecting the West. He says, “We are westernized. But we cannot forget who we are or where we come from.” So its okay to criticize western European feudalism like the movie Timeline and others, but Japanese feudalism is somehow any different? And to top things off, Algren offers himself to the Emperor as his subject by offering to kill himself if the Emperor sees fit. This is an action of ultimate dedication and worship to the Emperor that reflects the mind of a Samurai. It shows that the hero too has rejected his evil western ways and become an Eastern disciple. Interesting that western filmmakers tell a story that reinforces a belief that would negate the very freedom and rights that they treasure.
This is where the imbalance of the movie comes in. I’ve learned a bit about the Bushido Code and the Eastern worldview, having done some research for my own movie. What I didn’t see in this movie was the negatives of the Eastern way of life. Sure, they worship beauty, peace, perfection and harmony, but they also are cruel and uncompassionate because of their Buddhist belief in karma. Seeking to better people’s lives is wrong and punishable with violence because they are supposed to work out their own past life “sins.” Under their calm demeanor lies a deceiving duplicity of brutality against individual’s rights and freedom. But we don’t see that. Where is the revelation of the evil oppression of the masses by the caste system of hierarchy? And their idol worship of the Emperor also feeds despotism that enslaves the masses in a have/have not system of power and oppression. (The movie shows that the Emperor is very human and imperfect, but it does not show the evil of this belief) And by the way, the Bushido Code is no better than the Western code of Chivalry. And boy, you know, women don’t fair well in this system either. Women as servants of men. It’s funny, that movies must show the oppression of women by men in a western patriarchal society, but when it comes to Eastern society, then all of a sudden, it’s “oh, let us respect their different culture.” Oh? So it’s terrible when the west subjects women to men, but it’s somehow “unique and appreciable” when the East enslaves women to men’s power? The notion of the individual in the East is entirely negated in favor of the collective (and in this case, The Emperor as god). This results in cruelty and feudalism and ultimately Fascism that Japan resulted in during the 1930s. When the individual is negated, freedom is non-existant and tyranny results. This is the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Yes, the western mindset is individualistic and negates the community in many ways, resulting in the tribalism and tyranny of modern special interest groups. This is the many over the one. But the One over the Many in the East results in tyranny and slavery. I’ve got news for self-loathing American Westerners and America haters the world over: It was the “cruel Western America” that saved the world from the “peace-loving, harmony-worshipping, oh-so-noble” Eastern Japanese who wanted to enslave the world in the 40s. It was the “evil western technology” founded on the Christian worldview that stopped the oppression of the ancient Bushido warrior code as it plundered Europe and freedom. Yes, the “quiet and gentle” Japanese just happened to think that white boys and blacks, as well as ALL non-Asian races were inferior. America is not perfect. It’s got PLENTY of problems with it. But so does every other nation and culture. Western modernism is loaded with evils. But so is ancient Eastern monism. To neglect that two-edged sword of reality is irresponsible and a double standard. None of the Kingdoms of Man, East or West, North or South, can find the peace and elimination of war. They all either favor the One or the Many and cannot find the true balance between them. Only the Trinitarian Creator of Christianity has the philosophical foundation to maintain that perfect balance. Without the living God, they all of man’s philosophy end in tyranny, the worship of the state as god. Only the kingdom of God can bring an end to all wars and usher in the peace and harmony we say that we desire.
Isaiah 2:2-4 Now it will come about that In the last days, The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.
For more on this notion of the One and the Many as well as an examination of war movies, see my article, “War Movies: The New Trend in Themes”
One comment on “The Last Samurai”
I know this is quite late since I’ve just discovered your blog, but you touched on my favorite Cruise movie.
I agree with your statements concerning the western and eastern history of both countries and belief systems, the world views and the political correctness that has taken place in the U.S., etc. But that isn’t my concern with this note.
I truly thought that this was one of Cruise’s best films ever. It showed a very good picture of a man whose conscience was tormented by his previous actions and came to see that those who were called “savages” were no different than he was. I see a somewhat, moral redemption taking place in his life, a new man. Honor. Discipline. Good virtues. He now wants to set things right with his captors. We also saw forgiveness taking place with Katsumoto’s sister, wife of the man Cruise killed in battle. He was a changed man. And for the better.
Also, the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer was the finest movie soundtrack I’ve ever heard. So full of emotion, it helped the movie. Beautiful.