Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Last Samurai

Lowdown: A disgruntled American warrior falls in love with samurai Japan.
Review:
Edward Zwick has already been noted by this blog for his talent at creating epics (e.g., Legends of the Fall), especially those dealing with foreign cultures and the damage caused to those foreign culture through Western culture (e.g., Blood Diamond). The Last Samurai, a two and a half our long effort from 2003, is another typical work by Zwick. We saw it before during its cinematic release, but it was clear the film should be given a better chance than the cinema’s poor presentation quality. Blu-ray offers the opportunity to go higher in everything but screen size, so we gave it a go.
The Last Samurai takes place towards the end of the 19th century. It follows Tom Cruise, an American Civil War hero traumatized by his regiment’s experience with Indian massacres. He is approached by the severely miscast Billy Connolly, his old army sergeant, to take some work in Japan: help the Japanese emperor’s army train so they could beat a samurai led rebellion using American gunpowder based weapons. So off our pair goes to Japan.
Cruise starts to work with his army of conscripts, but before they can get anywhere in their training the smug men in power decide the army is fit to battle the samurais. Cruise protests to no avail, and in the ensuing battle his army is, indeed, thoroughly beaten by a small number of samurai bearing no firearms. Cruise himself is taken captive and gets to spend time with his captors at their secluded village, where he learns their ways. As time goes by, he falls in love with the samurai way, a way too pure to get contaminated with Western culture and weapons. The question is, what will happen to the rebellion?
I like epics and I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Last Samurai again. It’s not only an epic story, there are also some nice action scenes and impressive army scale battle scenes of the Braveheart caliber. Between those extravagances and the use of Cruise’s star power, I suspect The Last Samurai was one expensive production. Talking about Cruise, I have to add his normally psychotic presence didn’t bother me here; his acting did not bring me to my knees, but it didn’t annoy me either.
What did annoy me, though, is the way the film focuses on certain nice things while ignoring the not so nice things in order to drive home its point. Or, to put it more clearly, the way it romanticizes reality. The Last Samurai is a film dealing with a collision of cultures and it goes through great lengths to show us how badly our Western culture damaged other cultures it had encountered. The point is further emphasized through the obvious comparison between what happened to the Indians in the USA and what happened in Japan, or rather what happened in Japan according to the film (I plea ignorance in Japanese history). Essentially, it says that Western capitalism has trodden over too many good things that stood in its way, even if The Last Samurai does end up with a sort of a happy ending.
So far it’s all nice and dandy and, indeed, I agree with most of what Last Samurai is trying to say. The problem is in the way the film portrays the Japanese Samurai culture: they’re all so pure of heart, so dedicated to their self perfection endeavour, so disciplined in their practicing of martial arts. Even when things go wrong and they die on the battle fields, it’s all so pure and clean and they all like dying with honor. At this point I stop and ask: Is that really the case? Should a society with such inherent violence be praised as superior to ours, even if they’re so polite at being violent? My answer is a definitive no. Even if most Japanese at the time liked their own culture, that culture did not offer those that wanted to have a peaceful life with no fighting a get out of jail card; these people did not have the freedom to choose a life of peace or a life of war. And don't get me started on the way women are treated. How can such a culture be praised without the slightest of criticism?
Special mentioning goes to science and technology. The Last Samurai might easily lead you to believe technology is our biggest problem, with the way it’s being used to manufacture mass killing devices. True, technology has always been used to do evil; but technology, when used responsibly, can do good, too. Those nice Japanese villagers we see in The Last Samurai could have good medical facilities with the aid of technology, not just a bullet in their head; and Last Samurai sins by only looking at things through a single colored lens.
Best scene: Other than the major battles, the harakiri scene offers a good introduction to the samurai culture, especially when coupled with a later scene in which a samurai is put to shame when his hair is cut.
Picture quality: I constantly had the feeling Last Samurai’s picture was not as sharp as a Blu-ray can be. What it does provide, though, is ample evidence for the film not being Blu-ray ready: there were way too many scenes where Blu-ray clarity made the use of blue screen shots way too evident for comfort.
Sound quality: For an epic of this size the sound was disappointing in its lack of presence. Also disappointing was the choice of a DVD grade Dolby Digital soundtrack on a Blu-ray disc; if Blu-ray wants to establish itself as a format of choice (and if the studio wants people who previously bought the DVD to justify the re-purchasing of the film), it needs to offer the superiority it can offer to stand out.
Overall: Compromised, but still an entertaining epic. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

4 comments:

Wicked Little Critta said...

I LOVE this movie. Agreed, it over-simplifies and glosses over many things in regards to life and culture, but there are things to learn as well. I thought this was one of the better roles for Cruise, and the battle & fight scenes were pretty darn good.

I think the scene that affected me most was in the last battle when they bring out the Gatling Gun. The rest of the film was very dramatic and romanticized. This moment just becomes very stark and sobering, momentarily letting go of the sweeping soundtrack and just taking a full picture of the gun's effect.

Moshe Reuveni said...

We seem to be in general agreement about Last Samurai, but I have a problem with that machine gun scene. It's the problem I have with the entire film: the scene symbolizes all the bad that came to Japan with exposure to the West. As I have said, there is a lot of bad indeed; but let's also not ignore the fact today's Japanese (and the general majority of the rest of us) have never had it better, and it's all because of the same technological progress that got us machine guns.
So instead of this romantic / conservative / black & white look at things, I would prefer something that highlights the complexity of it all.
But yeah, it is a key scene. A key scene in a very entertaining but very compromised film (which I still greatly enjoyed).

Wicked Little Critta said...

So, you very clearly have an aversion to (or at least, a problem with) stories that come across as one-sided. But really, can you expect every film to portray everyone's perspective?

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're right; life is too complicated to be portrayed in binary terms. However, as you suggest, I can't expect everything to show shades of gray, and I don't expect that out of The Last Samurai either; me rating it as highly as I did is evidence that despite its problems I still liked the film (a lot). It's a very entertaining epic to watch, which goes a long way.