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When Japan was under U.S. military occupation, American censors banned the production of most period movies, on the grounds that they promoted “feudalism.” When the ban was lifted in 1952, however, American fears proved unfounded: The major postwar samurai films were actually anti-samurai films, depicting the harshness of the Japanese feudal era and celebrating people who bucked the system. The brave, adept, fatalistic samurai is among the coolest of historical action heroes, but he also personifies an oppressive system that few Japanese would care to revive.
There’s one other thing that occupation officials surely didn’t anticipate: that someday a film would be made that did glorify Japanese feudal values, and that its makers would be American. Grandiose, maudlin, and reactionary, The Last Samurai is just the sort of movie Gen. MacArthur wanted to avert.
Now, of course, it doesn’t really matter. The samurai ethos still holds a mythic place in the hearts of the Japanesenot to mention Quentin Tarantinobut its practical effects are limited. Although contemporary Japan retains some of the samurai fervor for suicide, these days few Japanese are killed with swordswhich is more than can be said about America’s long-standing taste for cowboys and handguns. In fact, The Last Samurai is as much a cowboy picture as a samurai one. Essentially, it relocates Dances With Wolves to the other side of the international dateline, with Top Gun himself as a disillusioned Indian-fighter who goes native not with the Sioux but with a doomed Japanese clan.
How does director Edward Zwickwho co-wrote the screenplay with Gladiator scripter John Logan and longtime production partner Marshall Herskovitznavigate from Little Big Horn to Kagoshima, where the last samurai rebellion was crushed in 1877? The setup is only a little implausible: Japanese aristocrat and entrepreneur Omura (Masato Harada) hires U.S. Army Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) to train the emperor’s new army of peasant conscripts in modern warfare. Bagley in turn recruits Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), his former subordinate, and the quickly discarded Sgt. Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly). Tormented by his role in a Bagley-ordered massacre of Indian women and children, Algren is now an alcoholic pitchman for the Winchester rifle company. But he’s still a brilliant military strategist and an indomitable warrioras well as seriously underemployed. So he agrees to sail to Japan with the hated colonel.
Although he protests that the imperial troops are unprepared, Algren fights with them against Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a noble samurai leader opposed to Japan’s modernization. The emperor’s forces are routed, but Algren bravely faces down a half-dozen men. Impressed, Katsumoto takes the wounded American back to his village for the winter. For Algren, the small but impeccably art-directed mountain hamlet is a cross between boot camp and the Betty Ford Center. Nursed back to health by Katsumoto’s beautiful sister Taka (Koyuki), the foreigner kicks booze and masters samurai weapons and tactics. Although Taka has reason to hate Algren, the two are soon sharing meaningful glances. By the time the cherry blossoms bloom, Algren and Katsumoto are the best of friends. They ride into battle together against the emperor’s army, shocking Bagley. Of course, the rebels will lose. As for Algrenwell, this is a Hollywood movie. Leave tragic ends to the Japanese.
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A devotee of Japan as well as military history, Zwick has done his research. Katsumoto is based (very loosely) on Takamori Saigo, who led the final samurai uprising against the emperor, and many of the movie’s incidentals are historically accurate. The director and his production crew paid close attention to costuming, weapons, and architecture, simulating 19th-century Japan in L.A. and New Zealand. (The film also includes a few scenes shot in Kyoto and Himeji.) The filmmakers don’t sidestep the language barrier, either: For convenience’s sake, most of the major characters happen to speak English well, yet a fair amount of the dialogue is in Japanese (albeit not 1870s Japanese). Cruise is no Uma Thurman, but he delivers a few Japanese lines credibly, as does Timothy Spall as the English translator/photographer Algren encounters periodically during his sojourn.
Zwick also studied samurai movies, especially those of Akira Kurosawa. The Last Samurai invokes the misty ambience of Throne of Blood, as well as the epic, color-coordinated battlefield choreography of Kagemusha and Ran. Emulating the master, Zwick shot combat scenes with multiple cameras, which allowed him to cut rapidly among several views of the same moment. The climactic battle scene doesn’t rival anything in Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s action masterpiece, but it is dynamic and convincingexcept when exalting the superhuman prowess of star and co-producer Cruise.
The Last Samurai becomes increasingly ridiculous as Algren turns more and more Japanese, and it’s tempting to blame all the sillier moments on Cruise. The movie even includes a homage to Risky Business’ dancing-in-underpants bit: After donning Japanese clothing for the first time, Algren twirls around Taka’s house, trying out his ersatz samurai moves.
The dilemma, however, is more than the presence of an overweening Hollywood star: The film’s premise is simply unsustainable. In transferring his sympathies from persecuted Native Americans to Katsumoto, Algren supposes that he’s supporting “the rebellion of another tribal leader.” The analogy doesn’t hold. Noble as his ideals may seem in romanticized retrospect, Katsumoto represents a rigid, brutal, and archaic social system. Feudal Japan was also rabidly xenophobicwhich makes the script’s central relationship a near impossibility. A samurai leader who’s fighting against Westernization is hardly going to befriend an American, a representative of the very country that shattered Japan’s 250-year isolation.
Zwick’s solution to this conceptual glitch is to fudge the fundamental divide between the hidebound Katsumoto and the reformist young emperor Mutsuhito (identified here by his posthumous name, Meiji). The movie blames the conflict between these two virtuous men on the standard Hollywood villain: the businessman. The country’s problem is the utterly fictional Omura, a ruthless American-style railroad baron who controls a largely fictional train network. (In 1877, Japan had just 64 miles of track.)
If only it were that simple. That it wasn’t is a fatal flaw: The Last Samurai painstakingly conjures a moment of profound cultural conflict, only to try to pin the whole mess on a bad guy who would be laughable even in a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick.
There’s no language barrier in Hukklepronounced “HOOK-leh” and transliterateable as “hiccup”because there are virtually no words. Although we soon meet the sunken-faced old man whose hiccups punctuate the action, Hungarian director György Pálfi’s distinctive first feature initially seems to be a barnyard equivalent of Richard Linklater’s Slackers, with animals taking the place of college-town denizens. The film opens with an extreme close-up of a slithering snake and later shifts to scurrying red ants, a stretching cat, a waddling hog, and a burrowing mole.
The 75-minute Hukkle doesn’t exactly have a plot, but things do happen, and they’re not all sweetly bucolic. Amid such everyday village activities as eating, sewing, lawn bowling, and eating some more, there are ominous portents. Did the massive harvester crush that fawn? Is the cat dead? Who’s being carried in that funeral procession? And what’s the local policeman investigating?
Some shots lead logically into the next, either by proximity or visual rhyme. (Pálfi cuts, for example, from a boccie ball to a hog’s prominent testicles.) But other edits jump disconcertingly to unrelated sites, characters, or, seemingly, times. Occasionally a little too frisky, the director takes his camera overhead and underground and even simulates an X-ray view of a man who’swhat else?swallowing food.
Still, this masterly account of complex but commonplace interrelationships is held together by its rustic setting and its overriding theme: life, aka death. The film’s circle of existence is set almost entirely to the found music of chickens and bees, bicycle wheels and jet planes, and, of course, hiccups. But you will have to read subtitles at least once: to get the punch line, delivered in the form of a jauntily malicious folk song. CP