Reviewed by: Brett Willis
BUDDHISM—Ten questions I’d ask if I could interview Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) today
What is Monism and Pantheistic Monism? Who believes in Monism? Is it biblical? Answer
What is Shintoism? Answer (Wikipedia)
Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer
What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer
Does God feel our pain? Answer
ORIGIN OF BAD—How did bad things come about? Answer
Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer
Drunkenness in the Bible
DEPRESSION—Are there biblical examples of depression and how to deal with it? Answer
What should a Christian do if overwhelmed with depression? Answer
SUICIDE—What does the Bible say? Answer
If a Christian commits suicide, will they go to Heaven? Answer
War in the Bible
WAR—What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer
PATRIOTISM—Does being a Christian mean that I should be patriotic? Answer
Anger in the Bible
REVENGE—Love replaces hatred—former israeli soldier and an ex-PLO fighter prove peace is possible-but only with Jesus
VIOLENCE—How does viewing violence in movies affect families? Answer
Kings and emperors in the Bible
|Featuring:||Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto), Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), William Atherton (Winchester Rep), Chad Lindberg (Winchester Rep Assistant), Ray Godshall Sr. (Convention Hall Attendee), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), more »|
|Producer:||Warner Bros. Pictures, The Bedford Falls Company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, Radar Pictures, Tom Cruise, more »|
|Distributor:||Warner Bros. Pictures|
“In the face of an enemy, in the heart of one man, lies the soul of a warrior.”
Tom Cruise finally has a starring role in an Epic. “The Last Samurai” is painstakingly historically researched, visually stunning, thought-provoking, joyous and sad. It also has extreme violence and some Eastern spiritual overtones, and is appropriate only for a mature audience.
The year is 1876. Capt. Nathan Algren (Cruise), formerly of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, has served against the Confederates and then against various Indian tribes. Now haunted by memories of a dishonorable campaign in which his Cavalry slaughtered a village of women and children, he’s an alcoholic stumpsman for the Winchester Arms Company. When offered the lucrative job of training a modern army in Japan, he takes the position even though he despises his former superior officer who will again be over him. Algren’s position is: he’ll kill “Japos,” he’ll kill their enemies, he’ll kill anyone he’s hired to kill. He really doesn’t care anymore, and he longs for death himself.
The Japan that Algren encounters is a culture in transition: the old and the new everywhere existing side-by-side, but not always peacefully. The Samurai, pledged to the service of the Emperor, resent and reject the Westernization of their society. They attack the railroads being built by profiteer Omura (Masato Harada). Omura and the Ruling Council, who stand to gain financially from sweetheart deals with Europe and America, speak in the Emperor’s name since he’s too holy and pure to speak for himself. They conveniently brand the Samurai as rebels and enemies of the state. A band of Samurai under Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) has rejected the use of firearms. Therefore, they should be easy pickings for Algren’s modern conscript army and its American-made weapons. But not so.
Taken captive in battle by Katsumoto and forced to live through the winter in a Samurai-controlled village, Algren slowly comes to admire the Bushido code and the Samurai way of life. Through an excellent job of screenwriting and directing, Algren’s personal journey to reclaim his honor is expertly bound up with the struggle of his captors to preserve their place of service to the Emperor or die trying. (In interviews and talk-show appearances prior to the film’s release, Cruise called this “The role of a lifetime” and compared the Bushido code to his own religion of Scientology). The Japanese culture’s view of life, and the Samurai’s wholesale dedication to their cause, are presented in a very positive light.
The film contains about twenty profanities and vulgarities (some oaths; no f-words), plus some racial comments. There’s no actual sexual content, nor any implication of sexual activity. (One reviewer commented on a female classic statue with a bare upper torso, which I didn’t notice.) There’s a very moving scene in which a Japanese woman—who has nursed Algren back to health from previous wounds—now wordlessly undresses him (discreet camera angle), then dresses him for battle in under-armor garments that formerly belonged to her deceased husband. She weeps as she does so, presumably over the evoked memories as well as over the likelihood that Algren will soon be killed in the same armor. At the end of the scene, the two of them kiss lightly, just a quick brush on the lips. Oprah Winfrey referred to this as one of the sexiest movie scenes ever (from a woman’s point of view), probably for its emotion and artistic understatement.
The violence is extreme, comparable to “Braveheart” or “The Patriot”. Samurai warriors with swords and arrows go up against firearms and cannon. There’s abundant footage (much of it slow-motion) of bullets and arrows thudding into bodies. Many soldiers are burned alive. There’s a lot of blood-splatter due to swordsmanship in hand-to-hand combat. A few acts of decapitation and hara-kiri are seen. A final charge by a mounted band of Samurai results in them and their horses being mown down by Gatling guns. In Algren’s flashback memories, we see women and children shot and killed. The ideal of death before dishonor (including the willingness to commit suicide, if defeated) is strongly emphasized.
Cruise does his usual fine job, playing a mad-at-the-world guy who eventually finds what he’s been looking for. Watanabe is also thoroughly convincing in his part; he doesn’t even seem to be acting. The cinematography and the technical details are top-notch. The battle scenes have a more realistic feel than in most films of this type, which is good or bad depending on your point of view.
Unlike wars in Western culture, in which anger and vengeance play a major role, the battles between these two Japanese factions are for the most part conducted with “respect.” The tragic thing is, both sides believe they’re serving the Emperor. There’ve been many religious wars in which both sides claimed to be honoring the same God. In this case, the “god” is a man who, if he wished, could simply speak out and end the bloodshed. But due to a combination of his personality, his forced-reclusive training and prior custom, the Emperor keeps silence. When it’s too late, he finally does speak, and, in effect, decides that although the Japanese army must be modernized, it should retain some elements of the Samurai code. (Although this story is fiction, Japan did reach that same basic conclusion in real life. Whatever way that decision was arrived at, the result was bad news for Japan’s enemies in World War II.)
Is the film a cross between “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves,” with a nod to “The Seven Samurai”? Yes. Is it formulaic and predictable? Yes. (Ever since the days of “Rain Man” and “Born on the Fourth of July”, Cruise’ salaries have priced him out of the market for all films except sure-fire winners; so of course this is formulaic. The central character must face huge obstacles and must experience a character arc or epiphany, being transformed from one kind of person into another. Omission of that plot device, or use of a non-standard ending, would have been a major financial risk.) But despite all that, and despite the charmed lives of the lead characters, I found the story engrossing. Many scenes brought sobs from the theater audience. We always admire bravery, fearlessness, single-minded dedication. And “The Last Samurai” serves up all those elements in huge doses.
With the positive spin on Japanese ideals, Western society by contrast comes off as evil and exploitative. Also, Algren refers to his former commander General Custer as an arrogant murderer. (Historical note: Algren says Custer was actually only a Lieutenant Colonel. Some may wonder why, if that’s true, we always refer to him as a General. Actually, both ranks are correct. Custer was commissioned a Brigadier General at age twenty-three, as a wartime rank. After the Army was downsized in 1865, he reverted to his peacetime rank.)
A final warning: Algren says he’s never been a churchgoing man, and his military experience has raised questions about God; but he’s now found something spiritual in the Samurai village. Later, in the film, he commits himself wholly to what he’s found. He stops abusing alcohol, and regains his dignity. In other words, the Buddhist influence and the Samurai code have filled a void in his life. And conducting himself honorably on the field of battle supposedly erases what he’s done previously. Saying that that’s just plain wrong sounds harsh. Let’s say it’s incomplete.
While there are many admirable teachings in Eastern philosophies and religions (I studied them myself as a spiritual seeker while in college), nothing except the forgiveness of sins found only in Jesus Christ can transform us into what we need to be and were meant to be. And in the Final Judgment, our good deeds will NOT be weighed against our bad deeds. Our slate must be WIPED CLEAN, and ONLY God’s grace can do that. External discipline is fine; give me a disciplined person over an undisciplined one any day. But discipline cannot save us. Only Jesus saves.
Violence: Extreme | Profanity: Mild | Sex/Nudity: Minor
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.
Response to above comment—…Ignorance and over generalisation is often dangerous. Not everyone in Japan is a Buddhist—and never have been. The national religion of Japan even today is Shinto not Buddhism.
“there are no Christians in Japan in the 1800’s.” —This is just not true. Christianity was introduced into Japan after 1542 when the Portuguese landed in Kyushu in Western Japan. The Jesuit and Franciscan missionairies were eventually perceived to be a threat to the Shogun so they and their followers were persecuted from circa 1597 onwards. In 1873, following the Meiji Restoration i.e. the period this film is set, the ban was lifted and freedom of religion became the norm.
Although it is probably correct to say that there were few if any Japanese Christians on mainland Japan (the island of Honshu) during the period this movie is set, there was at that time and has remained up until today, a strong, originally underground centre of Christian belief on the island of Kyushu.