Barely two years after Sept. 11, the aging star of such thumpingly patriotic films as Top Gun returns to the screen in a film that glorifies suicide missions and characterizes a government as deserving of destruction because of its embrace of modernization and, most odiously, “the West.”
As Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) informs the audience in the first of many overly solemn voiceovers, the year is 1876. Algren is a broken man, tortured by nightmares about his participation in an attack on a neutral Cheyenne village during the American Civil War. Reduced to drunkenly demonstrating his riflery skills at carnivals along the West Coast, Algren reluctanctly accepts an offer to train a modernizing Japanese army during the sweeping changes of the Meiji Renaissance. Soon after arriving in Tokyo, Algren is captured in battle by the rebel Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), a fierce but predictably wise warrior committed to preserving the bushido, or samurai code of honor.
Algren may be in Japan, but he quickly develops a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Under the influence of his dignified captors, Algren learns Japanese, rediscovers his inner goodness, and, in the course of one arduous morning, overcomes his alcoholism. Twelve steps aren’t necessary in this Land of the Rising Sun: from the patronizing perspective of The Last Samurai, all an American expatriate needs is a kimono and a hearty bowl of rice to be spiritually cleansed and freed from Western corruption.
Inspired by his luscious, repressed female host—you could cut the sexual tension with an intricately engraved sword—Algren takes up arms against his former employers, the easily manipulated emperor and his evil American advisers. The only problem, from a narrative standpoint, is that the audience has no idea why it should oppose the Western-leaning Japanese ruler or root for the samurai, who are themselves highly militaristic and weaponry-obsessed. The only discernible difference between the two parties is the crude machine guns used by the modernizers and the bows and arrows of the traditionalists. No political persecution or suffering is ever mentioned, and it’s not terribly clear why one side is better than the other.
But The Last Samurai is a cliché wrapped in a stereotype, with the entire endeavor ultimately resting on the filmmakers’ belief that their audience will swallow the movie with the unthinking ardor of a sumo wrestler breaking fast at a sushi bar. Lush cinematography aside, The Last Samurai resounds as a rant (produced in Hollywood!) against the ills of globalization. The movie’s white characters are essentially portrayed as terrorists, and Cruise’s character can be redeemed only after he rejects his western thinking and dress (though he ultimately proves his superiority to the Japanese warriors by becoming the “last samurai” of the title). The audience is simply supposed to accept the idea that everything Western is an abomination, deserving of the murderous (if also suicidal) contempt of the samurai, who at times are depicted as almost inhuman in their ability to withstand the bullets of their enemy. Native Americans and the Japanese become interchangeable, with the Japanese effectively avenging the destruction of the Cheyenne.
Never mind, of course, that the Japanese themselves would soon become practitioners of the most odious form of imperialism in China and Korea, or that it would be Americans who would bring that imperialism to an end (in however horrific a fashion).
Regrettably, taking any of this into account would require an understanding that morality and politics can be complicated, that history is not simply a tale of good (“the West”) versus evil (the tragic samurai, too honorable for their own good). The Last Samurai rejects the obvious third path—the idea that Japanese society could have absorbed the positive elements of Western technology without rejecting its own unique past.
In doing so, the film rejects the depth and ambiguity that would have made it a middling to satisfactory historical drama, remaining instead a risible—if ultimately forgettable—showcase of shallow revisionism and awkward racial overgeneralization.