VIEWING CUES: THE LAST SAMURAI
I expected Edward Zwick’s 2003 film The Last Samurai to be the usual summer epic (although the release was later moved to the end quarter of the year) which superficially explored the relationship between the East and the West at the end of the 19th century. The director’s last film had been 1989's Glory, a film about a legion of black soldiers fighting in the Civil War which takes place around the same time as the latter film. Glory was an emotionally powerful film but seemed lacking in historical detail and objective evaluation of the racial conflict. I did not expect much more from Zwick’s newest entry.
From the start of the film, I realized that my expectations were going to be satisfied. I realized that this film was not going to be a serious, in-depth study of an East and West culture clash, but rather a light gloss over of the time with a clichéd message. The overly choreographed sword duels and the narrow focus of the main character’s journey regarding greater Japan confirmed my expectations for the film.
The various locales of The Last Samurai were very familiar to me. They were evocative of images I had seen while flipping through my U.S. history books in high school. There was nothing striking or unusual visually about the film. It felt like the quintessential 19th century that everyone knows.
The action that occurs in the film feels very unrealistic and created for purely dramatic and emotional reasons. Fight scenes and character decisions that elicit the most exciting action serve the obligation of an action film rather than more realistic motivations. Except for the very first and the very last battle scene, the action in this film is sugarcoated, meaningless and redundant.
The characters in The Last Samurai were more like representations of values from their corresponding culture. I could identify with Tom Cruise’s character, however, who seems to display an understanding of American ignorance but lack of self-esteem because the American culture he despises, has not guided his spirit. His story represents a classic hero’s tale of spiritual renewal or rebirth.
The places, actions and characters in the movie are very archetypal and follow a very common formula that I am sure a general audience could pick up on. The film simplifies the historical period to deliver a story that can be understood and used as a metaphor for more modern predicaments. As the film was made for the cineplex hordes, it’s easy to understand why this is so.