The Last Samurai
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward Zwick
Screenplay by
Story byJohn Logan
Produced by
Starring
CinematographyJohn Toll
Edited by
Music byHans Zimmer
Production
companies
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release dates
  • November 20, 2003 (2003-11-20) (Tokyo)
  • December 5, 2003 (2003-12-05) (United States)
Running time
154 minutes[3]
CountryUnited States[4]
Languages
  • English
  • Japanese
Budget$140 million[5]
Box office$456.8 million[5]

The Last Samurai is a 2003 American[4] epic period action drama film directed and produced by Edward Zwick, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz from a story devised by Logan. The film stars Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise, who also produced, along with Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Koyuki in supporting roles.

Cruise portrays Nathan Algren, an American captain of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in 19th century Japan. The film's plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigō Takamori, and the Westernization of Japan by foreign powers.[a] The character of Algren is very loosely based on Eugène Collache and Jules Brunet, both French Imperial Guard officers who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War.[6]

The Last Samurai grossed a total of $456 million[5] at the box office and became the 6th-highest-grossing film of 2003. It received praise for the acting, visuals, cinematography and Hans Zimmer's score but criticism for some of its portrayals. It was nominated for several awards, including four Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and two National Board of Review Awards.

Plot

In 1876, former U.S. Army Captain Nathan Algren, a skilled soldier who has become a bitter alcoholic traumatized by the atrocities he committed and witnessed during the American Indian Wars, is approached by his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley. Bagley asks him to train the newly created Imperial Japanese Army for a Japanese businessman, Omura, who intends to use the army to suppress a samurai-headed rebellion against Japan's new emperor. Despite his hatred of Bagley, the impoverished Algren takes the job for the money. He is accompanied to Japan by his old friend, Sergeant Zebulon Gant. Upon arriving, Algren meets Simon Graham, a British translator knowledgeable about the samurai.

Algren learns that the imperial soldiers are simply conscripted peasants with shoddy training and little discipline. While training them to shoot, news arrives of a samurai attack on one of Omura's railroads. Against Algren's wishes, the soldiers are sent into combat under Hasegawa, a former samurai and Army general. He refuses to fight, so Algren assumes command. The battle turns into a disaster as the recruits are quickly routed and run away in cowardice, while Gant is killed. Algren fights to the last before he is surrounded; expecting to die, he is taken prisoner when samurai leader Katsumoto decides to spare him while Hasegawa is allowed to commit seppuku.

Algren is taken to Katsumoto's village and, at Katsumoto's request, is taken in by Taka, Katsumoto's sister and the widow of a samurai killed by Algren. While he is poorly treated at first, he eventually gains the samurai's respect and grows close to Katsumoto. With the help of Taka, Algren overcomes his alcoholism and guilt, learns the Japanese language and culture, and is trained in the art of kenjutsu. He develops sympathy for the samurai, who are upset that the pace of modern technology has eroded the traditions of their society. Algren and Taka develop an unspoken affection for each other.

One night, a group of ninja infiltrate the village and ambush Katsumoto. Algren saves Katsumoto's life, and then helps defend the village, concluding that Omura is responsible. Katsumoto requests a meeting with Emperor Meiji in Tokyo. He brings Algren, intending to release him. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Algren sees that the Imperial Army has become a well-trained and fully equipped force led by Bagley. Katsumoto, to his dismay, discovers that the young and inexperienced emperor has become a puppet of Omura. At a government meeting, Omura orders Katsumoto's arrest for carrying a sword in public and tells him to perform seppuku the next day to redeem his honor. Meanwhile, Algren refuses Bagley's offer to resume command of the army. After defeating Imperial agents sent to assassinate him, Algren enlists Graham and Katsumoto's men to free their leader. During the rescue, Katsumoto's son Nobutada is mortally wounded, his sacrifice allowing the others to escape.

As the Imperial Army marches to crush the rebellion, a grieving Katsumoto contemplates seppuku. Algren convinces him to fight and joins the samurai in battle. The samurai use the Imperial Army's overconfidence to lure them into a trap; the ensuing battle inflicts massive casualties on both sides and forces the imperial soldiers to retreat. Knowing that imperial reinforcements are coming, and defeat is inevitable, Katsumoto orders a suicidal cavalry charge on horseback. The samurai withstand an artillery barrage and break through Bagley's line. Algren kills Bagley, but the samurai are quickly mowed down by Gatling guns. The imperial captain, previously trained by Algren and horrified by the sight of the dying samurai, orders the soldiers to cease fire, outraging Omura. Katsumoto, mortally wounded, commits seppuku with Algren's help as the soldiers kneel in respect.

Later, as trade negotiations conclude, the injured Algren interrupts the proceedings. He presents the emperor with Katsumoto's sword and asks him to remember the traditions for which Katsumoto and his fellow samurai fought and died. The emperor realizes that while Japan should modernize, it can't forget its own culture and history. He rejects the trade offer, and when Omura protests, the emperor tells him he has done enough and threatens to seize his fortune and distribute it to the people. Omura angrily protests, but when the emperor tells him to commit seppuku to prove his disgrace, he shrinks away in humiliation.

While various rumors regarding Algren's fate circulate, Graham concludes that Algren had returned to the village to reunite with Taka.

Cast

Production

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Filming took place in New Zealand, mostly in the Taranaki region,[7] with mostly Japanese cast members and an American production crew. This location was chosen due to the fact that Egmont/Mount Taranaki resembles Mount Fuji, and also because there is a lot of forest and farmland in the Taranaki region. American Location Manager Charlie Harrington saw the mountain in a travel book and encouraged the producers to send him to Taranaki to scout the locations. This acted as a backdrop for many scenes, as opposed to the built up cities of Japan. Several of the village scenes were shot on the Warner Bros. Studios backlot in Burbank, California. Some scenes were shot in Kyoto and Himeji, Japan. There were 13 filming locations altogether. Tom Cruise did his own stunts for the film.

The film is based on an original screenplay entitled The Last Samurai by John Logan. The project itself was inspired by writer and director Vincent Ward. Ward became executive producer on the film – working in development on it for nearly four years and after approaching several directors, including Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Weir, until he became interested with Edward Zwick. The film production went ahead with Zwick and was shot in Ward's native New Zealand.

The film was based on the stories of Eugène Collache and Jules Brunet, both French Imperial Guard officers, who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War; and Philip Kearny, a United States Army (Union Army) and French Imperial Guard soldier, notable for his leadership in the American Civil War, who fought against the Tututni tribe in the Rogue River Wars in Oregon. The historical roles of other European nations who were involved in the westernization of Japan are largely attributed to the United States in the film, although the film references European involvement as well.

Music

The Last Samurai: Original Motion Picture Score
Film score by
ReleasedNovember 25, 2003
GenreSoundtrack
Length59:41
LabelWarner Sunset
ProducerHans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer chronology
Matchstick Men
(2003)
The Last Samurai: Original Motion Picture Score
(2003)
King Arthur
(2003)

The Last Samurai: Original Motion Picture Score was released on November 25, 2003, by Warner Sunset Records.[8] All music on the soundtrack was composed, arranged, and produced by Hans Zimmer, performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, and conducted by Blake Neely.[9] It peaked at number 24 on the US Top Soundtracks chart.[9]

Release

The Last Samurai had its world premiere in Tokyo in November 20, 2003. The film was released worldwide to theaters on December 5, 2003, by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Reception

Critical response

Critical reception in Japan was generally positive.[10] Tomomi Katsuta of The Mainichi Shinbun thought that the film was "a vast improvement over previous American attempts to portray Japan", noting that director Edward Zwick "had researched Japanese history, cast well-known Japanese actors and consulted dialogue coaches to make sure he didn't confuse the casual and formal categories of Japanese speech." Katsuta still found fault with the film's idealistic, "storybook" portrayal of the samurai, stating: "Our image of samurai is that they were more corrupt." As such, he said, the noble samurai leader Katsumoto "set my teeth on edge."[11]

In the United States, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 66% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 221 reviews, with an average score of 6.4/10. The site's consensus states: "With high production values and thrilling battle scenes, The Last Samurai is a satisfying epic."[12] At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 55, based on reviews from 43 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[13]

Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying "beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with conviction, it's an uncommonly thoughtful epic."[14]

One online analyst compares the movie favorably to Dances with Wolves in that each protagonist meets and combats a "technologically backward people". Both Costner's and Cruise's characters have suffered through a series of traumatic and brutal battles. Each ultimately uses his experiences to later assist his new friends. Each comes to respect his newly adopted culture. Each even fights with his new community against the people and traditions from which he came.[15]

Box office

The film achieved higher box office receipts in Japan than in the United States.[16] The film grossed $456.8 million against a production budget of $140 million. It grossed $111,127,263 in the United States and Canada, and $345,631,718 in other countries.[17] It was one of the most successful box office hits in Japan,[18] where it grossed ¥13.7 billion ($132 million).,[19]

Accolades

Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards[20] Best Supporting Actor Ken Watanabe Nominated
Best Art Direction Lilly Kilvert and Gretchen Rau Nominated
Best Costume Design Ngila Dickson Nominated
Best Sound Mixing Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and Jeff Wexler Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Tom Cruise Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Ken Watanabe Nominated
Best Score Hans Zimmer Nominated
National Board of Review Top Ten Films 2nd place
Best Director Edward Zwick Won
Satellite Awards Best Film Nominated
Best Actor Tom Cruise Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Ken Watanabe Nominated
Best Original Score Hans Zimmer Won
Best Cinematography John Toll Won
Best Art Direction and Production Design Lilly Kilvert and Gretchen Rau Nominated
Best Costume Design Ngila Dickson Won
Best Editing Victor Du Bois and Steven Rosenblum Won
Best Sound Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and Jeff Wexler Nominated
Best Visual Effects Nominated
Visual Effects Society Awards Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects Jeffrey A. Okun, Thomas Boland, Bill Mesa, Ray McIntyre Jr. Won
Japan Academy Film Prize Outstanding Foreign Language Film Won
Taurus World Stunt Awards Best Fire Stunt Won

Criticism and debate

The Seikanron debate of 1873. Saigō Takamori insisted that Japan should go to war with Korea.

Motoko Rich of The New York Times observed that the film has opened up a debate, "particularly among Asian-Americans and Japanese," about whether the film and others like it were "racist, naïve, well-intentioned, accurate – or all of the above."[11]

Todd McCarthy, a film critic for the Variety magazine, wrote: "Clearly enamored of the culture it examines while resolutely remaining an outsider's romanticization of it, yarn is disappointingly content to recycle familiar attitudes about the nobility of ancient cultures, Western despoilment of them, liberal historical guilt, the unrestrainable greed of capitalists and the irreducible primacy of Hollywood movie stars."[21]

According to the history professor Cathy Schultz, "Many samurai fought Meiji modernization not for altruistic reasons but because it challenged their status as the privileged warrior caste. Meiji reformers proposed the radical idea that all men essentially being equal.... The film also misses the historical reality that many Meiji policy advisors were former samurai, who had voluntarily given up their traditional privileges to follow a course they believed would strengthen Japan."[22]

The fictional character of Katsumoto bears a striking resemblance to the historical figure of Saigō Takamori, a hero of the Meiji Restoration and the leader of the ineffective Satsuma Rebellion, who appears in the histories and legends of modern Japan as a hero against the corruption, extravagance, and unprincipled politics of his contemporaries. "Though he had agreed to become a member of the new government," wrote the translator and historian Ivan Morris, "it was clear from his writings and statements that he believed the ideals of the civil war were being vitiated. He was opposed to the excessively rapid changes in Japanese society and was particularly disturbed by the shabby treatment of the warrior class." Suspicious of the new bureaucracy, he wanted power to remain in the hands of the samurai class and the Emperor, and for those reasons, he had joined the central government. "Edicts like the interdiction against carrying swords and wearing the traditional topknot seemed like a series of gratuitous provocations; and, though Saigō realized that Japan needed an effective standing army to resist pressure from the West, he could not countenance the social implications of the military reforms. For this reason Saigō, although participating in the Okinoerabu government, continued to exercise a powerful appeal among disgruntled ex-samurai in Satsuma and elsewhere." Saigō fought for a moral revolution, not a material one, and he described his revolt as a check on the declining morality of a new, Westernizing materialism.[23]

In 2014, the movie was one of several discussed by Keli Goff in The Daily Beast in an article on white savior narratives in film,[24] a cinematic trope studied in sociology, for which The Last Samurai has been analyzed.[25] David Sirota at Salon saw the film as "yet another film presenting the white Union army official as personally embodying the North's Civil War effort to liberate people of color" and criticizing the release poster as "a not-so-subtle message encouraging audiences to (wrongly) perceive the white guy -- and not a Japanese person -- as the last great leader of the ancient Japanese culture."[26]

In a 2022 interview with The Guardian, Ken Watanabe stated that he didn't think of The Last Samurai as a white savior narrative and that it was a turning point for Asian representation in Hollywood. Watanabe also stated, “Before The Last Samurai, there was this stereotype of Asian people with glasses, bucked teeth and a camera,” [...] It was stupid, but after The Last Samurai came out, Hollywood tried to be more authentic when it came to Asian stories.” [27]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ In the film the United States is portrayed as the primary force behind the push for Westernization, despite mostly European powers influencing this historically.

References

  1. ^ "The Last Samurai". New Zealand Film Commission. Retrieved February 28, 2024.
  2. ^ a b c d "The Last Samurai - AFI|Catalog". American Film Institute. Retrieved February 28, 2024.
  3. ^ "The Last Samurai". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved April 1, 2016.
  4. ^ a b "The Last Samurai". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved May 29, 2024.
  5. ^ a b c "The Last Samurai (2003)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  6. ^ Loudcher, Jean-François; Faurillon, Christian (2017). "The influence of French gymnastics and military French boxing on the creation of modern karate (1867-1914)". Martial Arts Studies. 11 (11): 80–11. doi:10.18573/mas.135. ISSN 2057-5696.
  7. ^ "The Last Samurai Filming Locations | New Zealand". www.newzealand.com. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
  8. ^ The Last Samurai: Original Motion Picture Score (CD liner notes). Hans Zimmer. Warner Sunset Records. 2003.((cite AV media notes)): CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  9. ^ a b "The Last Samurai – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack". Allmusic.com. Rovi Corp. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  10. ^ "Sampling Japanese comment" Archived 2010-07-26 at the Wayback Machine. Asia Arts. UCLA.edu. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  11. ^ a b Rich, Motoko (January 4, 2004). "Land Of the Rising Cliché". The New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
  12. ^ "The Last Samurai". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved November 2, 2021.
  13. ^ "The Last Samurai". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  14. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 5, 2003). "The Last Samurai" Archived 2012-10-09 at the Wayback Machine. Chicago Sun-Times. RogerEbert.com. Retrieved August 8, 2010.
  15. ^ History Buffs: The Last Samurai
  16. ^ "The Last Samurai (2003) – News" Archived 2009-02-10 at the Wayback Machine. CountingDown.com. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  17. ^ "The Last Samurai (2003) - Box Office Mojo". www.boxofficemojo.com. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  18. ^ "Aiming to get its name in lights, Japan pitches movie locations". Nikkei Asian Review. January 23, 2018. Retrieved January 25, 2019.
  19. ^ Schwarzacher, Lukas (February 1, 2005). "Japan's B.O. tops record". Variety. Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved July 10, 2014.
  20. ^ "The 76th Academy Awards (2004) Nominees and Winners". Oscars.org. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  21. ^ McCarthy, Todd (November 30, 2003). "The Last Samurai" Archived 2012-11-12 at the Wayback Machine. Variety. Reed Elsevier Inc. Retrieved September 17, 2012.
  22. ^ Schultz, Cathy (May 31, 2010). "The Last Samurai offers a Japanese History Lesson". History in the Movies. Archived from the original on May 31, 2010. Retrieved July 2, 2023.
  23. ^ Ivan Morris (1975), The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of japanese, chapter 9, Saigō Takamori. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0030108112.
  24. ^ Goff, Keli (May 4, 2014). "Can 'Belle' End Hollywood's Obsession with the White Savior?". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 14, 2014.
  25. ^ Hughey, Matthew (2014). The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-4399-1001-6.
  26. ^ "Oscar loves a white savior". Salon. February 22, 2013.
  27. ^ Lee, Ann (May 19, 2022). "'Each little thing in my life is precious': Ken Watanabe on cancer, childhood and Hollywood cliches". The Guardian. Retrieved October 2, 2022.

Further reading