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Why The Last Samurai sucked

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I have grown weary of listening to the misguided proclamations when it comes to the most overrated film of the year The Last Samurai. Let’s be frank folks, this film sucked. And it sucked for many reasons. Let me count the ways.

The ending of The Last Samurai is so stunningly awful as to capsize the entire film. I puked, I heaved, I cried in frustration. This film was a tragedy in the making. To tie up everything in a nice happy-ending bow was a crime on the level of Ted Turner colorization. I ask you, “Can we not see films with tragic endings today?” Has film making become so formulaic we can no longer suffer a hero’s death? I sighed with great sadness when Tom Cruise somehow survived multiple bullets from that fucking Gatling gun. Pale and a bit worse for wear, he then presents a warrior’s sword to the oh-so-prissy lisping emperor. If I was Japanese, and I am not, I would be pissed at this piece of shit movie.

Hollywood’s recreation of Japanese history involving samurai warrior Saigo Takamori in the 1870s is as accurate as a comic book. There were no Caucasian men who trained Japanese warriors in the art of modern warfare. There were certainly no veterans of Custer’s Seventh Calvary who traveled overseas. Cruise’s character is a composite, based mainly on Captain Thomas Weir, a survivor of the Little Big Horn disaster. Weir was severely depressed after the battle, committing suicide a year later in 1877. To place a historical magnifying glass to The Last Samurai would essentially rip this sorry film to shreds. I suppose if one reads little history, one can accept the repulsively gigantic liberties taken with actual fact.

I also could not escape the overall feeling of déjà vu throughout this film, with a predictable chain of Dances With Wolves – like events leading to the redemption of the film’s main character. We’ve seen Kevin Costner do this before, hell, we’ve even seen Peter O’Toole do this before in the classic Lawrence of Arabia. A Caucasian man immerses himself in an alien culture, learning their customs, eventually leading them into battle. Along the way, he learns new spiritual beliefs and the great Caucasian hero is redeemed.

In Lawrence of Arabia, our fine protagonist returns to British civilization and arguably commits suicide. O’Toole’s Lawrence was a changed man, disillusioned, frustrated, unable to completely adapt to his old way of life. Costner’s John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves all but abandons his adopted native American tribe before certain massacre. Oh I know, he said he was going to get the cavalry off their ass. But it was just a matter of time before the U.S. Army made target practice of Graham Greene and company.

In The Last Samurai, Cruise returns to the hidden Samurai village as the lone survivor. He eyes the lovely oriental babe and all things end happily ever after. The profound reality, which this film severely lacks, is the widowed women of the village either committed suicide or entered into prostitution to survive. Their way of life had brutally come to an end, and no amount of Superman heroics by Mr. Cruise was going to change that sad fact.

Director Edward Zwick is responsible for this piece of crap, and since his classic Civil War epic Glory (which amazingly had a tragic ending – go figure), has done nothing but churn out one bad film after another. He details throughout The Last Samurai that this band of colorful and fluffy samurai warriors are headed for a Charge of the Light Brigade conclusion. This is going to be a final, tragic stand for an ancient way of life. So to cop out is insulting and offensive. Why pull the punch? What the fuck was Zwick thinking?!

There have been plenty of financially successful films with sad endings, though the present generation would be hard-pressed to find one. Off the top of my head there’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Love Story, Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and Night of the Living Dead. Anything more recent than 1980 I cannot seriously recall. Thus, we are stuck with bullshit cotton candy like The Last Samurai.

I like Tom Cruise. He’s easily the greatest movie star of his generation. I also happen to think he is an above average actor, with performances in Born on the Fourth of July, Interview with the Vampire and Magnolia serving as great examples. The chunky heart throb gives a good performance as the haunted captain, and I suppose he looks great in samurai armor. His long hair blows in the wind, he’s strategically unshaven, he gets the shit kicked out of him a couple of times and he screams for Saki during alcoholic withdrawal. Along his predictable journey, Cruise bonds with the warriors’ leader, nicely played by Ken Watanabe. Watanabe just about steals the film in the generic Omar Sharif/Graham Greene role. He is perfectly cast, as he looks oriental, but not TOO oriental. Thus, this Caucasian comic book fantasy remains safe for viewing down at the suburban cineplex.

Zwick has gone on record as stating his admiration for the late-great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who directed brilliant samurai epics during his day including The Seven Samurai, Ran and Kagemusha. The Last Samurai is not anywhere near as good as those films, and lacks the kind of energy, action detail and eventually, profound tragedy that marks those international classics. Kurosawa touches are evident throughout, though the master is undoubtedly snickering in his grave.

I have seen Kurosawa’s Ran at least 10 times and consider it one of the greatest films ever made. For me, watching The Last Samurai was a torturous experience. I was insulted. I am sick and tired of Hollywood telling me I cannot handle tragedy, that when I purchase a movie ticket all I wish to see are thinly veiled imitations of past great films.

I think I’ll commit hari-kari.

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About Chris Wilson

  • http://halfbakered.blogspot.com mike hollihan

    Big-budget Hollywood movies will never end badly for the hero. Conventional wisdom, focus groups and the cowardice of profits prevents it.

    There’s a great book you should read called “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogel. He was a script reader for many years and developed a loose guideline of things he looked for in a script. He later codified it and shared it with others. It became the de facto template for a “successful” script. His book explains that script template, which is derived from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” Go read both and you’ll be able to predict everything that’s going to happen in any given Hollywood blockbuster. You’ll be amazed at how many films use this formula.

    I just rewatched “The Seven Samurai” recently and man do I love that film. Grim, funny, amazing, heart-breaking, surprising and spectacular all at once. Toshiro Mifune rightly gets most of the acclaim for his performance, but all the samurai and the villagers are fascinating. Great movie.

    Good commentary, Chris.

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com/ Murasaki

    First, it is not longer considered PC to use the term: Oriental. It is more commonly used sarcasticallly. The term originally referred to everything east of Christiandom and stretched from North Africa to the Pacific Islands. In the US, most Oriental Language Departments have changed their names. Edward Said wrote a book called “Orientalism” about the North African part of that phenomena.

    Second, Ken Watanabe, while good bore a remarkable resemblace to Yul Brynner of “Anna and the King” fame. Why can’t short men be heroic?

    “The Last Samurai” was a major re-writing of history. Nothing new for Hollywood. Do you really think the emperor would have granted an audience with a foreigner? Do you really think the emperor spoke English?

    It’s hard enough to learn how to address the emperor properly in Japanese.

    “The Last Samurai” doesn’t show the downside of the samurai system. There were rules that controlled every portion of their lives.

    Furthermore, samurai women and daimyo women were supposed to be trained in martial arts, using a long sword-like weapon. They weren’t just concerned with the housekeeping. I think Kurosawa explored this in “Ran.” But the character in “The Last Samurai” was more in keeping with what Americans want in Japanese women.

    You might also ask yourself why the widow of the man that Cruise’s character killed was the only woman character. Where were the wives of the other samurai? Don’t you think particularly in a village they’d have to join together for harvest and defense?

    Like Kurosawa, I suspect that Zwick doesn’t handle female characters well and it is, after all, easier to exclude women from war films (the same was done with “Troy”).

    The protagonist of “Glory” was actually married.

    And if you know anything about Japanese culture, the role of the mother-in-law in the family is one of particular importance for the wife. She can make the wife pretty miserable and she has influence with the husband.

    I personally laughed when they showed the cherry blossoms. Those things looked more permanent than ephermeral. I think they mixed up the seasons as well, judging from what flowers appeared where. Further. the background sound had forest birds. Forest birds? In a Japanese forest, the most deafening sound is of the insect life.

    I’ve been to Kyushu. But not to New Zealand where the movie was actually filmed.

    A more Japanese view of the samurai system that won’t be as popular as Kurosawa’s films is “Tasogare Seibei.” The English title is “The Twilight Samurai.” Unfortunately, since it isn’t about heroes, it probably won’t be popular in the U.S.

    Americans prefer to have a fantasy about the samurai and Japanese women and that is really what this movie was, wasn’t it?

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks for the comments Mike. I appreciate the book recommendations and will definitely look them up.

    I love Seven Samurai, though haven’t seen it in a couple of years. It’s an absolute classic. I emphasized Ran because it was one of Kurosawa’s final films and I just watched it again recently. What a great film director he was…..

  • Chris Kent

    Excellent comments Murasaki and my apologies for “oriental babe” reference. No offense intended.

    The “Tasogare Seibei” recommendation is a film I am not familiar with, but I will certainly track it down.

    Americans prefer to have a fantasy about the samurai and Japanese women and that is really what this movie was, wasn’t it?

    Agreed. This film is indeed a fantasy. So much so, it was eventually offensive.

    Fascinating observations and thank you.

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    This movie reminded me of a Sott Glenn movie, The Challenge. I liked this movie when I was a kid, but I suspect that it is equally crappy for the same reasons that you all have complained about The Last Samurai.

    Despite the movie’s shortcomings, it’s video/dvd release comes at a good time–when honor should be emphasized in the military–when we are being found to have tortured enemy prisoners.

    We have also been known to kill people from a distance using superior technology. It’s not so bad when you are a US citizen, but it must suck for the other side. The movie had me wanting for a fair fight. I’m not sure if the type of honor portrayed in the movie has a place in our modern world.

    By the way, Tom Cruise is a shorter than average hero (5’7″).

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Dirtgrain, I always appreciate your comments.

    I’m just glad to discover I am actually taller than Tom Cruise! If someone offends me in the street, I will now reply – “Hey fucker! I’m taller than Tom Cruise!”

    There’s a good message in Last Samurai if one wishes to see the glass as half full, but overall, I felt insulted by the film, obliterating any positive kharma I may have initially had.

    I’m not convinced the positive lessons have not been displayed before in far better films than The Last Samurai. Honor is always important, and would hope there is always a place for it in any world.

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    Actually, as I thought about it, I think there were Westerners that trained the Japanese military.

    From what I recall, because soon after Perry’s opening of Japan, the US was involved in a Civil War, the UK was able to actually do more in Japan.

    The Japanese navy was thus trained by the UK navy. In fact, what I do know is that the victory of the Japanese over the Russians was celebrated in the UK although the reaction of Americans was more negative.

    The English in Japan is why the Japanese use certain things that Americans do not (like paper size).

    There is also a book called: “The American Samurai: Captain LL Janes and Japan” that was published in 1985. But I am not sure what it is exactly about. It was written by a UCLA history professor.

  • Chris Kent

    Interesting Purple Tigress and thanks. The battles between samurai rebels and the Japanese modern army did not involve Caucasian mercenaries. If so, it is the first I have heard of it, whether from UK or the US. I have not heard of the book you have mentioned, though would suspect the film Last Samurai was probably not based on it. I have discovered several interesting books and films just from this thread. Thank you for your comments!

  • http://murasaki.city-blog.com Purple Tigress

    Hi…I didn’t mean to imply there were Americans with Saigo. Just wanted to clarify the statement: “There were no Caucasian men who trained Japanese warriors in the art of modern warfare.”

    Not with Saigo. But during that time period there were people who did train the Japanese military.

    I think Notehelfer’s book is about an American who fought in WWII. Just a dim memory in my mind, but I thought you and other readers might be interested in it.

    Later this week, I’ll be watching the new Zatoichi, BTW, and would be interested in hearing from people about what they thought was great about the original and this new one.

  • Shark

    Chris, excellent review of a raw, steamed turd of movie/American-style sushi, ie. a weenie wrapped in white rice.

    Has there been a more racist movie in recent years?

    Worst parts:

    1) Watching Tom Cruise’s constant repertoire of something like “Ten Grim (& Other) Looks” that he constantly trots out for his films.

    2) Watching Cruise lecture the emperor — who comes off like monkey watching a slide show.

    PS: Cruise is one of the worst actors around, but, man, can he “pose”.

  • Chris Kent

    lol….Thanks Shark. The portrayal of the Emperor shocked me, and certainly detracted from the film.

    I like Tom Cruise, though this film is not one of his best efforts, ranking somewhere near Top Gun and Cocktail……

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Dirtgrain

    On his show, Dave Chapelle criticized racist Hollywood. He said the last samurai is played by a white actor (or maybe it is samurai as a plural). He asked what was next, Tom Hanks starring in “The Last of the Negroes”?

    Also, the last of the Mohicans was Daniel Day Lewis. What else besides Yul Brynner? Dances with Wolves?

  • Shark

    “…Also, the last of the Mohicans was Daniel Day Lewis. What else besides Yul Brynner? Dances with Wolves?”

    A few million come to mind, but most were in the Civil Rights/Racial Diversity Dark Ages… for example:

    Eli Wallach built an entire career playing Mexican bandits. But that was before Hollywood knew Mexicans existed beyond their maids, gardeners, and pool cleaners — so they can be excused.

  • Chris Kent

    Let’s not forget Mississippi Burning, where Caucasians (among them Gene Hackman in a good performance) saved the day for black residents terrified of embracing civil rights.

    The film was interesting, but should have told the story from the perspective of at least one black man or woman. You had to look very hard to find black residents in Mississippi Burning.

  • Shark

    Yeah,

    THE FBI WERE THE GOOD GUYS!

    ahahahaha~

    –talk about rewriting history! ‘Mississippi Burning’ movie should have been labeled “Science Fiction/FANTASY”

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Deano

    Actually I thing (and I may be wrong, its a loooong time since I saw it) that having Daniel Day Lewis playing the role was accurate, as in the original James F. Cooper novel, the main character was a white man raised by the Mohicans. The Last of the Mohicans was the other two characters, not DDL.

    The other difference was that I quite liked Michael Mann’s version of Last of the Mohicans and I really thought Dances with Samurai sucked….

    Great review and terrific comments from everyone!

  • Chris Kent

    Deano,

    You are excatly right as I had to read James Fenimore Cooper’s novel growing up. I think he also wrote a sequel called Deerslayer? Anyway, Cooper’s book was authored in the 19th century I believe, so modern day comparisons may not be as valid as others. I do remember reading an article in GQ magazine about the filming of Last of the Mohicans. The writer had a hard time making it to the set (filmed in remote areas of North Carolina), and once on site, was treated rather rudely by director Michael Mann and company. During one battle scene, Mann made a racist comment and the author reprinted said comment in GQ article. Mann, of course, fired a letter of response in the following issue, saying essentially he never remembers a GQ writer ever being on the set, much less ever saying the racist remark.

    Oh well, I loved Last of the Mohicans far more than I did Last Samurai. I see in previews that Mann’s next film is going to star Tom Cruise. We shall see….

  • AJ

    “First, it is not longer considered PC to use the term: Oriental.” Also, dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature here. Asian-American, please. — big lebowski

    My thoughts on this movie exactly. It was very long, and for tom cruise not to die in the end was just pitiful. He got destroyed by that gun. I agree fully with your assesment of this movie.

  • J

    Wow .. its just a movie…grow up.

  • Don Martinez Jr.

    NEver in my life have I heard such BULLSHIT! IF you cannot understand that movies from Hollywood are for entertainment… you have a serious problem! IF you are going to the movies for your history lessons then you must have a warpped outlook on things! If you really must shredd this movie on weather or not it is truth then the basic premiss of the movie is B.S. No man would have been able to learn the way of the Samurai one whole year let alone one season… but it was in the script, so thats the way it went! What was true was the way of life for the period you fool!

  • Chris Kent

    “NEver in my life have I heard such BULLSHIT!”

    My thoughts exactly Don.

  • sangos

    Yep…its an artform for entertainment.. not academic historical research

  • Marcia

    I could run somewhat with the “it’s just entertainment” thing, IF they had not gone so bloody far out of their way to depict historically accurate clothing, weaponry and events…it could have been a fabulous movie, if the Cruise character was extracted completely and events allowed to play as they actually happened. I mean, for the love of intelligence, Cruise’s character even stole the DEATH of Watanabe’s character! How’s that for insulting?

    I hated this movie virulently when I saw it at the Los Angeles Premiere. I am happy to find that I hate it as much if not more, still, and for the same reasons. I consider it no more than a typical example of Hollywood’s long history of racism – just slightly more subtle than in decades past. Subtle enough that many people never realized what they were being fed. White man as savior version 2.1. Aka, typical big-budget, stupid trash.

  • Chris Kent

    I saw this film at the theater and was immensely frustrated when walking out. Later, I rented it on DVD to see if my opinion had changed. It had not. Zwick, Cruise and Wantanabe are great talents, and their work here is occasionally stunning. This could have, and should have, been a great film. Money pours from the screen. It’s a shame they opted out for a B-movie ending.

  • JC West

    Captain L.L. Janes (1839-1909) (the “American Samurai” in Fred Notehelfer’s 1985 book) was a noted Christian educator in Japan around the turn of the last century (look up the Kumamoto Western School and its introduction of co-education to Japan). The Princeton University Press book is out-of-print.

    Also, as a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and a member of the American Oriental Society, I must protest the PC kneejerk comment that would rename both the oldest learned society in the United Kingdom devoted to Oriental and Asian studies and the oldest learned society in the United States devoted to a particular field of scholarship in favor of some pablum PC BS. Get off your PC idiocy and realize the “slur” is all in your own little twisted mind.

  • flabberblastered

    JC West, I feel like you’re making me take the devil’s advocate position to what my normal argument would be. ‘PC’ terminology puts a candy-coating on certain concepts, often shifting the way the concept is perceived to make it more palatable to people with only a weak moral conscience who don’t care to peek beneath the hood. There is something to be said, however, for an attempt to go back along in the development of our casual vernacular and alter it to reflect social and other changes that have occured in the interim, such as the acknowledgement that non-whites and women everywhere are humans too. Surprise, surprise.

    As I understand, the term ‘oriental’ essentially means ‘on the edge of’, in this case on the edge of western society. It might be argued that this was a handy blanket term in a time when there was a limited understanding in the western world of cultures outside of that world, and when there was more of a difficulty in accessing the legitimate information and translating it across the cultural and language barriers, but this is no longer the case. The term is implicitly demeaning by placing all those not ‘fortunate’ enough to be born in ‘the center’ outside of that center, not just in terms of their access to food, medicine and opportunities, but creating or furthering the notion that they never will/can have those things – that they can never cross the barrier, unless it is as an ‘oriental’. But, whatever. I didn’t bat an eye when I read the word in the article because, in comparison, that movie was conducting the equivalent of genocide on truth rather than merely allowing a fleck of spittle to fall in truth’s eye in the act of casual conversation.

    Also, to steal a line from the television show Firefly, the “world’s turning” only “matters to the people on the rim”. (????)

  • Jay

    I realize that this article is over 7 years old, but it contains a huge glaring mistake. In fact, white folks were brought in as advisors to train a new Japanese army. But they were French, not Tom Cruise.

  • Elizabeth

    “There were no Caucasian men who trained Japanese warriors in the art of modern warfare.”

    Yes there were. Ignorance is poor basis for an opinion. I happen to agree the film was terrible, but if you are really that woefully ignorant of Japanese history, you had no business writing this review.

    “And hell, we’ve even seen Peter O’Toole do this before in the classic Lawrence of Arabia.”

    Again, you glaring ignorance of history shows. TE Lawrence was a real man and the film is a reasonably accurate take on his role in the Arab revolt.

  • Donny Kerr

    My where you are wrong sir may I count the ways?!?! Read a book that wasn’t in your highschool summer reading list!!! You are cinicle and sad! Of corse much of the movie has some quarks it’s hollywood! Many of your claims are wrong, for one there were Caucasian men schooling the Japenese in the art of modern war. In many theatres was this true. This being your most agreivous claim and your weakest is:if you watched the movie you would have seen that Tom cruises character was never hit more than once or twice in the arm by the guns. This makes the movie actually believable. Don’t just write to hear your own thoughts make sure you have your facts straight first sir!

  • Kiran Kumar

    oi baka daijondeka please understand the real meaning of living a disciplined which you yankees never get

  • Ganyuehan

    I didn’t like the movie either. I also don’t like the way they pushed the envelope artistic license has on historical accuracy. A group of French advisors led by Jules Brunet had actually fought along with the samurai, but they weren’t trained as samurai; much different from Tom Cruise’s character in the movie.