The Last Samurai is a movie about transformation and progression. Tom Cruise plays Capt. Nathan Algren, an American military officer hired by the Japanese Ambassador to train Japan’s first army in the art of modern warfare. The role of this army is to defeat Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) and his clan of ancient samurai. Japan is undergoing a cultural revolution, where Western powers are heavily influencing well established traditions and mindsets. Katsumoto is a representative of the old Japan, which is now in danger of being wiped out. Capt. Nathan Algren, though set out to orchestrate the westernization of Japan through defeating the Samurai, finds himself unexpectedly affected by his encounters with the Samurai, which places him at the center of a struggle between two eras worlds.
As mentioned before, this film is about transformation and progression. In my view, Tom Cruise’s character represents transformation. He was previously involved in missions to obliterate Native American settlements and is constantly haunted by those expeditions. His involvement to train the Japanese Army to obliterate the samurai mirrors his previous actions. This sets up a very character arc that I felt was well explored throughout the film. We really get to see his character battle his own inner demons and go against his previous values of answering to a higher authority. Captain Nathan Algren is a bruised and complex character, played excellently by Tom Cruise.
Progression is another significant theme that we get to see play out in ‘The Last Samurai’. Japan has to effectively choose between Westernization and their own heritage, both in terms of warfare and customs. At the heart of this conflict, was the emperor of Japan portrayed masterfully by Nakamura Shichinosuke II. Like Capt. Algren, he is also conflicted between two ideologies. This idea of conflict is something that can make any man or woman make rash decisions that affect the fate of thousands. I felt this was the center message of this film, which was explored powerfully.
Aside from these two themes, ‘The Last Samurai’ has an excellent soundtrack produced by none other than Hans Zimmer. Whats astonishing about this soundtrack is that it too carries forward the theme of conflict by utilizing both oriental and western tunes. While watching this movie, I constantly felt these two tunes battling each other for superiority and audibility. This movie is also shot beautifully. It perfectly represents the traditions and values of the Japanese (samurai) by showing life on both sides of the aisle; town and country. The movie also contains an epic, Braveheart like final battle that enriches the overall viewing experience. The size and scope of this battle took me off guard because I was so invested in the characters that were involved.
Overall ‘The Last Samurai’ is a character driven movie, which explores the themes of transformation and progression through the idea of conflict. East vs. West, Old Japan vs. New Japan, the samurai vs. the republic, you name it this movie has it all. As said best by a character in the movie; “They (the Japanese) are an intriguing people. From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen such discipline”. ‘The Last Samurai’ too devotes itself to perfecting the art of filmmaking, quite successfully I may add. From a single viewing experience, it has become one of my all time favorite movies.