I know it is historically inaccurate. I know it romanticizes the Samurai. But damn, The Last Samurai is an incredible movie!
I am not going to give a summary of the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie – go and watch it now (spoilers ahead)! The following are simply my musings about why I love this movie so much, having just re-watched it for the first time in a long time last weekend.
I admit I am a fan of Tom Cruise movies (though let’s not talk about The Mummy). And while he does an incredible job with this movie, it is actually Ken Watanabe (who plays Katsumoto) that steals it for me.
His face and eyes are so full of expression and feeling that minimal words are required. And, on occasion, his face literally does all the talking, accompanied only by the extraordinary music score that amplifies every emotion.
Case in point – one of the saddest moments in the movie (of which there are many) is when he must leave his dying son (Nobutada) to escape Tokyo. Both know that this is goodbye for good, but no words are spoken between them once Nobutada acknowledges that it is his time. Just Katsumoto’s distraught face, tears in his eyes, drinking in his last look at his son. A look that changes to one of anger and resolve just before he turns to flee.
Those emotions, and that shift of expression – perfect acting.
Also, is it just me, or does anyone else find Ken Watanabe incredibly sexy?
Action with emotion
Another thing I love is that while this is an action movie, much more important are the relationships between the characters and how they develop. Two warriors who start on opposite sides of the confrontation, coming to respect one another and ending up as close friends. The stranger who has killed a husband and father being accepted into the family to which he unknowingly caused such pain by virtue of his later actions.
These are actually the focus of the movie.
Don’t get me wrong. The action scenes are incredible with super-cool choreography in the close fight scenes (think Nobutada’s archery style and the spectacle of fighting with two swords at once), and some epic cinematography. My favourite – the first glimpse of the Samurai as they emerge from the fog at the start of the first battle. There are no words!
I also like that the movie asks you to question your way of life and what you truly believe in. I think few of us would go so far as to sacrifice ourselves for honor as the Samurai do. But I think there is something to be learned from a simpler existence where the pursuit of mastery is part of life.
Do we really need all the trappings and bustle of modern life? I decided several years ago that the answer was no and my lifestyle tends to be quite minimalist. I focus mostly on experiences rather than material things and my life is much richer for it.
A final thought about action with emotion in this movie, related to the last battle scene.
This is an incredibly sad scene made even more so by the punctuation mark of the music stopping dead once the Gattling gun starts firing. But the thing that really gets the tears flowing down my cheeks every time is the reaction of the Japanese captain, a relatively minor character in the movie. His despair over what is happening grows as we cut between him and the massacre. His struggle with the need to follow orders vs the knowledge he is killing something he holds in great respect is very powerful stuff.
The film score
What can I say – I love Hans Zimmer! The man is a musical genius. From epic to heroic to intimate to silent. This man plays with your emotions throughout the film to heighten what you are seeing in the performances of the actors. I realised a very long time ago that a movie is nothing without a good film score – and Hans Zimmer delivers every time.
I’ve waxed lyrically about Ken Watanabe above, but Tom Cruise and all of the actors give amazing performances in this movie. I also love the fact that they cast real Japanese actors. Apparently Tom Cruise insisted on this point (it is more typical to cast Japanese Americans) and it means the Japanese you hear in the movie is absolutely authentic.
Ignore the ratings of the critics back in the day. They must have been watching a different movie. Be ready with some tissues!