Every time I put this film in my Blu Ray player I am delighted to no end. The Last Samurai is one epic film that I will easily sit myself down for 152 breath-taking minutes and just immerse myself in the beauty and splendor of Edward Zwick’s masterpiece. Not many so-called “epics” can grab and keep my attention but those that do just floor me with the set design, visuals, plot and dialogue which make it all so immensely interesting. Watching this, I feel like I’ve been immediately transported to feudal Japan and it’s like I’m a kid at Christmas.
Mirroring the modernization efforts in America (and subsequent the eradication of the Native American way of life), the samurai are the last hurdle in the Emperor’s similar attempts to Westernize Japan. That’s a pretty big story to tell and Zwick, without showing much of it, still conveyed the weight of the struggle. However, when you look at it from a distance, it’s really the search for purpose and story of redemption/soul-searching of the two main characters without being in your face and preachy.
Cruise gets the top billing in this film but he, in my opinion, is not the star. Ken Watanabe just steals this movie and though he’s not really a player until a third of the way through, his presence, in one word, is captivating. Emanating an almost hypnotic dialect, his lines are delivered with this sort of tender yet majestic tone and you can feel the power and wisdom of his royalty behind every word uttered. If you’ve seen Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll know he has incredible depth and allure. I almost wish they would have a prequel to this film that focused on Watanabe but I really don’t want to ruin this film’s beauty and grace with a sequel, prequel or anything of the sort. Back in Cruise’s defense, I think his performance in this is a much more professional turn and you forget you are watching Tom Cruise. I don’t know how he did it but he reigned in that ego for sure; I was quite impressed.
Though I consider this film an epic, I feel the battle scenes fall just short of others like Braveheart and Lawrence of Arabia. However what it lacks in action it more than makes up for with story, performances and music which take prominence and so put it on par with any number of classic epic films. One element that really takes a back seat and lets the other elements find cohesion is actually Tom Cruise, or should I say the lack of him. Here Cruise lets the beauty and magnificence of the sets, the Japanese people and the gorgeous locations take the lead. Now set an engaging story amongst a culturally crucial time in history and this epic really writes itself. Like always, Hans Zimmer’s sensational score weaves all the scenes together. Lastly, you have Zwick’s amazing eye for stunning visuals, locales and details is like the icing on the cake. Honestly, with an audio and visual feast like this, it is very hard not to get sucked into the story.
I’d compare this film to an equally underrated film Kingdom of Heaven as far as scope, grandeur and beauty. The attention to detail on costumes, sets, etc. almost rivals the work WETA did in designing the Lord of the Rings films and in Samurai, it is astoundingly beautiful. The Japanese, a people who pride themselves on the perfection of everything they do, are an inspiration to the entire world. Their commitment to a belief or cause, to them, is literally worth dying for and that’s what makes this film so touching and impacting. You get glimpses of that with each frame of the film. The imagery was simply a sight to behold…although I may be biased as I’m just a sucker for anything traditionally Japanese.
The contributions of Zwick, Watanabe, Cruise, production designer Lilly Kilvert and score from Hans Zimmer make for a simply beautiful and unmatched symphony of, what I think is, nearly legendary film making. With so much greatness wrapped up in this 2 1/2 hour epic, this film does nothing but shine. I wish I could do a proper write-up and go on and on raving about it but ‘Off the Shelf’ reviews are more of a recommendation post with some personal high and low points thrown in (which is why I find it tough being brief when writing about a film I love so much).