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THE LAST SAMURAI. The best movie of 2003. A shoo-in for multiple Oscars. You need to see it.

The story: An American war hero travels to Japan to help build their fledgling military. When he ends up in the camp of the last "savage" samurai holdouts, he changes heart.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW - SPEEDING FINES DOUBLED!

So here's the plot. The Last Samurai is set in Japan's Meiji Era, a time of rapid industrialization and modernization. It very loosely chronicles the real-life story of a samurai named Saigo Takamori, who led the warriors' last stand against the army of Emperor Meiji. In the movie, Saigo is converted to a skinheaded intellectual named Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), who lives in the mountains and is revered by basically all of Japan's samurai and ex-samurai.

Now, there's a drunken old hero of the Indian Wars named Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise). His old commander, an arrogant wankster named Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), lands both of them jobs helping to train the new Japanese army, which is being led by an industrialist named Omura (Masato Harada).

As the troops are moving from ludicrous skill to questionable skill, they are called upon to defend Omura's railroad from a samurai attack led by Katsumoto. Their general (Togo Igawa), an old retainer of Katsumoto, commits seppuku for leading combat against his old lord. After all the troops run, Algren fights off a bunch of samurai single-handedly, and once he collapses, Katsumoto decides to take him into the mountains and try to learn from him: he orders Algren to be kept in the home of the first samurai that Algren killed.

At first, the lady of the house, Taka (Koyuki), despises Algren, and Algren despises his captors. Eventually, he becomes accustomed to their ways, learns how to swordfight in the bushido style, and all of that fun stuff. He fights off a bunch of ninjas who are sent to kill Katsumoto, and learns enough Japanese to offer Taka a halfassed apology, which she accepts with teary eyes.

So, just as you think that Algren and Taka are going to get it on, Katsumoto gets clearance to go back to Tokyo to sit on the genroin, or Council of Elders. He rides into the city with Algren at his side, but gets stopped at the council for refusing to take off his swords. The boy emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), who idolizes Katsumoto himself, doesn't stop the genro from kicking Katsumoto out.

Katsumoto is imprisoned and Algren has to fight off Omura's posse to get to his samurai friend. As he and Katsumoto's son Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) spirit Katsumoto out of house arrest, they are attacked by soldiers, and Nobutada dies in a spectacular suicide attack over a bridge.

So back in the village, Katsumoto and Algren prepare to wage their final battle against the Meiji army led by Omura and Bagley. Algren kisses Taka goodbye, and she asks him to wear the late husband's samurai armor and swords into battle. When they finally face off across the battlefield, the samurai discover that the army is better-equipped and better-trained than ever, so they lure an entire company of the army through a pass and pelt them with arrows until they retreat. The battle rages, Lawrence of Arabia and/or Braveheart-style, until the last of the samurai are mowed down by Omura's new Gatling guns. Katsumoto and Algren are the last on the field; after Katsumoto falls, the soldiers cease fire, and Algren helps him to commit seppuku to die an honorable death as all the Meiji troops bow to the ground in reverence to the warrior. (Algren gets to kill Bagley, which seems to make him particularly happy.)

Back in Tokyo, Meiji is about to be forced into approving a treaty with America, but Algren walks in at the last minute carrying Katsumoto's sword, and the sight of the old master's sword persuades Meiji to tell the Americans to bugger off. At the end of the movie, we see Algren go back to the village, presumably to marry Taka and live happily ever after.

END SPOILERS

Cool parts that make this movie worth watching: The final battle scene alone is absolutely brilliant. It's more "real"-looking than any battle of this scope you're likely to see in cinema, ever. The cannon blasts, sword clashes, arrows, and general chaos of the whole thing are awe-inspiring.

Tom Cruise is actually really badass as Algren, in what might just be the performance of his career. He plays the role of a drunken lost soul very well in the beginning, and he actually manages to look really good in the fight scenes (which are themselves brilliantly choreographed).

As a whole, the image of late-1800's Japan is perfectly captured in the movie, even though it was actually mostly shot in New Zealand. The Japanese casting is exceptional (calling in a local professional was one of the best moves the producers made), and the sets of old Tokyo are absolutely brilliant.

Stuff that kinda sucks but doesn't detract too much: If you don't have prior knowledge of Japonica, a few of the minor points of the movie will fly straight over your head. For instance, there's one part where a little kid gives Tom Cruise a piece of paper with the kanji for "samurai" written on it. Only the movie never tells you, directly or indirectly, what the kanji means, and it's not clear at all from context, even though the meaning is somewhat essential in understanding Cruise's character's transformation.

Also, the relationship between Tom and his Japanese caretaker seems to be constantly bubbling up, but nothing happens until the very end, which might make some romance-seekers somewhat disappointed.

But overall, this is what Shogun should have been like. It's touching, breath-taking, and not too too blasphemous to history, which is why I give it five stars, and recommend that all of the world's movie buffs see it. If they haven't done so already, of course.

This is a charming movie. Not to give away too much of the story, but imagine a wacky mix of Shogun, Braveheart, and Little Big Man. Plaster that with enough sloppy sentiment to make you want to be on a sinking ship with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and you will have a rough approximation this film.

Tom Cruise plays a hard-drinking mercenary who killed an obscene number of Native Americans under Custer and is just totally wracked with guilt because of it. His old commander and some Japanese guys approach him with another job proposal- to modernize the Japanese Imperial Forces so they might eradicate those damned rebellious Samurai. It's soon obvious that the Samurai are screwed... The title even implies it. They don't even have guns, which is an important conceit in this film.

I like Tom Cruise as an actor and all, and he did a rocking good job in Magnolia, but this movie just demanded a quicker end. Cruise served as the titular role- - the last Samurai, not only because his steely nerve, fortitude, resourcefulness, Heart, fine pecs, and stellar market demographic demanded it, but because Cruise is the revered super-stud for all lore and legend. Some of you would appreciate this film more for its conceit-laden campy edge, as did I. There is also a lot of good fight choreography, which I enjoyed as well.

The book by Helen DeWitt, not the film


40 bandits stop on a hill above a village in Japan. They decide to raid it after the bailey harvest. A farmer overhears.
A village meeting is held. The farmers despair.
1 leaps to his feet with burning eyes.
Let's make bamboo spears! Let's kill all the bandits!
You can't, says 2.
Impossible, says 3.

-The Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa

Ah, how I remember those days! Eleven years and counting, I took my first step into the world of literature (or at least high-level fiction), wary of the cartoonish caricatures placed in substitute for characters, tired of those cheaply crafted plot lines standing in for where stories should be. The first mature novel I read for pleasure was The Last Samurai, one that I cherish to this very day.

A first glance

The first time you pick up this book and slide haphazardly through a few passages, you'll find it a pretty easy book, perhaps even mundane. You then flip a page, skimming its contents carelessly, then stop to re-read that page again, a little surprised at the gaps between paragraphs. You'll find that DeWitt took a lesson or two from Kafka. Oddly enough, DeWitt does make a surprisingly complex writer at times. She might even be anti-Proustian in her short, choppy 'hops' around a description. This tendency gets a little annoying, but it servers its purpose. I advise: give it a careful read or two and let it grow on you--it's contradicting themes and non sequitir narrative will make sense in the end.

Once you get past the oddities, there's the story. It traces the exploits of Ludovicus and his mother Sibylla, misunderstood geniuses cast out by the mainstream educational system; Sibylla immigrated herself from the States to escape mediocre grades and disguise herself as an eligible candidate for Oxford's classicist program by lying about her grades and writing a hell of an essay; the disguise works but is eventually tossed aside in frustration, when she then works in a publishing firm and eventually conceives Ludo by annoyed and quick fornication with the literary equivalent of Liberace (same in all ways except for sexuality). Aged and unimportant, Sibylla's story is cast aside for Ludo's as he grows up and as he, too, finds the mainstream educational system redundant, fallacious and meaningless.

Characters

Every so often, after the floor is handed to Ludovicus, the narrative cloth is plunged by the sudden erection of a new storyline, following the collegial lifestyle of Hugh Carrey (HC) and Raymond Decker (RD) or of Sibylla, along with several other seemingly unrelated history pieces or short biographies, which are always miraculously tied back to Ludovicus. The reader can choose to appreciate or detest this novel's narrative style at his or her wish, but I would recommend giving the former a try.

Ludovicus himself is an interesting character--he's arrogantly full of himself due to his astonishing intellect and sense of logic; he's learned several common and exotic languages before his eleventh birthday and he has dabbed a little in calculus and fundamental engineering. His brilliant observations, crafted by his architectural knowledge, often topple on top of him by the unfortunate laws of reality and entropy of the universe. Though he's capable of a level of thinking much beyond his years, one can still see a little child in him. This juvenile spirit in him fuels his search for the father he never knew.

But what does the story of a English-American boy prodigy have to do with samurai? Honestly, very little. The reference has to do with a blatant allusion to samurai brought up in the book. As Ludo becomes familiar with more and more languages, he's turned towards Japanese as his mother raises him around Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai--a failed attempt to compensate the lack of one real father with seven synthetic ones--, and he lusts after it. Gradually, the boy picks up Japanese in his search for his father and goes through seven (!) men in his quest.

Accessibility

So, does this mean you have to watch The Seven Samurai (or its western equivalent, Tall Men in Tight Skinny Jeans) to understand the book? No, at least not in a practical sense. Certainly, the allusions will jump out at you more, possibly making an interpretation of this novel more plausible, but its necessity is extant only inasmuch as studying languages is necessary to understand Ezra Pound's Cantos. In fact, simply by the hilarity of some passages and the general tension of the plot, this book is actually quite accessible.

If you're like me, or Ludo or Sibylla or HC and RD, you imagine this muck of stories tedious and pointless. Some pretentious broad trying to make a name for herself in self-congratulatory literary circles, you're thinking (and you wouldn't be alone in that thesis). Well, it's not; believe me. The entirety of this book is entertaining and most of it is damn funny. Putting the pieces of this book together and making sense of it isn't a tedious puzzle nor a hopeless cause, just a life lesson packed in the most effectively poignant package possible.

The book itself was received both warmly and harshly by critics and the reading public alike. Some praised it for its sheer humor and originality and scope of characterization, while others knocked it down for pretentiousness and vainglory. A simple Amazon search can illustrate this plainly.

General Appeal

Hellen DeWitt may have meant this book to be biographical in nature of her quick transformation into a Oxford scholar. In fact, she herself left America for England and quit an academic life in 1989, working on novels here and there, finally settling with finishing this one. Who knows whatever other similarities she shares with Sibylla. Surely then, this book is a product of human experience, something I could relate to then and now, something you can relate to within a few free afternoon reads.

At eleven years of age, I was no Ludo myself, and I find today, five years older in a subsequent perusing of the book, many facets that I couldn't hope to understand at the time and perhaps some things that I still am unable to grasp. I recommend any avid reader pick this book up and take a gander. I don't regret it, despite its daunting length.


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