Tom Cruise stars as a 19th century American war hero inspired by the ancient Japanese warrior culture in a new action-drama from the director of such award-winning hits as Glory and Legends Of The Fall. Alan Silverman has a look at The Last Samurai.
Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, a hero of the American Civil War Between the States and the U.S. Army campaigns against the Native American Indians. Broken and in despair, he is a soldier weary of the battlefield and disillusioned by the reason his country has sent him to war. Seeking adventure or escape or both, Algren travels to Japan to make the Emperor's army ready to battle a holdout band of Samurai; but he is n-o-t ready for what he faces when captured by the warrior chieftain, Katsumoto, played by Japanese screen star Ken Watanabe.
"Ultimately the film is about a man who wanted to die and at the end, when he is faced with death, he is able to live - and through another culture," explains Cruise.
Tom Cruise says the cross-cultural theme appeals to him; but along with the metaphysical there is also a physical aspect to the role.
"I took me almost a year to physically be able to make this picture," says Cruise. "I didn't know if I could do it, honestly: if I could find that kind of physical elegance and movement that the Samurai have . . . and it took that amount of time to prepare."
The training process and his research into samurai history gives Cruise an admiration for Japanese culture and tradition.
"It is an amazing culture," he says. "One of the great things about being an actor is I get to travel to these places. I get to learn about the people. That is the most enjoyable thing for me. Also you find a common ground. Even though the language and culture is different you find that common ground of joy, happiness, pain . . . and it's humanity. It really gives you a sense that we're all in this together. That's why we have to help each other out. I really enjoy that."
The Last Samurai takes place in the 1800's, an era in which director Ed Zwick has set several of his films.
"The word in Japanese is 'kadoki,' which means transition," explains Zwick. "The idea of a time of transition with the coming of the new and the modern and the end of something is extremely moving to me. It was a moment in which this country and the world changed for all time.
There does seem to be a trove of stories set there; but there may be something else: it was an exceedingly literate time. It was a time in which people were willing to talk about ideas in a particular way; philosophy had great relevance to the lives. I'm drawn to it, it's true."
But Zwick also believes the journey and transformation of the Algren character are relevant and relatable themes for audiences today.
"I look at modern life and see people n-o-t taking responsibility for their lives and I think that accountability is, in fact, one of the great losses. I think the temptation to blame or find external causes to one's own issues is something that is particularly modern," he says.
The Last Samurai was filmed on location in Japan and the cast includes Japanese actress Koyuki as a Samurai widow who, despite the tragic circumstances that bring them together, forms a powerful emotional relationship with Algren. Hiroyuki Sanada plays the son of the Samurai chieftain; and English actor Timothy Spall narrates the story as a British envoy who observes the cross-cultural clash.