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15 January 2008 @ 07:23 pm
Movie Review: The Last Samurai  
I'm a huge fan of Rurouni Kenshin, which is set before and after the time of this movie, so I both really, really wanted to see it and really, really didn't.

On the negative side it stars Tom Cruise, it's 2 1/2 hours long, Tom Cruise produced it, I know just enough about the time period to be picky if they screwed up the history, and Cruise making a big budget movie so he'd get to be an American Samarai sounded like this could be headed into Gary Stu territory.

On the plus side I kept hearing that the set and costume designers really did their homework and it would be fun to see things that I'd only seen in manga, anime, and old black and white photos in a big budget movie.

In any case, I spotted it on the shelf at the library so since it was free and included an episode of the History Channel's History vs. Hollywood series I decided it was worth a shot.

The History vs. Hollywood episode may be the worst hour of programing I've seen from the History Channel. It doesn't exactly get things wrong so much as leave things out in such a way that someone totally unfamiliar with the period would be forgiven for thinking that the Shogun voluntarily stepped down in order to facilitate the modernization of Japan and it was only later that there was any armed rebellion. The movie also skims over the period of civil war as well and makes Katsumoto's rebellion seem to be an isolated anomaly.

I'm not going to go through the movie's many deviations from history though because, unlike most recent Hollywood forays into historical fiction, this movie never tries to claim to be a dramatization of historical fact. It's a costume drama very loosely based on events of the period, not a documentary, and it knows it. If only the creators of 300 had been as honest with themselves and their audience.

Despite being only fiction the sets and costumes are as accurate as they could make them right down to copying actual clothing made for the court from the original patterns. The sword smith shown working throughout the movie is an actual master sword smith who was making the actual sword presented to Cruise's character towards the end of the movie not an actor pretending to be a smith. Everything is literally shown in it's best light with some absolutely gorgeous cinematography. The 100 million dollar budget was very well spent.

The acting is excellent. Cruise may be a nut case but he can act and the rest of the cast is filled with Japanese, British, and American actors who are all perfectly cast and act their butts off. Cruise is the producer and star but surprisingly he gives everyone their chance to shine instead of having to constantly hog the spotlight. Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto gives a performance that totally deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. I still haven't seen the other films with nominated actors but I really don't see how Tim Robbins could have been better.

The story has some unbelievable moments but it is mostly well done. The tranformation of Cruise's character from an American mercenary dealing with guilt over his crimes against Indians under General Custer's command into an accepted member of Katsomoto's band of rebels was handled as believably as you can expect from what's basically a fantasy. He does get a bit Stuish at times but Katsumoto is a big enough presence to keep things balanced. 

I did want to call the movie Dances with Samurai for reasons that should be obvious to anybody who has seen both movies but this is so much better than Dances with Wolves that it would be an insult that the movie doesn't deserve.