I HAD very mixed feelings about this film and Hollywood ‘superstar’ Tom Cruise hardly fills me with enthusiasm, but I must admit that this particular blockbuster impressed me a great deal.
Set in nineteenth-century Japan and directed by Edward Zwick, the film revolves around an American Civil War veteran, Captain Nathan Algren (the aforementioned Tom Cruise), who is hired to turn an army of untrained peasants into a modern imperial force capable of putting down the samurai rebellion led by the indomitable Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). When Algren finds himself captured by Katsumoto’s men, however, his initial dislike of samurai culture eventually subsides and he falls in love with the whole warrior ethos that surrounds Japan’s most legendary and enigmatic figures. Gradually, he learns how to fight and how to speak Japanese. Katsumoto, meanwhile, is loyal to the weak and indecisive emperor, Meiji, a man who lusts after modernisation and a closer relationship with his American allies.
When he is invited to sit on a regional council to decide the future of Japan, a defiant Katsumoto is banned from the chamber after refusing to remove his sword. Thus begins the central theme of the film, a struggle between the old and the new Japan. Eventually, Algren helps the samurai leader escape from the city and to organise a final stand against the Emperor’s own determination to squeeze the last breath from the upholders of Japan’s traditional past.
Katsumoto is inspired by Algren’s tale of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae who stood firm against over 5,000 Persians, and together they lead the samurai into a final battle against the imperial troops. The latter, with their new howitzer cannon and machine guns, soon find themselves being slaughtered by the strategic prowess of their adversaries. Sadly, the samurai are finally overcome by a combination of numerical strength and modern technology, provoking a very moving scene in which Katsumoto takes his own life (seppuku) according to the ancient ways of the samurai. Algren, the sole survivor, later presents Katsumoto’s sword to the Emperor, causing him to rethink his actions and ultimately reject the demands of the Americans.
To summarise, then, this film is absolutely superb and brilliantly epitomises the ongoing war between Tradition and Modernity. It should be seen by anyone with an interest in the ancient and spiritual ways of humanity.