About a month ago, Yuriko and I went to see The Last Samurai in the theater. It had its moments, but wasn't all that good. Not long ago I got an e-mail from the most erudite movie aficionado I know, Kevin D., who offered this take on the movie:
"I went to see The Last Samurai last night at the second-run shows and left after an hour. I can't remember the last time I walked out on a movie. But with this one, I think the realization that I still had 90 minutes to go caused me to flee.
"Talk about a movie in need of an editor. I felt that easily most of the events in the first hour could have been condensed. While I've liked Cruise in other things, I found him flat, silly and sullen. I know this was the character, but I found him unbelievably phony.
"And then there was my big bugaboo, the score. That's what probably what drove me from the theater. Why the director would take the pains to have such lovely cinematography and set design in his movie, only to have it sabotaged by the droning of caterwaulings of Hans Zimmer (my least favorite film composer of all time) is astounding. I hated it and the idea of having to listen for another 90 minutes was the deciding factor. No attempt to define musically the film's setting or period, and each scene scored with the same heavy-handed style.
"This thing made The Barbarian and the Geisha (John Wayne as Townsend Harris, one of my least favorite Waynes) look like Gone with the Wind."
I answered (spoiler included): "Well, I think of it as a mediocre movie with a few good scenes and a terrible finish. The final battle scenes were well done. And I was quite fond of the evocation of old Tokyo. But the story was weak, and the end was truly awful -- pure Hollywood tripe: sentimental, historically absurd claptrap, added perhaps because focus groups couldn't stand seeing Tom Cruise die.
"You see, he didn't die in the final battle with the forces of greedy modernization. Ken Watanabe did. But somehow or other, Tom Cruise didn't. Wounded, yes. Dead, no. He didn't die like a samurai, dammit."
[Cruise plays a Civil War veteran who, in 1876, goes to assist the new Japanese government in suppressing a samurai rebellion, but ends up admiring the samurai, going native, and fighting against the government.]
I continued: "Then, some time later, he limps into another audience with the Emperor Meiji. (Why Cruise isn't in prison instead isn't explained.) At which point the Emperor, on the verge of signing an arms treaty with an American delegation, changes his mind in a fit of patriotism, and promises "Japan for the Japanese" or some such unhistorical rubbish. Then the narrator says that no one really knows what happened to Cruise's character, but maybe he went back to that village to live with Ken Watanabe's widowed sister... and we see scenes of the two together. Ugh.
"I'll take you word on the score. I don't remember a thing about it."
Kevin answered: "Well, it sounds like I made the right decision. I'll stick with Kurosawa and Mifune in the future, thank you very much. I wonder if the focus groups will change the upcoming The Alamo, so that Crockett, Bowie and Travis survive the battle to continue to fight for Texan independence."
I answered: "It's also hard to go wrong with Itami Juzo. As a young man, Ken Watanabe was in Tampopo, a delightfully strange movie. It's hard to believe he's the same man, he's aged so.
"I'm not looking for good history in the new Alamo. Of course, the Duke's version wasn't strong on that, but it didn't matter. The main thing is to get this formula right: brave men die for freedom in a spectacular battle. John Wayne did that in his movie (eventually). I'm not so sure contemporary filmmakers have it in them."
And finally, Kevin had this to say: "While suffering through Mr. Cruise's epic last night, I was flashing back to a movie I've always enjoyed called Red Sun. I think circa 1971, it starred Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and (hubba-hubba) Ursula Andress. A western filmed in Spain, Mifune played the Japanese ambassador traveling through the western U.S. when his train is attacked by bandits. His ceremonial samurai sword is stolen by the robbers (I think he was going to present to the U.S. President as a gift from the Emperor) and teams up with Bronson to track the bandits and reclaim the sword.
"Very enjoyable and the situations and discussions about the different cultures (American vs. Japanese) was more interesting and profound than Last Samurai, and it only lasted two hours and was entertaining and pointed without being preached to, as I felt I was last night. With Red Sun, the teacher was breezy and entertaining, while the Last Samurai teacher was an incredible bore who didn't know when to stop."