The Last Samurai and the New Imperial Epic
Tom Cruise is a tourist lost in another culture’s historical epic. Such are the parameters of the US market, I suppose, but frankly make the story about the rebel leader, not the drunken has-been sidekick. Also, sorry, but the samurai as presented in this flick are a bunch of luddites. And luddites always turn out to be not opposed to technology per se, but fetishists of yesterday’s technology, which is a touch of a hypocritical stance. The filthy industrialist Omura was right to say that Japan needed to modernize in order to keep the imperialists at bay. And so the heroes of the story, for all their emperor-worship and nationalism, were really getting in the way of their nation’s progress. I hate to side with the degenerate Westernized capitalist fatcats, but there ya go.
But of course the historical epic in the age of American Empire has nothing to do with history. Like Scott with Gladiator, Zwick has plundered another culture for the images he liked, and what do you know they come from Kurosawa. The lesson of the Imperial epic is not that we should learn things from history, hell no. In fact we should run roughshod over it, inserting convenient star roles and projecting our cliches upon it. The lesson is that history doesn’t matter any more than place – all that matters is the image. So the image of Santa-bearded Saddam being poked and prodded more than makes up for hundreds of actual deaths.
The bulk of the film is actually quite good. I felt that Cruiser wanted to die, but in that beautiful Japanese village he found something to live for, yada yada and suchandsuch. The battles, with the exception of the opener, are clearly staged and powerfully paced. However, this is yet another film that suffers from Multiple Ending Syndrome, which I’m pretty sure is a symptom of Genre Picture Self-Importance Disorder. Fucking end the thing on the battlefield for fuck’s sake, don’t give me coda after coda, not to mention the loathsome “some say this or that, others say blah blah blah” voiceover. Nonetheless we have yet another sign of the emerging Imperial epic, which is of course an action film set in some exotic locale / period and overlayed with as many Hallmark-grade emotional vapourisms as necessary to attract Oscar. B movies have usurped A movies and have become the thing they hated; if there was any justice in the world they’d hand out lifetime achievement awards to Van Damme, Seagal et al, but of course the Oscars aren’t about movies any more than Christmas is about Jesus, and there is no justice necessary at the new celebrity easter, only an armful of Oscars for Cruiser, Kidman, Jewison, and the rest. Watch, they’ll snub Jackson just because his movie isn’t set in a real place. Well, neither is Last fucking Samurai. So there.