‘The Last Samurai’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) is an epic drama film that takes place in a unique period of Japan’s history and highlights the conflict between modernization and tradition, between cultures, and also between different styles of warfare. However, it is not just the conflicts that are highlighted in this film but also the cooperation and the understanding that can happen as well in certain aspects such as between cultures. While this film is not specifically based on a true story, it is based on a number of true events that took place in the latter half of the 19th century for Japan and highlights the role of Western influence in Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration or Reforms.

The main character, Nathan Algren (played brilliantly by Tom Cruise) is a Captain in the United States Army of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Nathan is a veteran of the American – Indian Wars and perhaps the Civil War as well. He is a bitter man who is suffering from trauma related to the atrocities committed against the Indian tribes during these brutal battles. When the film starts, we can see that Nathan is an alcoholic who is regretful over the orders that he had to follow and what happened to innocent Indian women and children whose lives were disregarded by his commanding officers.

However, for lack of purpose or money, or perhaps both, Nathan is recruited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, whom Nathan still resents for his role in the Indian massacres, to help train Japanese soldiers in the Western way of combat to put down the Samurai rebellion, which is ongoing in Japan. Algren is dealt a bad hand as he has to train peasants and not actual soldiers who are firing guns for the first time and would be better suited to the farms than to the battlefield.

In addition to that, he is expected to lead them soon into battle against the Samurai for which they do not have enough time to prepare. One of themes of this film is how good men are often corrupted by following misguided orders by their superiors and often end up harmed, captured, or killed for the negligence or ignorance of those with a higher rank. Nathan is a good soldier, but he cannot train peasants into soldiers in the time that is given to him especially when he is not familiar with the ways of the Samurai and how lethal they can be compared to his peasant conscripts.

In the battle between his soldiers and the Samurai, the Samurai end up killing most of them through surprise attacks and then an ambush in a refusal to fight the way of the ‘modern’ army that Nathan has assembled. One of Nathan’s fellow American army colleagues is killed in the battle while most of his army is decimated. Undeterred and with nothing to live for, Nathan fights the Samurai ferociously and is able to hold his own. Instead of killing him, the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, decides to capture Nathan instead and hold him as their prisoner. Unbeknownst to Nathan, Katsumoto sees something in Nathan and believes that he is a good warrior, who although tries to kill the Samurai, may be one of them due to his capacity to fight to the last breath.

At first, Nathan is not treated kindly by the Samurai given that he is a former enemy and that he also killed the husband of Katsumoto’s sister who resents Ethan’s presence in their village. Nathan also has his preconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Samurai and their culture. Over time though, Nathan starts to acclimate to his new life as a prisoner. He embraces the Japanese language and culture as well as earns the respect of the other Samurai by learning swordsmanship as well as how to train with others.

He also finds he has an affection for Katsumoto’s sister and ends up befriending her son as well. While it is not easy, he gains an appreciation for the Samurai and their way of life. He even begins to resent the modernity and the loss of the tradition that is being imposed on them by the imperial Japanese government. In this way, ‘The Last Samurai’ does an excellent job what it means to ‘go native.’

When you live in another country for long enough, you start to really embrace certain aspects of the culture and also if you take a liking to the language, you may realize you may want to stay there now that you’re acclimated rather than return to a home culture or country whose flaws become so visible to see when you were blind before to them. This movie does a great job of showing ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and how powerful it can be over time especially if you have a romantic interest in a woman or a man after a long enough period of time.

Algren is also no longer haunted by the nightmares of what he experienced during the Indian wars and has also forgone alcohol as he has found other ways to sustain himself while living with the Samurai. Perhaps most importantly, he develops a friendship with the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, who explains to Nathan their worldview and while preserving their 1000-year heritage is so important to them all. Nathan agrees with them and starts to see how important the ways of the Samurai are to Japanese culture and customs themselves.

The biggest turning point in the film is when Nathan begins to fight alongside the Samurai against attacks by both Ninjas, which one of the coolest scenes I have ever watched still. It is an amazing scene when you have Samurai battling with Ninjas and it is a very powerful point in the movie to show Nathan help save Katsumoto’s life. The Samurai are so dedicated to their way of life that they will die or commit ‘seppuku’ (suicide) to preserve their honor.

Without giving away the rest of the film, we can see that the Japanese emperor is being betrayed by big business interests and Western nations in the rapid attempt to modernize. While Japan was right in that it needed to catch up in areas of commerce and warfare, it is also important to remember the ways of the Samurai and to remember their customs as well. It is not right to destroy an important part of their culture and erase it from the history books.

That is what the Samurai leader, Katsumoto, and also Nathan wanted to preserve even if they knew that they were fighting a losing battle. A culture’s customs must be remembered, and its history remembered by all even if the country is to go in a new direction. ‘The Last Samurai’ makes it clear that even if there are no more Samurai, their memory must be retained in the national consciousness and it is important for Japan to not be belittled or bullied around by other powers. Receiving western advice, arms, and goods was a paramount need at that time but not at the sake of destroying a part of Japan that made it a special nation to begin with.

‘The Last Samurai’ is a powerful film because it reminds us all how customs and traditions form the backbone of a country’s culture and its’ history. While nations shift and change, the traditions and customs should never be forgotten by its people. That is the main message of the film and why the Samurai fought and died to preserve their place in Japanese society rather than be changed into something they are not. Becoming ‘Western’ because they had to be was an insult to them and something, they were against in an effort to remain as ‘Samurai’ in whatever capacity they could in order to serve the emperor.

It is a powerful film and also shows the redemption of Nathan Algren who went from a drunken soldier without purpose to a powerful Samurai commander who was able to integrate himself as best as he could into a foreign culture and even earn the love of a woman whose husband’s life he had ended. ‘The Last Samurai’ has many themes to it and each one of them are powerful. Remembering traditions, seeking vengeance, earning one’s redemption are all themes to the film and make it stand out still today as one of the best films of the 2000’s and maybe of this young century still. I hope you will check it out soon and please always remember the Samurai.

‘Children of Men’ – Film Review and Analysis

What would happen to our world if women were no longer able to have babies? How would human society, nations, and the globe as a whole react to such a consequential event to humanity? A dystopian take on the state of a world without children is the focus of the 2006 critically acclaimed film titled, ‘Children of Men’, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. This film stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in its leading roles. The film is based off of a novel of the same name, ‘Children of Men’, which was written by author P.D. James in 1992.

The screenplay and the story have both been adapted from the novel but the striking visuals and the memorable cinematography make it fit for the big screen treatment. Despite a limited release and low profit earnings when it first came out, Children of Men has stayed in the public consciousness due to its timely socio-political themes on immigration, the environment, terrorism, and political violence. With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President and the unlikely occurrence of Brexit, the message and themes of the film have turned out to be quite relevant. Although this film is set in the United Kingdom in the future year of 2027, despite the non-issue with the infertility of women, the issues that humanity is dealing with in 2017 are tied directly to different issues that the film brings up in its’ plotline.

Theo Faron, a civil servant for the British government and former activist, seems to have given up his fight for a better future. With humanity on the brink of extinction and with most of the countries’ governments having collapsed, there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. As one of the characters, Miriam, explains to Theo in the film, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.” Theo and his ex-wife, Julian, estranged for years after the death of their infant child, Dylan, are reunited due to a refugee named Kee. Julian and the Fishes, an anti-government and pro-refugee group involved in an uprising, would like to take Kee to the Human Project.

She is known to be the only woman in the world who is pregnant with the world’s first child in eighteen years, and is very valuable. However, things are not as they seem with the Fishes and their motives for helping Kee. Theo, in this film, is a lone character who promises to help Julian to bring Kee to the Human Project to ensure the future of humanity against all odds. Instead of using Kee as a political prop to help their cause against the government, Theo decides to help her escape from the Fishes, bring her to the British coast, and protect the future of humanity. Along the way, the viewer of the film sees the consequences of a world without babies. Where once there was no hope, Theo gains his sense of purpose and faith again as he hopes to redeem himself by getting Kee to safety and away from both the British government and the Fishes group.

Starting from the opening scene where the main character, Theo, is taken aback from a suicide bomb blast in the heart of London after just having left the café where the attack happened, you get a sense of what you’re in for with this movie. There’s a sense of hopelessness, dread, and despair as the audience is thrust into the focus of the movie as it’s made clear that the youngest person on Earth was eighteen years old meaning that something seriously has gone wrong to make that a reality. Although it’s never directly addressed in the movie, a few of the characters speculate that the reasons women can’t have babies anymore vary from environmental degradation to genetic experiments to too much pollution / radiation. The reason for women’s infertility is never addressed but the film makes it clear that the world is without hope because of the fact that there are no children to carry on the future of the human race.

Humanity faces certain extinction and the United Kingdom where the film’s setting is, instead of maintaining its’ parliamentary form of democracy has regressed into a totalitarian police state. Because it is one of the few surviving nations left on Earth, the country has developed a strict anti-immigration and anti-refugee policy. Any refugees or immigrants from outside the U.K. are rounded up and sent to detention camps, which have very poor and inhospitable conditions. The situation is so dire that the Fishes, labeled as a terrorist group, are fighting a guerrilla war campaign against the government to fight for immigrant rights.

The Fishes, with Julian, Theo’s ex-wife as their leader seem like the good guys but they have nefarious intentions in mind when it comes to the righteousness of their cause especially after they discover the first pregnant woman, Kee, in eighteen years. Throughout the movie, Theo is shown to be caught in the middle between the tyrannical government and the nefarious freedom fighter groups who are both trying to get hold of Kee for their own political gain.

The Human Project, believed to be a group of the world’s leading scientists, are thought to be the best people to help Kee with the baby and to perhaps study why she out of all the women on the planet was able to give birth to a child. Theo, having seemingly lost all hope and reason for living after the death of his baby, Dylan, believes again in the cause of getting Kee to be in the safe hands of the Human Project and to keep her from falling into the hands of either the Fishes group or the government. One of the main themes in this film is Theo’s regaining of hope and his quest for redemption after losing his only son years ago with his ex-wife, Julian.

The director, Alfonso Cuaron, does a great job of setting the scene of a dystopian future where humanity has lost all hope. A pill that allows people to commit suicide peacefully called ‘Quietus’ is mass advertised, terrorist attacks are an almost daily occurrence, and the immigrants, refugees who come to Britain are kept in detention camps separate from the rest of the population because the borders of the country have been closed down. In a plot and setting so dark, the only light to hold on to is Kee and her newborn to be. In a particular moving moment, Kee decides to name her baby girl after Theo’s deceased child, Dylan, showing just how much she really cares for the man who is getting her to the Human Project. It’s no coincidence that Kee herself is a refugee from a West African nation where the first humans emerged.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Kee, Theo, and the newborn baby are trying to leave a bombed out building where the rebels and the government are fighting each other in an urban war. The only thing that stops the bombs from falling and the bullets from firing are the sounds of a newborn baby echoing throughout the building and the street. This particular scene is a reminder of how special the sounds of a children’s cries are to the vitality of the world and how without them, it’s likely that humanity would descend into a downward spiral of chaos and violence. When all of the soldiers stopped for a few minutes to stop fighting, they realized that there was still hope in the world and that life can continue. It’s a very special scene for a special movie.

In addition to great directing, and great acting, Children of Men has some of the best cinematography of any movie in modern history. The single tracking shots, and there are quite a few throughout the film are ridiculously well done and help the viewer feel the tension and suspense in every scene. The soundtrack, the setting, and the messages of the film are extremely powerful and relevant to today’s world. I believe the director does a great job of asking the audience about how susceptible we are to either the rule of a totalitarian government or to the whims of absolutist extremist groups when societal collapse is imminent.

When there are no children or future generations, what is there worth fighting for? How also do we prevent ourselves from scapegoating other groups when things go bad? Maybe the issue is not infertility per say but rather climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, or war between nations, how do we prevent ourselves from losing hope when things look bleak? The film, Children of Men, makes the argument that we should never lose hope especially in dire times. The future must be protected however especially as shown by the role the character, Theo, plays in helping Kee in her quest to meet members of The Human Project.

Ironically, there have been news stories out about the precipitous drop in men’s sperm counts over the past forty years in countries such as the United States. While this may not lead to total infertility, researchers labeled it as a cause for concern due to the overall trend of less fertility in men. In addition, birth rates are down below replacement level rates in multiple Western countries causing concern among scientists. Similar to the theories laid out in ‘Children of Men’, it is unclear why male infertility may be on the rise but it may be due to a number of factors, both environmental and otherwise. Where as Children of Men focused on women being infertile and not being able to have babies, the possibility of men being infertile in the future should be a cause for concern. (Source: http://www.newsweek.com/2017/09/22/male-infertility-crisis-experts-663074.html)

It is difficult to see why Children of Men did not win any of the Academy awards that it was nominated for. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking film that raises questions to the audience that are difficult to answer. If you have the chance to rent or buy this movie, please do so because it is widely regarded as one of the best movies of the 21st century.