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The Last Samurai: Hollywood spectacle

HOLLYWOOD is a master at seduction. And it lures us with interplay of emotion and grandeur, freezing these on an awesomely wide screen, capturing a canvas of sheer colour and gloss.

Hollywood narrative is often stylised to the point of spinning a story, which may be ultimately banal. There is this perennial tendency to romanticise the most brutal, the most devastating of occurrences.

A purely war film, "Von Ryan's Express", for instance, ends with words: "If only Ryan would have lived, it would have been a great victory for us" that make our eyes misty, even as the train steams into freedom.

Ismail Merchant has always said it is only the art of telling a tale convincingly that makes a movie great. I am not so sure.

Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai" is a spectacle in the true Hollywood mould. Its landscape is magnificent and eye for detail is striking: Japan's imperial palace or the Samurai's bastion or Yokohama's street scenes in the 1870s (some recreated in New Zealand) will floor even a hardened critic. The movie's characters are finely etched, and the attempt to portray Japan, where "The Last Samurai" is set, in all its mystic splendour does not disappoint us, at least to a point.

It opens in San Francisco, where Army Captain Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) is being decorated for his naked daredevilry and rank cruelty against innocent and unarmed Red Indians. Drunk silly to drown his guilt over the massacres, Nathan accepts the offer to travel to Japan to train the teenage Emperor Meiji's soldiers in modern technique.

Japan is then in the throes of a conflict between rich industrialists keen on quickly modernising the nation and the samurai clans trying to retain the old order.

Zwick's work traces the story of Samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the king's teacher, who rebels against this mad race to future.

Nathan leads a royal army of undisciplined, though gun toting, men, and is defeated by the Samurai's highly organised force, which relies on traditional swords.

A badly wounded Nathan is taken captive, because the samurai wants to learn more about his enemy, and Katsumoto does this with his sparse vocabulary of English, but of course. You cannot have a Hollywood film where the characters lisp anything other than largely English.

There are some gripping moments between the two; both are warriors who fight their enemies as fiercely as they battle with their own demons, and they are eager to learn from each other. However, Hollywood must soon yield to its quirky ways: the samurai's sister, Taka, (Koyuki), whose husband was killed by Nathan, has to nurse the American back to health and, well, humanity. As she does not speak English (and thank god, for that), Taka and Nathan play out a romance that may be beautifully unsaid and wonderfully suppressed, but certainly jars in a movie whose aim was certainly not this kind of love.

There are a couple of more scenes, where emotion appears so out of place: when the emperor changes his mind at the end after seeing the dead samurai's sword, and when Katsumoto's son dies.

But Hollywood has to rely on emotion as a weapon to enslave us, and, in the bargain, it takes "The Last Samurai" a little away from its purpose. Which was to show a rare type of bonding between Nathan and Katsumoto, who come from entirely different cultures and beliefs, but who come to accept each other's strengths. However, what was particularly hard to digest was the melodramatic end, and if only Zwick had possessed the courage of the movie's two heroes, "The Last Samurai" might have made a greater impact.

Another dissatisfying point: a scene of Katsumoto turning poetic at the sight of a cherry tree slams the work to a halt, especially because the sequence follows a brilliantly edited one, where Nathan proves his loyalty to the samurai during a night attack by the Emperor's men.

"The Last Samurai" is shallow, therefore, in a sense, but Watanabe's performance as the majestic and canny samurai is often arresting. His command over his body language is as strong as his control over the fighters he leads. Koyuki is interesting as a grave widow tormented by unsaid feelings of affection.

Cruise, well, is still Tom Cruise, and as one critic said, "the man will never win an Oscar". Yes, Cruise is getting better at being Cruise. And so he will always be a star, not an actor.

This 41-year-old star has played a variety of parts in his two-decades-plus career: "Born on the Fourth of July", "Top Gun", "Mission Impossible", "Eyes Wide Shut" (with his then wife, Nicole Kidman) and "Vanilla Sky".

What is remarkable, though, about the star is his ability to stay clear of Hollywood controversies (except for a brief while during his divorce). He is a diplomat.

Zwick said that Cruise was extraordinarily disciplined during the shoot. "Tom makes the set very easy, and at the same time I've never seen an actor as disciplined or as dedicated. Working with him was exactly as had been advertised to me by other directors who had worked with him: Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire") and Sidney Pollack ("The Firm"). Tom was the first one on the set and the last to leave every day, which is unheard of. It wasn't only learning Japanese and the Eastern culture, but the spiritual and physical discipline he put himself through was incredible. And he did all his own stunts."

One also remembers reading in newspapers about his kind gesture at helping a New Zealand family, which was stranded on a lonely highway. Cruise got their car started.

But, all this may not help Cruise win the Academy Award. For, whatever be his image in Hollywood, it is Watanabe who steals the acting honours in "The Last Samurai". The picture is worth the time and money for this man's portrayal of a lost culture.

(This story appeared in The Hindu" dated January 1 2004)

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