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Year: 2003
Director: Edward Zwick

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Cast:

Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto), Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), William Atherton (Winchester Rep), Chad Lindberg (Winchester Rep Assistant), Ray Godshall Sr. (Convention Hall Attendee), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), Masato Harada (Omura), Masashi Odate (Omura's Companion), John Koyama (Omura's Bodyguard), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji), Togo Igawa (General Hasegawa), Satoshi Nikaido (N.C.O.), Shintaro Wada (Young Recruit), Shin Koyamada (Nobutada), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Shun Sugata (Nakao), Koyuki (Taka), Sosuke Ikematsu (Higen)

Storyline:

In the 1870s, Captain Nathan Algren, a cynical veteran of the American Civil war who will work for anyone, is hired by Americans who want lucrative contracts with the Emperor of Japan to train the peasant conscripts for the first standing imperial army in modern warfare using firearms. The imperial Omura cabinet's first priority is to repress a rebellion of traditionalist Samurai -hereditary warriors- who remain devoted to the sacred dynasty but reject the Westernizing policy and even refuse firearms. Yet when his ill-prepared superior force sets out too soon, their panic allows the sword-wielding samurai to crush them. Badly wounded Algren's courageous stand makes the samurai leader Katsumoto spare his life; once nursed to health he learns to know and respect the old Japanese way, and participates as advisor in Katsumoto's failed attempt to save the Bushido tradition, but Omura gets repressive laws enacted- he must now choose to honor his loyalty to one of the embittered sides when the conflict returns to the battlefield...

Reviews:

After my third viewing, I can finally admit that this film has me. I enjoyed it during its theatrical run, enjoyed it more the second time around, and now, I can only say that I love it. The cast is exemplary. Tom Cruise is so good in this film that it is very often easy to forget he is Tom Cruise. Easily his most powerful role and best performance since Jerry Maguire. Ken Watanabe, however, is incredible in every scene - acting with a rare sensitivity and intensity and breathing life into a character much larger and more human than the grand story of which he is a part. Though the entire cast is excellent, I feel that I must also single out Koyuki and Shichinosuke Nakamura for, respectively, the female lead and the emperor, for the subtle strength and believability they each give their very challenging roles.

The story takes place during the early modernization of Japan, in the 1870s and 1880s. The Emperor's power has been weakened by the political and economic power of his cabinet, by his young age, and by the political influence of the United States and other western powers pulling the strings of his cabinet and supplying modern weaponry and tactics to the modernizing Japanese army. Cruise plays Captain Allgren, an alcoholic veteran who has seen and participated in too many massacres of innocent people, and is offered an opportunity to reclaim some of his honor by helping to train the Japanese military in the use of firearms. When he arrives in Japan, we learn that the first test of the Japanese army and its new weapons will be against a rebellious group of samurai who believe themselves to be in the service of the Emperor and Japan, but resist the Emperor's cabinet and the influence of western nations. In the power void left by a passive emperor, Japan seems poised to enter into a civil war against its own values, faith and honor. During the first attack on the Samurai, Allgren is captured by the Samurai and begins a spiritual, physical and philosophical journey which will bring him a level of self-respect his own culture could never supply.

My interpretation of this journey is that Allgren has found a place and people that offer him redemption, where, in his own world, he can find none. But Allgren's is only a small part of the story - which ultimately revolves around what is right for Japan, for the subjectivity of a whole nation, and how to portray such a subject from its own perspective. Traditional Japan is treated with empathy here, not aggrandizing exaggeration, as some of the film's critics seem to suggest. This is not a film about what is objectively right and wrong, but a film about struggling to understand and empower tradition as a means to control and benefit from change. I find no grand moral statement here, but rather an intense, sympathetic, human drama with a strong sense of honor and sacrifice.

Edward Zwick has made a film which operates well at every level, carrying simple but profound philosophical ideas, but avoiding the mistake of making these ideas and the characters that express them super-heroic. Ultimately, this beautifully shot film conveys powerful messages about war, tradition, ethics, honor and culture, which, though not particularly original, are sensitively and intelligently brought forward. There is a lot of action, including some remarkably well-acted sword fighting and martial artistry, but none of it seems unnecessary and the whole film is truly tightly woven. My highest recommendation.

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I was skeptical about this movie because not every high-budget feature with Tom Cruise is guaranteed depth or serious acclaim, although it may gather at the box office. And Warner Bros put me through TORTURE to see this pic - changes of times AND locations, over and over. I felt like was on an survival test, an unbearably annoying treasure hunt over weeks and was frankly ready to give it a negative review (which I'm writing on behalf of a publication). However, I found the movie truly and unequivocally remarkable and cannot contain my review in 350 words.

First, the experience was powerful. Edward Zwick was a masterful director. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. The action, sets, scenery and story - even the dialogue - were riveting. Clearly, a ton of historical and cultural research and care went into the script, sets, costumes, casting. They didn't just Hollywoodize Kurosowa's "Seven Samurai" as a Tom Cruise vehicle. Nor was it Dances with Wolves or Seven Years in Tibet, two PC-preaching pics of yesteryear. It was a lot more like Braveheart meets Seven Samurai with elements of inculturation a bit reminiscent of Wolves and Seven Years.

Rarely does a movie have excellent acting across the board, but all the Japanese actors were outstanding, and the Americans and Europeans were excellent ... Tom Cruise was at the top of his game. His Independence Day angst combined with his moral nobility in A Few Good Men and The Firm. Ken Watanabe as co-star exemplifying bravery, wisdom and nobility was outstanding.

In spite of this historical epic being "in vogue" at present, there were surprisingly few cliché story elements. Even the requisite (American-made movie) romance with Take (Koyuki in this role was wonderful) furthered the cross-cultural elements of the plot in such a way that neither culture was violated - and above all the `chemistry' was discreet in Japanese fashion, taking a necessary backseat without overshadowing the main story line, actually adding richness to the process of "going native" for Captain Algren (Cruise). The subplot went far beyond an added market draw. Very tasteful and artful scriptwriting, with many colorful, developing characters.

The thrust of the film was the Western-Japanese cultural divide, differing concepts of value and valor and the political issues surrounding Japan's efforts to "Westernize." [cross-cultural studies have become a cinematic trend: Lost in Translation, Beyond Borders, The Missing, Japanese Story, etc.] Where most of the other films fell short (and The Statement was an abomination], this film succeeded brilliantly. The differences between the two cultures were considered and portrayed without completely bashing one (except in the political arena, but even there, the Japanese seemed to be inviting their own downfall, in many ways). There was no simple scapegoat or cultural domination message. The American Civil War captain, Nathan Algren (Cruise) goes abroad as not only a war hero but also a cross-cultural and linguistic expert. Being in Japan, (at first as a mercenary hired to train Japanese in Western ways of war), he takes on the study of the people and their language. Although Algren's sometimes superhero abilities are a bit of a stretch at times, taking the native language seriously is unique in American filmmaking (and American culture, hence our lowly reputation when traveling). Usually the American walks into the foreign scene and the pic automatically shifts to all-English. I was truly grateful to find the dialog half in subtitles because half the characters were Japanese - and Algren was speaking with them. Secondly, this movie honors both cultures for their recognized strengths, even in their distinctiveness. For example, when the woman who is hosting Algren (in captivity) makes dinner, he helps her. "Japanese men don't do these things," she tells him. "But I'm not Japanese," he says (in Japanese). Algren is not ashamed to uphold his homeland customs (although this was 1876... pre-sensitive 90s man era, long before women's lib let alone men entering kitchens) when his own cultural customs or inclinations are ways of caring rather than domination. Another and more important example: Algren demonstrates American resilience and perseverance when he rises again repeatedly after defeat. This baffles the Japanese who are accustomed to falling on their swords in shame after defeat, for them a noble death. In these and many other ways, the Japanese Samurai (especially Katsumoto, Watanabe's character) and Algren learn to appreciate each other's ways. In many respects, the film moves past the usual PC party line [of Dances with Wolves, Seven Years in Tibet and most others of similar ilk out of Hollywood] and reflects on the beauty and dignity in the midst of difference between the two worlds, and how much they need to learn from one another without money or domination as a motive. The dignity of the young Emperor Meiji finding his own cultural center, at the end, was especially moving. Overall, the film had depth and substance with brilliant work in almost every area of production and performance. The editing was marvelous - although it's long, there's no unnecessary material remaining. Not a moment of boredom. Props all around!

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