An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.
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.
- May 21, 2005