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 ... Written by
When the son is killed, a soldier turns the corner, and rips the wall with the butt of his gun. In the next shot, the wall is not ripped. See more »
They say Japan was made by a sword. They say the old gods dipped a coral blade into the ocean, and when they pulled it out four perfect drops fell back into the sea, and those drops became the islands of Japan. I say, Japan was made by a handful of brave men. Warriors, willing to give their lives for what seems to have become a forgotten word: honor.
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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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