Review of The Last Samurai by Edward Zwick
The Last Samurai by the American director, Edward Zwick, is an historical film. It triggers off historical events that constitute the collective memory of both Japan and the United States of America exemplified by Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren and Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. Other contributions of Zwick to this filmic genre include Glory as well as Legends of the Fall.
The film opens with Graham, an English journalist whose thick voice is reminiscent of the king of voice-overs, Morgan Freeman. As in the plays of Shakespeare, Graham plays the role of the prologue. That is, he exposes the story for the audience by setting the place of the narrative. For example, he states,"The myth says that Japan was made by a sword and the drops of the ocean became the Islands of Japan". Filmmakers usually use the technique of the voice-over to tell stories or rather to comment on a particular event. While Graham is speaking, the camera shifts its focus to the character of Katsumoto by zooming in. In this way, the lens of the camera moves from extreme long shots to mere extreme close ups. After the panoramic establishment of the setting, the camera zooms and delves into the depths of Katsomuto’s inner mind to foreshadow the coming of Algren through the narrative device of prolepsis. The filmmaker juxtaposes the eyes of the tiger with those of Katsumoto. This juxtaposition foretells Algren’s adoption of the samurai. The filmmaker makes use of close up shots while Katsumoto is in moments of meditation in order to highlight his spirituality and divinity. During the prolepsis, a change occurs at the level of visual effects. First, the filmmaker uses slow motion particularly when the Samurais surround the tiger who is a metaphor for Algren. Second, there is change of light to blue blurred with smoke in order to give the effect of anticipation and predicting the future as in Sci-Fi films. Concerning sound effects, the sequence starts by an asynchronous Japanese flute and finishes with the roar of the tiger to show the climactic and progressive nature of the narrative scheme throughout the whole film.
It is worth noting that the film includes multiple narratives. Unlike Graham, Algren is a homodiegetic narrator in the sense that he is the narrator and the protagonist at the same time. Thus, one of the significant voice-overs is that of Algren because it deconstructs those stereotypes drawn about the Japanese and the Far East as whole. In this vein, The Last Samurai is similar to Western revisionist films particularly Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch starring with Johnny Depp. Besides, The Last Samurai pastiches Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. There is a great deal of intertextuality between both films especially at the level of narration. For instance, the two protagonists end up by embracing the culture of the Other. The motif of the notebook is a microcosmic metaphor of intertextuality between both films because it includes the same paintings of the Native Americans. Some people call them Red Indians since the term Native American is paradoxical in nature. A native is someone who is close to the state of nature while America symbolizes civilization. The American literary canon including Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Hemingway’s Indian Camp have also a great influence on the imagination of Zwick particularly in shaping the title and themes as death and life.
The end is very significant because the film reaches the dénouement. Graham appears in a middle shot denouncing the end of the story “and so the days of the Samurai had ended” . However, Graham is not the godlike narrator who knows everything because at one stage he himself declares, “no one knows what became of him” . In this way, the third omniscient narrator will interfere and give the film its missing piece by showing the return of Algren to the village of the Samurai.
The Last Samurai is a complex film for what it holds of connotations. It is not only about action and war. The film transcends itself to what is cultural. Besides, the film is significant when it comes to narration. Obviously, Zwick had been influenced by a variety of films as well as literary works before his The Last Samurai came into existence. For instance, the character of Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances with Wolves follows the same narrative scheme of Algren. Besides, Zwick draws an analogy between the experience of the Japanese and that of the Red Indians. Moreover, the character of Graham grants the film the narrative dimension of storytelling. As readers, we understand that the journal Algren gave to Graham is what makes the story.
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