LAST SAMURAI, THE – Blu-ray review

Regardless of what has happened over the past two years with Tom Cruise and his TomKat behavior and involvement with the cult religion of Scientology, he is still a big star. He is a very talented actor and is capable of tackling difficult roles and placing himself into various genres of film. Although he is known for his action films, such as the “Mission: Impossible” films, “War of the Worlds” and “Minority Report,” Cruise has done some great work over the years. His performance as Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July” is powerful and moving. His character role of Lestat de Lioncourt in “Interview with the Vampire” allowed Cruise a little villainy. “Jerry Maguire” showed that Cruise could offer up a little heart and humanity and his “You complete me” line is now cemented in pop culture. His portrayal of Nathan Atherton in “The Last Samurai” finds Cruise in a difficult role where he must shift focus from being a drunken veteran of the Indian wars during the time of Custer and then be a stranger in a strange land in two different situations when the film shifts to a post-feudal Japan.

“The Last Samurai” is about changing times within Japanese society. The Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) is being pressed to bring the ancient Empire of Japan into a more Western way of living and stop relying on the Samurai as defense, but bear arms with American guns, howitzers and tactics. The Samurai reject these drastic changes in society and continue to defend Japan with their swords. A civil war erupts between the Samurai and the newly trained Japanese Army and the last tribe of Samurai is targeted for eradication. Led by the charismatic, noble and wise Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the final tribe continues to serve the Emperor, but is unaware of their nation’s intentions and desires. Katsumoto has been removed from council and Samurai are no longer held in high regard by the Westernized Japanese culture. To aid in training the Japanese Army to fight and defeat the rebellious Samurai, the Japanese Army enlists the help of American war hero Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise).

Algren is quickly forced into combat with unfit and unready troops and although his trained soldiers fight, they are no match for the Samurai and old honors force other soldiers to resist fighting the Samurai. During the rout, Nathan kills a Samurai in red armor, but is taken captive when Katsumoto barks orders to the Samurai to not kill Nathan. When Nathan awakes, he is under the care of the widow of the Samurai he has killed in combat. He is captive to the Samurai and cannot escape. Katsumoto desires to practice his English with conversation between he and Nathan, but Nathan is not happy about being forced to live with his captors. The Samurai harshly train Nathan to fight with a sword and slowly bring the ugly American into their community and he becomes a respected member of their society. When Spring comes, talks between Katsumoto and the Council fail miserably and the last great Samurai are facing eradication by the Japanese Army. Nathan chooses to fight alongside the Samurai and face the American trained Japanese Army and fellow American soldiers.

“The Last Samurai” is a film that takes a historical look at the Samurai, there strong belief system and their amazing skills with a sword. The film looks at the slow evolution of the Japanese to a Western society and the days when the historic Samurai slowly lose favor with Japanese politics and society. The film shows the redemption of a man who has lost himself with alcohol and depression and finds himself while living with noble, respectable and honorable people. Katsumoto and the Samurai face certain death and as they die and lose their own lives, Nathan Algren finds himself and is reborn as a new man who lives with honor and lives with a respect for what he has learned from his conversations and time with Katsumoto.

Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe are powerful in their portrayals of a powerful and respected Samurai leader and a drunken cavalry soldier who has lost his will to continue. Watanabe is a fine actor and Hollywood is finally starting to learn the value of this man. After “The Last Samurai,” Watanabe has found roles in “Batman Begins,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” and the upcoming “Wolverine.” He is a great actor and this film was his breakout performance. Regardless of his personal life and beliefs, Tom Cruise is an actor that is going to continue to impress for many years to come. He is a talented actor and this film would not have been nearly as effective in its ability to entertain without Cruise fighting alongside Watanabe.

The story is strong and the various relationships and personal growth that occurs within and surround Nathan Algren is beautifully done by director Edward Zwick. The emotions and situations involving the main characters are wonderfully acted and written. Joining these emotional segments are amazingly choreographed fighting sequences with katana and musket. The exterior locations are absolutely gorgeous and the Samurai armor contrasted against the beautiful Japanese countryside are riveting and help deliver a powerful and epic feel to “The Last Samurai.” I had a lot of hesitation in watching this film and avoided it theatrically. It was the first HD-DVD title I had bought and I looked forward to watching it again on Blu-ray. Cruise, Watanabe and Zwick form a powerful trio that deliver an entertaining, captivating and interesting film and a beautiful entry on either of the high definition formats.

As I mentioned above, “The Last Samurai” is an absolutely gorgeous film. Director of Photography, John Toll, did an amazing job shooting this picture and the film’s director Edward Zwick deserves mention for spending days trying to get the perfect shot. Much of the epic splendor of “The Last Samurai” is its depiction of turn of the century Japan. The costumes and sets are a sight to see. Fortunately, the VC-1 codec handles the 1080p/2.40:1 transfer very nicely. I was overly impressed when I watched “The Last Samurai” on HD-DVD and I still remain impressed watching it nearly a year later on the competing Blu-ray format in a perfectly similar transfer. The picture is highly detailed, vividly colorful and pristine. The outdoor scenes are as lovely as it gets. The textures of the Samurai armor shows the strong level of detail and Watanabe’s armor is richly detailed and showcased by the transfer. Black levels are deep and the darkest scenes keep their visually strong characteristics. This great looking film only looks better in high definition.

“The Last Samurai” equals the HD-DVD release with its Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The battle scenes sound absolutely epic with this lively and bombastic sound track. The sounds of the howitzers and Gatling guns in the final epic battle possess bass and power to each shot. The metallic meeting of swords and armor is convincing and impressive as well. The film contains a wealth of atmospheric effects and ambient sounds, giving a full and healthy life to the rear surrounds. In addition to the powerful combat scenes, a moment of hard rainfall is fully realized by all five primary channels. The score by veteran composer Hans Zimmer delivers a further level of epic feel to this grand picture. Dialogue is nicely anchored in the center channel and is perfectly intelligible. The Blu-ray release does not have “Plus” in its Dolby Digital title due to an inability for the format to support Dolby Digital Plus mixes with fewer than seven channels. It is identical to the HD-DVD Dolby Digital Plus mix.

“The Last Samurai” is provided with a plethora of very nice pieces of value added content. The sole difference between the formats is the handling of the pop up menus. On the HD-DVD release, the extra menu can be browsed while the disc is playing. The Blu-ray title stops playback and goes to a static menu. Aside from this functionality difference, there is no difference between the two releases. All of the features are ported from the standard definition DVD release from a few years back. This was one of the overly nice initial launch titles on HD-DVD and Warner had delayed the film’s entry onto Blu-ray until the BD-50 discs were plentiful. With a running time of two and a half hours and a lengthy amount of supplements, it was a wise choice.

The Commentary by Director Edward Zwick is an informative, educational and entertaining commentary. The film’s director delivers a large number of facts relating to historical Japan and sheds a lot of life on the events depicted in the film. Zwick speaks for the full running length of the film and never sounds as if he is searching for something to say. He is an intelligent and well spoken man that is mild mannered. This is a detail heavy commentary track, but Zwick is masterful in his ability to keep it interesting.

A full screen’s worth of features is also housed on the Blu-ray title. The History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai (22:05) details the political upheaval faced by the Samurai during the late 1800s and compares it to the events of the film. This History Channel documentary featured some nice details about the historic Samurai and the reasoning for the conflict between old Japan and new Japan. This educated me that an edict was issued forcing Samurai to give up their swords. Although this was a promotional feature, it was quite interesting. I tend to like these History Channel specials. The second feature is the Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise (17:52). This features Zwick and Cruise sitting down, face-to-face and recounting their experiences with each other and the making of the film. There is a ton of back-patting here, but it features some good making of tidbits.

The next featurettes solely focuses on Tom Cruise and A Warrior’s Journey (12:56) shows the hard work the actor underwent to portray a Samurai warrior in the film. This is a continuation of the first part, “Making an Epic.” I must admit that I was impressed with how hard Cruise worked for his role. The next chapter in the making of feature is A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert (7:15). This looked at the building of a turn of the century Japanese street on a Warner Bros. backlot. The next bit, Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson (6:29) looked at the beautiful costumes and Samurai armor used in the film and helping to bring to life 1876 Japan. This contained sketches of the costumes and other interesting bits. Imperial Army Basic Training (5:41) showed how the actors trained for the film’s battle sequences and how an Army of Japanese martial artists and actors were assembled in New Zealand for the film. The documentary segments begin to wind down with From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons (5:10). This was a cool segment that looked at the guns, the swords and guns depicted in the film. The film used 741 weapons and an equally large number of replicas. The last part of “Behind the Story” was the Edward Zwick: Director’s Video Journal (26:18). Zwick starts with Day 1 and moves throughout production and provides a wealth of information about the making of the movie. This was the nicest of the segments of the making of documentary.

In addition to the Behind the Story documentary, some additional and smaller inclusions are found on the disc. The Additional Scenes featured additional and optional commentary by the film’s director. The first scene, “The Beheading” (3:46) is slightly self explanatory and shows a hard reality upon Nathan Algren’s initial arrival in Japan when a Samurai is free with his sword. The second scene, “Algren and Katsumoto” (2:18) shows additional conversation between the two after Algren starts to show improvement with a wooden sword. The Japan Premieres (6:54) shows footage from the two Japanese premieres in November 2003. Much of this is in Japanese and no subtitles are provided. Bushido: The Way of the Warrior is a text based feature detailing the seven principles of the Samurai. This made for a nice quick read. Finally, the film’s Theatrical Trailer find the Blu-ray saying “You complete me.”

Closing Thoughts:
“The Last Samurai” is a very good film that offers a look at the turn of the century in Japan when politics had asked Samurai to turn in their swords and give up their honorable way of life. The film shows a fictional set of battles between the last tribe of Samurai and American trained soldiers. One of the trainers is capture and becomes a leader among the Samurai when he proves his worth. Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe are both very talented actors and help bring director Edward Zwick’s picturesque and entertaining epic to life. The Blu-ray release features stunning visuals and strong audio. The features are informative and educational pieces about the making of the film. To fully take in everything contained on this disc will take about eight hours. Every minute is worthwhile.