HD-DVD is the first high-definition format out the door, and "The Last Samurai" is one of Warner Bros.' first releases in the new medium. I chose to review the HD-DVD of "The Last Samurai" first because I feel it contains the best compromise between video quality and film value. Of WB's other two initial releases, "Million Dollar Baby" undoubtedly is the better film, while "The Phantom of the Opera" contains some of the most spectacular video.
First, though, a word about the movie. Big, rousing, and stunning to the eye, while still being sensitive, touching, and sincere are obviously what the filmmakers were attempting in 2003's dramatic action-adventure "The Last Samurai." Yet these are descriptions hardly applicable to most Hollywood epics. In fact, only a few films come to mind that combine pageantry with poignancy, spectacle with human interest.
David Lean was a master at such things, of course: "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago." But that was a long time ago, and there hasn't been much since. Nevertheless, I'd put "The Last Samurai" at least in the same category if not in the same league as these illustrious antecedents. "The Last Samurai" has the look and feel of a thoughtful, epic fable, even if Hollywood tends to put its own stamp on history as it goes along.
Tom Cruise stars in the film, both a blessing and a curse, one of the film's biggest assets and, potentially, one of its biggest liabilities. Cruise is the quintessential contemporary movie star. We know him as the iconic modern hero, the jet fighter pilot extraordinaire, the spy of impossible missions, the troubled husband or sports agent or criminal investigator of the late twentieth-century and beyond. But in a historical costume drama? Well, we saw him as the vampire Lestat, and that worked out OK. I mean, this is not John Wayne playing Genghis Khan ("The Conqueror"). Besides, Cruise is a good enough actor that two minutes into the picture we pretty much forget him as a movie star and see him only as Civil War Captain Nathan Algren. It's a compliment to the actor's underrated ability that he is able to transcend his own persona and make an audience willingly suspend its disbelief. Indeed, it is what good acting is all about.
I liked "The Last Samurai" a lot, although it's not hard to see a number of flaws in its construction. But they are no harder for the viewer to overcome than the business of the film's star mentioned above. Issues of historical bias, for instance, fact vs. romanticism, excessive length, and sometimes uneasy fusions of beauty and brutality detract only slightly from the film's overall effectiveness.
The story involves a decorated hero of the Civil War, Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a decade later fallen into drunkenness and performing in side shows selling Winchester rifles. He feels severe guilt from his killing of innocent Native-American women and children after the War while serving in the Seventh Cavalry under Custer. He seeks some sort of redemption but cannot find it. What he does find, however, is money. The Japanese government is looking for a military leader to train their new Imperial Army. Japan was finally making a move toward modernization and Westernization, and they needed an army to quell an uprising of samurai who were dedicated to preserving the country's old ways. Algren accepts the job because it pays well. The country's militarization, I might add, continued until Japan was the dominant power in the Eastern world and was only stopped by World War II.
Ken Watanobe plays Katsumoto, the leader of the rebellious samurai. It is Katsumoto whom Algren is expected to meet and defeat on the field of battle. To Algren, Katsumoto represents simply another tribal leader, much like the ones he had to fight many times on the American Plains. But in Algren's first encounter with the samurai, his superior numbers are outfought and easily overrun, and Algren is taken prisoner. It is here that the real story begins.
Katsumoto respects Algren for his courage, so keeps him alive; he resides among the samurai for almost a year, from 1876 to 1877, learning their customs and their codes of honor, even learning their language. Katsumoto's sister, whose husband, ironically, Algren killed in battle, cares for him. Needless to say, Algren comes to admire the samurai and their cause. The samurai, you see, believe they are serving the young and impressionable Emperor by rising up against his wicked advisors, who are counseling him to give up the centuries-old traditions of their country and accept Western ways. Algren agrees with the samurai and in time joins forces with them.
Still, this is a motion picture. While the film makes the Emperor's longing to Westernize his country a corrupt desire, makes the Emperor's troops the evil enemy of all right-thinking people everywhere, and makes the samurai the noble protectors of Japan's heritage, history suggests otherwise. In truth, the samurai had enjoyed great prominence in Japan for nearly a thousand years and resented their high station being taken away from them. The rebellions that took place at the time of the story were primarily to preserve the old social order, with the samurai at the top.
In other words, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the samurai at the time the film is set were not always as honorable as the filmmakers would have us believe. "In the mid-19th century many impoverished samurai were attracted to the movement to expel Western foreigners from the country and restore the old Imperial family to their rightful place as the actual rulers of Japan. Large numbers of these samurai left their lords and became ronin. These ronin heightened the revolutionary mood of the country in the years prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 by assassinating moderate officials, pro-Western scholars, and foreigners residing in Japan." Therefore, don't believe everything you see in the movies.
Anyway, the facts of the story may be skewed to favor the samurai and Capt. Algren, but this shouldn't interfere with one's enjoyment of the picture as a whole. The director, Edward Zwick ("Legends of the Fall," "Courage Under Fire," "Glory"), makes an admirable effort to combine a quiet, spiritual serenity with a harsh, worldly reality, and he almost succeeds. We see the samurai prepare for war amid the tranquility of a mountain village. And at end of almost every fight sequence, we see things like placid gardens and cherry blossoms in bloom. This makes portions of the film contemplative and relaxing and utterly gorgeous to look at, while making other sections exciting and exhilarating. The device may be overused, but it's still reasonably effective in communicating an important contradiction about the Japanese culture of the day.
Much of "The Last Samurai" is moving, much of it beautiful, much of it stirring, and much of it boring. I'm sorry about that last part, but it's true. The film goes on at least a half an hour too long, with a middle section that the filmmakers could easily have edited down. We get the point without having to belabor it. In Kevin Costner's similarly themed movie, "Dances With Wolves," where a Civil War hero goes West and identifies with and assimilates the culture of Native Americans, the pace was such that even at an hour longer than this film, it seemed shorter.
There are also some inconsistencies in the film I was never able to resolve. For instance, when Algren first encounters the samurai in battle, he kills what looks like about 200 of them in hand-to-hand combat. Yet when he is captured and begins working out with the samurai, he can't beat anybody in the village at anything. So, how did he perform so extraordinarily before? Pure adrenaline? Go figure.
The film's philosophy is also suspect. There is the matter of the samurai code mentioned above, for example, and there are overblown phrases like the following from Capt. Algren: "I believe a man does what he can until his destiny is revealed." It's this kind of stuff that slows down the film considerably. Not that David Lean didn't have many thoughtful, leisurely moments in his films, too, but he filled every frame with something of substance. In "Samurai" every frame is merely filled.
"The Last Samurai" attempts a very personal story on a very grand scale, always a difficult proposition to bring off but here made doubly hard by dividing the viewer's attention between Algren and Katsumoto. Fortunately, both Cruise and Watanabe are good enough performers to accomplish the feat, with Watanabe earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting actor. And the rest of the cast do their share as well: Billy Connolly as Sgt. Zebulon Gant, Algren's old army buddy; Tony Goldwyn as Col. Bagley, Algren's old army superior and hated enemy; the wonderful Timothy Spall as Simon Graham, a British interpreter, advisor on protocol, writer, and photographer; Masato Harada as Omura, the Emperor's chief advisor; Shin Koyamada as Nobutada, Katsumoto's son; and Koyuki as Taka, the enigmatic woman who takes care of Algren and in whose house he stays.
The battles in "The Last Samurai" are graphic and bloody and the violence is intense, warranting the film's R rating but showing up vividly in high definition. Oddly, though, there are very few shots of the entire panorama of conflict, the director preferring to stay in close on individual sections of the battlefield. I would liked to have seen a larger, wider scope to the canvas in high-def. Again, though, this close-up action is probably an attempt to make something more intimate of the actions.
The movie ends in guts and glory, the conclusion playing out like "The Charge of the Light Brigade," with Captain Algren passing into legend. Nevertheless, I think we can forgive the film its Hollywood trappings; melodrama and hyperbole always make for good theater. As I say, in the last analysis we remember the film largely for its polished blend of beauty and barbarity.
As on the standard-definition edition, the HD picture is presented in some commendably wide dimensions, measuring a 2.40:1 theatrical-release ratio. As before, the colors are vivid and solid, with blacks especially stable. Much of the color palette appears to emulate an exquisite Japanese painting or mural, and the video transfer captures the feeling nicely. Much of the imagery is a joy to look at. In high definition, grain and moiré effects, jittery, wavy lines, are even less an issue than ever. And WB do not appear to have applied any copy-protection restraints on the disc, meaning it can be played through component video connections with no down-conversion.
The big advantage of high-def, though, is the definition, the object clarity and inner detailing, and here is where the HD version of "The Last Samurai" shines. I watched the movie in its full 1080 horizontal lines of output through my television's HDMI input, and if you haven't seen high definition before, it can be mighty impressive. I had found the definition in the standard-resolution, 480-line edition only so-so, but in comparison the HD picture is quite good. You can walk up to several HD images on screen and see every hair on a samurai warrior's face (if that's your idea of a good time). However, no amount of added clarity can overcome minor defects in the original print, and I still think some scenes are soft, and overall image is often overly lit, particularly faces, making for a fairly glassy appearance, with minor backlighting haloes and faces literally radiating light (perhaps or perhaps not the intent of the cinematography). Then, too, the image can sometimes be on the dark side, making faces not only glassy but also dusky.
One last thing: It really isn't fair to rate the picture quality of a high-definition DVD with that of a standard-definition disc; apples and oranges and all that. If we rated one against the other, every HD disc would get a 10/10 score, which wouldn't allow for comparisons among various HD DVDs. Therefore, the 8/10 I assigned to this disc would probably be the equivalent of a 9/10 or 10/10 score for a standard-def disc. I hope this makes sense to readers, and I won't get accused of saying that this disc looks no better than a lot of standard-def discs. It is noticeably better than its SD equivalent.
The English soundtrack available on the HD-DVD is in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. DD+ is Dolby labs' newest addition to the Dolby Digital family, providing, they say, the benefits of up to 7.1 channels and maintaining quality at more efficient bit rates. I listened through the analogue audio 5.1-channel surround outputs of my Toshiba HD-A1 because the player has only a core DTS encoder, which outputs a DD+ signal that my Dolby Digital-only receiver does not recognize. Not worry: Dolby Labs claims that the sound through the 5.1 analogue outputs is cleaner and clearer than through the composite digital output in any case.
Now, here's the thing: WB's disc appears to be mastered at some 10 db or so lower than the SD disc. Be careful about turning up the volume. After adjusting the SD and HD discs for equal output, I preferred the sound of the HD-DVD's DD+ through the analogue outputs. It seemed clearer, more open, and more extended than the regular DD 5.1 track on the SD disc, just as Dolby Labs claimed. Of course, increasing the overall volume means that you'll have to turn down the sound the next time you play a standard-definition disc with its greater gain, or you may endanger your speakers or your ears.
As in the standard-definition version, there is a strong dynamic impact throughout the film; a good deep bass, never overused even during combat sequences; and a realistic tonal balance. In addition, the surround channels are used to good effect from the very beginning of the film with the sound of streetcar bells and noises behind and to the sides of the listening area. Then, the expected sounds of gunshots, rain, and thunder later envelope the room. In comparison to the regular DD 5.1 on the SD disc, the DD+ seemed a little more open, equally dynamic, with maybe slightly more top end.
One of the additional advantages of HD-DVD is that there is enough room on a single disc for not only as long a movie as this one (154 minutes) and its various soundtracks, but for a good number of extras as well (although the extras here are in standard-definition, 480i, just as before). This single HD disc contains the same bonus contents included in the standard-edition two-disc set. There is a lot to digest, but one can't help feeling after watching the bulk of these extras that a good deal of it is repetition and hype. Nevertheless, most of it is worth watching, if only once. The first things up are an audio commentary with director Edward Zwick; an abundant forty-one scene selections (but no chapter insert, only a promo for other WB HD-DVD titles); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Next is a twenty-one minute History Channel Documentary, "History vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai," which attempts to separate fact from fiction in the movie. Unfortunately, it plays mostly like another promo for the film, about the only meaningful conclusion being that Hollywood has romanticized the samurai by turning them into "good" guys fighting the "bad" Imperial Army of Japan. It really doesn't take long into the film for the viewer to figure that one out for himself. The next major items are a twenty-six minute segment called "Edward Zwick: A Director's Video Journal," a behind-the-scenes production record narrated by Zwick and Cruise; a twelve-minute discussion of the film and the star's role in it, "Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey"; and seventeen minutes of "Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick," self explanatory.
The rest of the extras are given over to a series of short, five-to-seven minute featurettes, which I liked best of all. "A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert" shows us how the sets were built; "Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson" tells us about the costuming; and "Imperial Army Basic Training: From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons" explains how the film's many extras were drilled in combat and tactical maneuvers. Finally, there are two deleted scenes lasting about five minutes, with optional director commentary; film of the Japan premieres in Tokyo and Kyoto; and a widescreen theatrical trailer.
Because HD also offers the ability to pop menus up right on the screen while the movie is playing, it's kind of fun not having to keep going back to the disc menu at the top of the program every time you want to access something different. Finally, I should note that the HD-DVD keep case, which Warner Bros. call an "elite red HD case," is smaller than a normal keep case, thinner by a third, and about three-quarters of an inch less tall. You'll have no trouble recognizing it on your shelf.
WB also provide a feature that lets you zoom in or pan a scene in various close-up settings. I'm not sure why a person would want to do this, but it might be fun for a moment's distraction.
As a thoughtful, well-photographed, and reasonably well-filled-out epic, "The Last Samurai" makes a good choice for high-definition viewing. No doubt there will be those people who find the movie boring and pretentious, while others will find it exceptionally violent and bloody. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms as a piece of Hollywood entertainment rather than as a history or philosophy lesson, the film works quite well. It may come off as typically glamorizing war and heroism, but there is no questioning its passion and craftsmanship. Nor is there any questioning the movie looks better on HD-DVD than it did in standard definition.
"The Last Samurai" was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound. To the dismay of its many fans, the movie won none.