[Our Sunday Visitor, December 28, 2003]
The Last Samurai
It turns out that guys are just as sentimental as the next guy, but what they get sentimental about is killing people. Run somebody through with a lance, shoot an arrow through a heart, slice a neck with a sword—pretty soon, everybody’s hugging and blubbering.
I’ve got a pretty strong stomach for screen violence (the secret is: it’s fake) but ‘The Last Samurai’ exceeded my capacity by sheer endurance; the slashing, stabbing, and slicing goes on and on and on. It’s creatively gruesome, too, and the relentlessness of the soundtrack wears you down as well. But all this was thrilling to the young male audience around me, and that’s who this film was made for. Yet it’s so much more than a slasher movie. It’s a sentimental slasher movie. It’s ‘Titanic’ for guys.
The story is set in 1876, where a band of samurai is resisting Japan’s accommodations to the West. These are the ‘rebels,’ so we know they’re the good guys. Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is imported to turn the Emperor’s army into an American-style fighting machine. Instead, he is captured by samurai and brought to their mountain village for a long winter of healing. There he learns the vast superiority of ancient Japanese ways over anything America has to offer. The chief samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), meditates before a giant golden Buddha. ‘I have never been a church-going man, but I know there is something spiritual about this place,’ Algren muses.
The connection between tranquil meditation and slashing through an enemy’s face is not spelled out. The rebels’ cause is not explained; the whole plot is a muddle. The emperor is a teenaged boy, and he implores Katsumoto for advice, but the samurai only bows and says he must decide for himself. (About what?). Later, Katsumoto tells Algren sadly, ‘The Emperor could not hear my words.’ That’s what they call ‘inscrutable.’
The only sure thing we’re told, right from the top, is that this is about Honor. The tiny band of samurai gladly plunge toward certain death against the army, inspired by the Greeks at Thermopylae who ended up ‘Dead, to the last man,’ Algren grins. I was thinking, what about the last woman, not to mention the children, behind you in the village? The point of fighting is not defending those helpless ones, or any other clearly-explained cause, but Honor. As Gatling guns mow down the samurai, Algren and Katsumoto keep going, a feat that looks increasingly improbable. Finally they are kneeling together in the field, holding onto each other, and Algren assists Katsumoto’s suicide. Later, the Emperor and Algren get simultaneously teary-eyed about this. To kill and to die for Honor is the greatest good there is.
A contrary opinion was expressed by St. Teresa of Avila. The soul who has seen the Lord ‘deplores the deception it suffered in believing that what the world called honor was honor. It sees how this belief about honor is the greatest lie.’