A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
It's better to approach people with curiosity and humility than arrogance, even when dealing with enemies. But the film simplifies/glorifies bushido, the samurai way of life, while modernity (guns, railroads, capitalism) is portrayed as a loss of innocence. These flat depictions portray Japanese samurai as clichéd "noble savages" who are innocent but wise.
Positive Role Models
Algren committed wartime atrocities that still haunt him. When he's ordered to put down another rebellion, he finds himself siding with the rebels -- the samurai -- showing curiosity and humility as he learns about their culture. Several samurai are positively portrayed, if two-dimensional and martyred: Katsumoto has deep wisdom and radical compassion, Nobutada is kind and joyful, Taka is the perfect caregiver, etc. Many greedy characters also exist, such as Mr. Omura, who will gladly see the samurai murdered so that he can build his railroad, and the racist Colonel Bagley.
Story centers on White character in a movie about samurai and the Meiji Restoration, easily falling into White savior narrative, but it does have a majority Asian cast and stars veteran Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada. It's also one of the few American films to explore this time in history -- Japan's 19th century efforts to modernize -- and it does so with curiosity and a deep respect for bushido (the samurai way of life). Algren's behavior in a remote samurai village is positive, as he stays humble, learns Japanese, and defers to locals. But the film's respect for bushido slips into glorification, arguably fetishization, as samurai fall into "noble savage" stereotypes: innocent but wise and uncorrupted by modern civilization. Also uses the historical genocide of Native Americans to further a White character's narrative, painting Algren as a "good guy" for feeling tortured about taking part in a massacre. The only female character of note is Taka, who's clichéd as the main love interest who nurses Algren back to health. The film has racist language, mainly used to depict White characters as villains as they call Native Americans "the red man" and "savage." But neutrally portrayed White characters also use words like "Jappos" and "Orientals."
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Violence & Scariness
Intense battle scenes with sword fighting, shooting, cannon fire, and explosions. Characters use katanas, spears, guns, and arrows to kill one another (there's blood, but no gore). Soldiers catch fire, and horses die during battle. War flashbacks to White Americans invading and gunning down a Native American settlement, including shooting children (screaming, blood splatters). Seppuku depicted, as a samurai disembowels himself with a short sword and is decapitated (head rolls; no blood). Sad scenes as several sympathetic characters are killed on-screen. A character stitches a bloody wound.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Implied romance as one character refers to a widow and her son as people he's "come to love," plus lingering looks and a near kiss. Sexual tension when he comes across her at the end of a bath (a bare shoulder is shown) and when she takes off his shirt in order to put armor on him.
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Language includes "s--t," "damn," "ass," "son of a bitch," and "bastard." White villains say "the red man" and "savage" to describe Native Americans. Neutrally portrayed White characters say "Jappos" and "Orientals."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Characters drink, including the main character, who drinks to inebriation as a coping mechanism for his flashbacks to war trauma. Characters occasionally smoke.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Last Samurai is a historical war drama starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe that's set during Japan's Meiji Restoration era in the late 1800s. Expect intense battle scenes with sword fighting, shooting, cannon fire, and explosions. The main character has war flashbacks to invading and gunning down a Native American settlement, including shooting children (screaming, blood splatters). Several sympathetic characters are killed on-screen, including by seppuku (a suicide ritual). Characters drink to inebriation and sometimes smoke. They also say "s--t," "damn," "ass," and "son of a bitch," while White characters say "red man" and "savage" to describe Native Americans, plus use the terms "Jappos" and "Orientals." There's a bit of romantic tension that includes lingering looks and a near kiss. Though the film falls into the White savior narrative, main character Algren (Cruise) does demonstrate curiosity about other cultures and has humility when interacting with them, as does samurai leader Katsumoto (Watanabe). The film also has a majority Asian cast. But it uses the historical genocide of Native Americans to further a White character's narrative, and the only female character of note is clichéd as a love interest who nurses the main character back to health. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
This epic action drama has some outstanding action scenes and memorable performances, but its greatest strength is its scope. Director/co-author Edward Zwick imbues every part of the screen with respect, even majesty. The epic reach of The Last Samurai is grounded in committed and thoughtful performances, especially from Watanabe and Koyuki as Taka, Katsumoto's sister. Cruise delivers his usual performance, sincere and loaded with movie-star charisma. His mastery of the samurai fighting techniques is impressive.
However, the movie's greatest weakness is that, while we know that Algren's commanding officer is a bad guy, the emperor is a weak guy (who's advised by a greedy guy), and Katsumoto is a good guy, we never understand the substance of the conflict well enough to take sides. One side may be corrupt, but it's grappling with the inevitable in engaging with modernity. And the other side may have honor and dignity, but by embracing its own extinction, it seems to have forgotten how to do anything other than fight, no matter what the consequences to its community. And the last 20 minutes or so are disappointingly formulaic, undercutting the power of everything that came before.
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