Friday, January 25, 2008

A Well-Laid Structure With a Soul

Idea: In the 19th century, an American ex-soldier hired to train Japanese soldiers is captured by the rebellious samurais and ends up understanding and loving them and fighting on their side against his ex-bosses.

I have to admit that this single logline makes the movie worth seeing it. It promises two big battles (one against the samurai, the other with the samurai), exotic settings (19th century Japan), and a tremendous character arc (a cynical ex-soldier finds love and meaning in the last place he would imagine - among his enemies). Plus the samurais! Being based on true events (the samurais have really rebelled against the government) the conflict inherent in the idea certainly increases the appeal of the movie.

Plot: We travel with Nathan Algren, who had fought against the Indians in some questionable battles, from America to Japan. Here he is supposed to train the new Japanese army against the rebellious samurai "whose sole occupation in the last thousand years had been fighting". We watch a very interesting battle between the new Japanese army, consisting of former farmers armed with modern guns, and the samurai, who insists on using only traditional weapons - swords, bows and arrows, and spears. At the end of first act, Nathan Algren is captured by the samurai and taken to their village. Through the entirety of the second act we witness Capt. Algren's transformation: The sardonic soldier becomes a new man who learns to appreciate life fully. There's also an implied love relation between Nathan Algren and Taka, the wife of the samurai whom he had killed. When his transformation is complete, so is the second act.

In act three, Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai, is rescued from his captors. And a great but unequal battle forms the climactic sequence of this act. We watch in awe as sword carrying samurai ride their horses to machine gun fire. The finale comes when the only survivor of this brutal war appears before the Japanese emperor and promises him to tell how Katsumoto lived.

Characters: There's no doubt that Nathan Algren is the protagonist here. He experiences the greatest character arc. The enbittered soldier comes to embrace life and the higher values of the samurai. Other minor characters experience transformation in their own ways too. Katsumoto and his entourage come to recognize the noble character of Nathan Algren, who was their enemy once. They even accept him as one of their own. Another great transformation is experienced by Katsumoto's sister, Taka. She forgives the American soldier for killing his husband, and even grows to like him. And the emperor Meiji realizes that abandoning his cultural values for technical improvements is a mistake. All these transformations take place in a very realistic manner, which gives great depth to the screenplay. Though many films fail to show us a single character arc, The Last Samurai manages to present us more than a few.

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