"The Last Samurai" marked the final big screen directorial effort from Kenji Misumi, the heavyweight name behind, most notably a number of the "Zatoichi" films as well as four of seven, "Lone Wolf and Cub" films. Those familiar with those two legendary series should have a good clue of what to expect in the most basic on senses, when approaching "The Last Samurai," a 159-minute epic whose lofty narrative aspirations don't quite hit all the required marks, but thanks in part to the steady hand of a master director like Misumi, the rough waves in the voyage don't end in a journey that fails to reach its intended destination. Those familiar with the Edward Zwick films of the same name, but starring Tom Cruise in a story that's very familiar with "Dances with Wolves" will find little similar to that admirable Westernized take on Samurai culture. What little the two films do have in common though, namely the setting of the end of the Samurai heyday, are what make this sometimes, incredibly trying film worthy of at least a solitary viewing.
The film's abrupt opening, mid-massacre sets the tone of the film quite perfectly, throwing viewers into a kinetically charged morass of swift action-reaction stemming from complex, often entirely unclear intentions behind the scenes. Intentional or not, the film, at least two one not fully versed in Samurai lore and period politics, rockets viewers into sharply edited sequences that is supposed to both set the stage for the finale but at the expense of, too often not properly introducing characters or at least introducing them so briefly, that a less than keen eye could quickly fall behind. The main narrative follows Sugi (Hideki Takahashi), a ronin whose skill with the sword defied odds set against him at an early age. While the film itself is somewhat broken into two thematic halves, the basic flow puts us with Sugi as he encounters genre staples including love and romance as well as decisions that test his loyalty to friends and higher callings.
Where "The Last Samurai" covers more fascinating ground is the consistent feeling of dread that the Samurai way is coming to a close as outside influence is taking hold. It's here where those familiar with the 2003 film (and I must stress, there is nothing in a narrative sense, outside basic historical facts that the two have in common) will begin to understand the film's titular theme and how it relates to our protagonist. Again to an outsider, the influence of the Meiji period on the film helps me to have the necessary emotional connection to the main players in the film, where I'd otherwise be left in the dark at some of the confusing political machinations that often drive the film forward or at the very least serve as a reminder of days past reaching their inevitable conclusion.
Misumi's direction is far more than merely competent and the coupled with the rich, intense cinematography, the film captures the epic tone of the genre as it rightfully deserves. The film is thankfully never as exploitative as the "Lone Wolf and Cub" films nor nearly as self-contained as a "Zatoichi" entry and it was fascinating as a viewer familiar with the director's work on these two series (both of which I find wonderful), to see a master put his punctuating mark on the genre. It would be finally criminal to not at least mention, in passing the memorable score that keeps "The Last Samurai" moving along, composed by Akira Ifukube, the man who most famously gave us the "Godzilla" scores (not to mention that iconic roar itself). Again, it was a treat to hear someone so skilled in a particular genre get to do something different and show off their mastery of their work and Ifukube's score is definitely a very memorable aspect of the film. On the whole, "The Last Samurai" is a very good piece of entertainment and when it's firing on all cylinders, is quite the statement on the end of the Samurai. Like so many epics though, a repeat viewing allows greater context to early developments in the story, but to first time viewers, when the film is not so clear in its intent, it can be a confusing, disjointed experience. Either way, "The Last Samurai" is a fitting end to the career of yet another director whose name has faded from the a-list (or even b-list) historical lexicon.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer features a very intense color palette that sometimes suffers from some color bleeding issues. Detail is above average, somewhat obscured by a very grainy/noisy transfer. While the film definitely looks like it has been cleaned up, it betrays its age with minor print damage, while compression artifacts can be a somewhat disappointing addition.
The Dolby Digital Japanese 2.0 audio track is relatively balanced, albeit with the slightest hollow sound to background effects at time as well as somewhat expected high-end distortion. English subtitles are included.
The on-disc extras include a number of text-based bios for cast a crew, the film's original trailer, a still image gallery from both the film and the actual historical period, film to novel comparisons, and a historical timeline. Inside the case, printed on the reverse of the cover art is an essay on Misumi by Tom Mes.
Kenji Misumi's "The Last Samurai" is a fitting end point as well as solid encapsulation of a lesser-known director's career. While the film is definitely not an upper-tier, highly accessible genre film, it is sure to please the bigger fans of the genre as well as those interested in semi-character study at the end of a rich historical era. The film has its faults, but when it's on it's A-game, it's a true treasure. Recommended.