Tag: Ken Watanabe

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Lush romantic adaptation settles for tourism and pretty pictures instead of any emotional or narrative weight

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri Nitta/Chiyo), Ken Watanabe (Chairman Ken Iwamura), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), Gong Li (Hatsumomo), Suzuka Ohgo (Young Chiyo), Kōji Yakusho (Nobu), Kaori Momoi (Kayoko Nitta), Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin), Kotoko Kawamura (Grandmother Nitta), Tsai Chin (Auntie), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (the Baron), Samantha Futerman (Satsu Sakamoto), Mako (Mr. Sakamoto)

In 1920s Japan, 9 year old disgraced former geisha pupil Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) meets a businessman, Chairman Ken Iwamura (Ken Watanabe), who is kind to her. She resolves to one day become a geisha so she may see him again. As a young woman, Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi), as she is now known, masters the geisha arts under the tutelage of famous geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). She encounters the Chairman again – but can she confess her love? And can she escape the attempts of her rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li) to destroy her?

Arthur Golden’s romantic novel was a major success in 1997, tapping into a fascination with Japanese culture. It was inevitable it would come to the screen. But in the journey, it has been stripped down into a beautiful but basically empty story, that seems trite and shallow and revolves around hard-to-invest in characters. By the time it’s finished you’ll wonder what the fuss was about.

The reconstruction of 1920s-40s Japan does look radiant, even if the film focuses on the most chocolate-box, touristy view of Japan you could possibly imagine (think of a Japanese item, event or object and it’s in the film). But it’s radiantly shot and intricately put together – the geisha costumes are a gorgeous, multi-layered, decorative treat – and it’s not a surprise the film lifted three Oscars for cinematography, production and costume design.

It’s not a surprise as well that it was overlooked in all the majors. It’s well-directed by Rob Marshall (juggling a multi-lingual cast and framing the film beautifully), but fundamentally a mix of the highly predictable and the deeply troubling. It’s basically Geisha Expectations or Jane Geishyre. Our heroine is a poverty-stricken youth who makes a series of key encounters in her childhood that shape her whole personality as she comes into wealth as a young adult. Similarly, this quiet girl’s obsessive love for a distant businessman (whom, yuck, she meets as a child – and he compares her to his own children), suffering quietly while sacrificing everything to help him.

But it’s all much less interesting than either of those novels. Despite the narration by an older Sayuri, we never get inside the young woman’s head. Ziyi Zhang is given very little to work with: she either looks distressed, simpering or sad, and frequently fades into the background of her own story. All we really learn about her is that the Chairman gave her an ice cream when she was 9, and that this event influenced her entire life. Equally dull is the Chairman himself, whom Watanabe struggles to make anything other a mute and inscrutable character, terminally dull.

It’s hard to invest in a love-across-the-ages (in every sense) romance between these two, because the film fails to build them up as characters we care about and gives them hardly any time to be together. By the time we reach a late confession, that the Chairman decided (when Sayuri was 9) to turn her into his ideal geisha (um, grooming anyone? Oh yuck) and they finally kiss each other, they still feel like complete strangers. She never matures into a woman who can fall in love past her childhood obsession and he seems more like an oddly manipulative sugar daddy.

Memoirs of a Geisha flounders on the empty plot and non-characters at its heart. It ends up relying on the visuals and lovely design work, because there is no drive or interest in its plot. The film’s most compelling performance is Gong Li’s Hatsumomo and when she walks out of the picture three quarters of the way through, it never recovers. Gong is superb as an envious, embittered geisha being replaced by younger faces. She snipes and growls like a relic from a Bette Davis Hag-thriller, but in the next scene her face will crumple with fear and sadness. She gets all the best lines and the most interesting scenes, from sniping, to lost love to pyromaniac revenge.

Memoirs of a Geisha disappointed at the box office. It’s clumsy casting didn’t help: fine actresses as Zhang, Yeoh and Gong are, they were all Chinese (in Yeoh’s case Malaysian Chinese) rather than Japanese, and there was an uncomfortable feeling that the producers didn’t think this was really an issue. It opened up a can of worms about lingering Chinese hostility over Japanese war crimes, leading to a ban in China. In Japan, the casting was condemned and the film seen as more interested in a tourist eye on geisha culture than a truly Japanese one (and it does appear the film consulted virtually no Japanese people during its making).

All the glorious design in the world can’t hide the emptiness at the heart of Memoirs of a Geisha. World War Two is skipped over in about two minutes (Sayuri spends the time working in the hills, and sums up her whole wartime experience in a couple of sentences, delivered in voice-over while Zhang looks beautiful and pained washing fabric in a river). Other than their external glamour, we don’t learn much about what being a geisha actually means. Its central romance goes from bland, to anonymous, to deeply troubling. It looks wonderful, but if there was anything deeper to the novel than a luscious, gorgeous setting and a predictable, traditional romance, it’s completely lost in translation.

Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale redeems the Batman in Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (William Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul), Mark Boone Jnr (Detective Arnold Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb)

In the mid-2000s, Batman on film was a joke. A series that started with the Gothic darkness of Tim Burton had collapsed into the pantomime campness of Joel Schumacher. The franchise was functionally dead, so why hot burn it all down and start again from scratch. It was a radical idea – one of the first big “reboots” of a comic book saga. It was a triumphant success, changing the rule book for a host of film series and one of the most influential movies from the last 15 years. 

After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life drifts as he is unable to get over his own guilt at believing he was partly responsible for getting his parents into a situation where they were killed. In a Gotham run by organised crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Bruce exiles himself for years to try and learn the skills he will need to return and try and find some peace and deal with his fears by tackling crime head on. Recruited by his mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into the League of Shadows – a dark group of ninja inspired vigilantes – Wayne eventually rejects the group’s ruthlessness and returns to Gotham. There, working with his old guardian and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he starts to build a new identity: by day shallow playboy Bruce Wayne, by night The Bat Man ruthless vigilante, fighting crime. 

Why did it work so well? Because Christopher Nolan understood that the key to making a film that will kickstart a series and win the love of both the casual viewer and the fan is ‘simple’ – just make the film good. Make it a film powered by ideas, characters, a deliberate story and intriguing beats and audiences will love it. Make it a lowest common denominator film offering only bangs and crashes and ‘fan service’ and audiences will reject it. Because at the end of the day we know when we are being manipulated, and the assumption too many people behind making films like that is that people don’t really want intelligent films. They do.

Batman Begins works so well because it places character front-and-centre in a way no other Batman film – and very few superhero films – had before. Unlike all the other Batman films, here Bruce Wayne (and it is definitely Bruce Wayne) was the lead character, not a staid stick-in-the-mud around whom more colourful villains danced. Combine that with Nolan’s inspired idea to return Batman to something resembling a real-world, a more grounded, recognisable version of Gotham which has problems with organised crime that we could recognise from the real world. This are intelligent, inspired decisions that instantly allowed the film to take on a thematic and narrative depth the other Batman films had lacked. 

It’s Bruce Wayne’s psyche at the centre of the film – in an excellent performance of emotional honesty and physical commitment by Christian Bale – and his attempts to find solace in a sense of duty from his fears and his loss of a father figure. It’s Fear that is possibly one of the central themes of Batman Begins and the power it has over us. Fear is what Bruce must master – on a visceral level his fear of bats, on a deeper level his fear that he has failed his parents by failing the city they loved – and fear is the weapon all the villains use. Fear is the petrol for Falcone and his gangsters. Fear is the weapon Batman utilises. Fear is the study of choice of disturbed psychologist Joanthan Crane (a smarmily unsettling Cillian Murphy). A weaponised Fear gas is the WMD that the film’s villains intend to introduce into Gotham.

Understanding fear, working with it, finding its strengths and using these for good is at the core of the film. It’s there from the first beat – a traumatised young Bruce attacked by bats after falling into an abandoned well they nest in – and it’s there at the very end. Bruce’s training with mentor Ducard is as much about understanding and living with these terrors as it is physical prowess. His impact as Batman on the city is central towards channelling his own fears – bats, the dark, violence on an empty street – into universal fears he can use to terrorise criminals. 

It’s all part of the film’s quest to work out who Bruce Wayne is. With Bale superb at the centre, the film throws a host of potential father characters at Bruce, all offering different influences. He has no less than three father figures, in his father (a fine performance of decency by Linus Roache), the austere and understanding Ducard (Neeson channelling and inverting brilliantly his natural gravitas and calm) and the firm but fair and caring Alfred (Michael Caine quite brilliantly opening up a whole new career chapter). 

The influences are all there for Bruce to work out. Should he follow a path of compassionate justice as his father would do? How much muscular firmness and earnest duty, such as Alfred represents, should this be spiced with? How does Ducard’s increasingly extreme views of justice, combat and social order play into this? Which influence will win out over Bruce – or rather how will he combine all this into his own rules? It’s telling that the film’s villain turns out to be a dark false-father figure – the entire film is Bruce’s quest to come to turn with his own legacy and allow himself to accept his father and forgive himself.

It’s also telling that both hero and villain are driven by similar (but strikingly different) agendas. Both are looking to impose justice on the world. But where Bruce sees this as compassion with a punch – a necessary evil, protecting the good in the world while bringing down the evil – the League of Shadows see their mission as one of imposing Justice through chaos, of letting a world destroy itself so that a better one can rise from the ashes. 

Its ideas like this that pepper Christopher Nolan’s film. Throw in his superb film-making abilities and you have an absolute treat. Nolan’s direction is spot-on, superbly assembled with a mastery over character and story-telling. Beautifully designed, shot and edited it’s a perfect mixture of comic book rules and logic – the very idea of the League of Shadows – with the real world perils of crime, vigilanteeism and violence. With a superb cast led by Bale – and Gary Oldman also deserves mention, Nolan finally unleashing the decency, honesty and kindness in the actor that revitalised his career – Batman Begins relaunched Batman as a serious and intelligent series, that matched spectacle and excitement (and there is tonnes of it) with weighty themes, fine acting and superb film making. There is a reason why it’s been a touchstone for every reboot of a series made since.

Inception (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio caught between dreams and reality in Inception

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dom Cobb), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), Marion Cotillard (Mal Cobb), Ellen Page (Ariadne), Tom Hardy (Eames), Ken Watanabe (Saito), Dileep Rao (Yusof), Cillian Murphy (Robert Fischer), Tom Berenger (Peter Browning), Pete Postlethwaite (Maurice Fischer), Michael Caine (Professor Stephen Miles), Lukas Haas (Nash), Tallulah Riley (Disguise woman)

What is reality? It’s a question that for many of us never comes up. But in the artificial and exciting world of film, it’s a legitimate question. These worlds we watch unspooling before us on the cinema screen, so large, so real, so exciting. Could we get lost in them? And how much do the films we love echo the dreams that fill our nights, the movies we create in our mind to keep our brain active during those hours of complete physical inactivity? And what happens when the world of imagination and possibility becomes more compelling, more comfortable – and perhaps more real – to us than the actual flesh-and-blood world around us? These are ideas tackled in Inception: the blockbuster with a brain. 

Set in some unspecified point in the not-too-distant future, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are “extractors”, shady corporate espionage experts who use experimental military technology to enter shared dream states with their targets. While in their dreams, they have complete access to their subconscious mind, where secrets can be extracted. A wanted man in the States, Cobb is forced to ply his trade despite his yearning to return home to his children. After a job goes wrong, their would-be target Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the pair to take on a far more challenging role: rather than extract an idea he wants them to plant one – a technique called “inception” – into the mind of a business rival (Cillian Murphy) to get him to dismantle his father’s empire. To do the job, Cobb needs a new team, including dream “architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), dream identity forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and dream compound chemist Yusof (Dileep Rao) – and needs to try and control his own dangerous subconscious version of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who is determined to destroy his missions.

Just a plot summary should give an idea of the twisty-turny world of imagination and ideas that Christopher Nolan mixes in with big budget thrills and excitements, in the most original sci-fi/philosophy film marriage since The Matrix. Of course it helps when you have the clout of having directed a hugely successful comic book series, but Nolan was brave enough to trust that an audience for this sort of action-adventure caper wanted to have their brains stretched as far as their nerves. So he creates a dizzying and challenging piece of escapism that plays around with the audience’s perceptions and understanding of the nature of dreams. 

In the world of dreams, the film is a fabulous tight-rope-walk of dazzling concepts. Here everything is possible, with Nolan throwing at us worlds from film fantasy: intricate Samurai houses, brawling third-world streets, luxurious hotels, Bond-style winter bases and entire cities that literally fold, bend and reinvent themselves around the film’s dreamers, worlds that defy conventional rules of physics and time. This world is presented with genuine visual panache at every point, Nolan’s mastery of the language of film leading to a sensational series of slight-of-hand tricks and compelling set-pieces, all the while making you question which events are real and which are dreams or even dreams within dreams. In these worlds, the characters have the ability to literally shape a world to meet their needs, and the dangerous attraction of these worlds – even if they are not real – is the dark temptation that hangs over every frame. 

Because it’s those ideas beneath the action that give the film depth as well as excitement, that ability to ask questions and openly invite the audience to begin theorising themselves to fill in any blanks. Within the world of Inception, characters can create dream states within dreams, to share one person’s dream while simultaneously all being inside the dream of someone else. These multiple levels are cleverly established as being as much of a risk for the characters in getting confused as they are for the audience, with the characters carrying personal “totems” to help them judge if what they are seeing is reality or not. This is made all the more difficult by the establishment that your subconscious will manifest people to populate the dream worlds – and these will turn on invaders they detect in the dream.

All of this tunnels down into the deep limbo of our subconscious – and also introduces as a concept Nolan’s fascination with time. In dreams, time moves at a different pace, and this differential becomes all the greater as you descend down levels in dreams within dreams. A few minutes can become an hour in a dream and become almost a day in the dream within it – and years within the dreams beyond that. This is brilliantly demonstrated by Nolan in the film’s dazzling central sequence as the film intercuts between three timelines in three different dreams – each impacting the other.

It’s another masterful touch – the impact of actions on dreamers’ bodies in the level above can be felt in their world. A slap to the face in the real world can send someone in the dream flying across a room. A bucketful of water turns into a tidal wave in the dream. The dreamer falling in the world above removes gravity in their dream (giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt a cult fight scene in a gravity free world that sees him gracefully leaping from floor to ceiling to wall). The visuals are extraordinary, but the intriguing logic of the inter-relation between reality and the dreams – and the way dreams struggle to explain external effects – lend all the more credence to the mixing of reality.

But then, as Nolan suggests, isn’t that film after all? In dreams we move from location to location and struggle to remember the journey in between. We find ourselves doing tasks and not knowing how we started. Chases, faulty logic, sudden reversals and changes – these are the rules of film, it’s editing slicing out the boring bits and focusing on the reality. We are dropped into the middle of Cobb’s story and only slowly find the backstory, a gun filled chase through an African city is almost indistinguishable from similar sequences in the dreams. The final sequence of the film is a purposefully cut series of images that are very true to the rules of film, but feel alarmingly close to the rules of dream (unsettling us about whether what we see at the end is truth or dream, a debate that continues today). It makes for fascinating stuff, as well as a commentary on film itself.

Nolan’s film is gloriously entertaining, even if in its haste at points it does fail to explain how certain events and concepts truly work – but doesn’t really matter so compelling is the journey. The cast, enjoying the chance to mix action hijinks with genuine characters and dialogue are very strong, with DiCaprio anchoring the film wonderfully as the conflicted, lonely, defensive and daring Cobb. Hardy made a name for himself in a cheekily flirtatious performance, which sparks wonderfully with Gordon-Levitt’s more po-faced Arthur. Page creates a character both naïve and at times almost gratingly intrusive. Cotillard makes a difficult balance look easy playing a character part real and part dream figure. Watanabe is archly dry as the investor. There isn’t a weak link in there.

It may at times move too fast and not always make itself completely clear. It might be a bit too long in places and take a little too long to make its point – but it’s ambitious, challenging, intriguing film-making that rewards repeated viewing. Not least with its cryptic ending in which we are forced to ask how much of what we have seen is real and whether – like Cobb perhaps? – we should even care at all if the end result is so positive. With the fascinating world of dreams – and the rules there that we encounter – it gives us a firm grounding for the its meditation of the dark attraction of fantasy, embodied by the genial wish fulfilment of the movies where adventure lies around each corner and the heroes triumph.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla the only character this film is truly interested in.

Director: Gareth Edwards

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr Ishiro Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Elisabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), Sally Hawkins (Dr Vivienne Graham), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz)

There is a lot of affection out there for Godzilla. I’ve never quite felt it myself, so I guess I was the wrong person to watch this film. This is a film celebrating the legend of a series of films from Japan about a guy in a rubber suit hitting other guys in rubber suits in a set designed to look like a miniature city. Gareth Edwards’ has directed an affectionate homage that at times flirts with being a more interesting film but never really commits to it.

In 1999, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is forced to watch his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) die in front of him in a mysterious accident at the nuclear plant in Japan they work at. Fifteen years later, his now grown-up estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal expert, is called to Japan after Joe trespasses into the exclusion zone. There Ford and Joe discover there is no fall-out at the accident site – and that the accident was actually linked to a series of mighty beasts from prehistoric times who feed off radiation. The beasts are being investigated and monitored by a global organisation called Monarch – and they are starting to stir. Soon cities are at risk and our only chance of survival may be from alpha-predator Godzilla bashing the other monster out of existence.

Godzilla starts with a brilliant human interest story – a husband forced to sacrifice his wife to save hundreds of thousands of others. But around the halfway mark it loses all interest in its human characters, who become mere spectators to the mighty monsters hitting each other. By the final act, your interest in the action will depend on how much you can invest in a huge CGI monster hitting another huge CGI monster. With nary a character in sight, I’m not sure how much I could. 

Gareth Edwards does a good job directing the film. It’s intelligently and imaginatively framed and Edwards shows some wonderful restraint in showing Godzilla himself, gently avoiding showing too much too soon (the monster doesn’t appear full in camera for well over an hour into the film). In fact, Edwards has a lot more interest in showing the perspective of ordinary people watching the rampage, running or simply standing in awe starring upwards at these mighty beasts. It immediately hammers home the scale and awe of these creatures. Edwards often films from the perspective of those on the ground, with the camera craning upwards seeing the colossal beasts.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t lavish as much attention on the cardboard cut-out characters who are running around beneath the beasts. A fine company of actors are assembled, most of whom are relegated for much of the first half of the film to spouting exposition and the second half of the film to staring upwards in awe. Remember when Edwards made his breakthrough film Monsters? This film, sure, had monsters in it but it was a human interest story about two very different people thrown together after cataclysmic events. Edwards’ film worked because it was above all about people and their problems. Hollywood came calling.

And Hollywood of course missed the point. Edwards is a director who I think has some truly interesting work in him. Watch the scene as Cranston is forced to slam the safety doors on Binoche. This is a scene crammed with more drama, emotional investment and tragedy than the whole of the rest of the runtimes of Godzilla and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both of those films are well-made but derivative bits of geek chic, pandering towards the crowds by giving them parts of what they think they want, homage-stuffed retreads of other films that focus on bashes and toys rather than on people and characters. Edwards is becoming a purveyor of B-movie thrills, well made, but basically empty. 

That’s your Godzilla movie here. Well-made but rubbish. Full of spectacle wonderfully filmed, but fundamentally empty. A film that is careful about what it shows you and when, but is basically lacking any real soul.

The Last Samurai (2003)

Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. I’ll leave you to guess which one turns out to be The Last Samurai…

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), Ken Watanabe (Moritsugo Katsumoto), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Shin Koyamada (Nobutada), Masato Harada (Omura), Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji), Koyuki (Taka), Seizo Fukumoto (Silent Samurai)

Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a legendary but traumatised veteran of the US’s war against the Native Americans. In 1877 he is recruited by the Japanese government to train their new modern army. Japan is a country split between the old and the new, with the samurai leading a revolt against modernisation. After the army is defeated by the samurai, Algren is taken captive. He quickly finds himself enamoured with Samurai culture, not least because of the inspiring charisma and nobility of the samurai leader Lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

The white man in the noble warrior culture: it’s a narrative structure that never fails. The Last Samurai fits very neatly into a familiar pattern: a story about an exotic non-Western culture, with a white Western character placed at the forefront. Of course the samurai culture is portrayed with a romantic longing, with the charms of its honourable life impossible to resist for our hero, all too familiar with the corruption of our culture. It’s been a pretty standard structure ever since Dances with Wolves. And of course, the white man is left standing as the only witness to the brave sacrifices of the noble-savages-who–weren’t-as-savage-as-we-first-thought.

What this structure does is minimise the entire point of the story. This is supposedly a story about a major shift in Japanese culture – from the old feudal world of the samurai to a more mechanised, modern society. In this cultural shift, some people got left behind, unable to let go of the old ways. It’s a tragedy for that old way of life, but this film muddies that water with its redemption structure for Algren. So by the end of the film, we may be looking at the destruction of the samurai culture and the deaths of most of the characters we’ve spent the film (sort of) getting to know – but hey at least the American lead has found peace and contentment.

So the nominal “last samurai” himself, Katsumoto, becomes a supporting character in his own film, a spirit animal to guide Algren towards a better understanding of himself and of the world. Katsumoto is presented romantically, a noble, kindly, principled man who mixes a love of poetry and flowers and a wry wit with a fanatical ruthlessness in battle. It’s the quintessential “noble savage” of Hollywood lore. All of which is not a criticism of Ken Watanabe, who is excellent – a guy whom you find yourself falling in love with, totally believable as the sort of man others would follow to the death. It’s a standard Hollywood cliché, albeit one presented with commitment.

Having said all that, the film does treat Japanese culture with an immense respect, even if it does so through a romantic lens. It’s also pretty unflinching at the more brutal side of the samurai culture – its expectations of suicide on failure, its pride and unwillingness to compromise. Of course, these are also later embraced as part of its nobility, but at least they are there. The film does also touch on some points of disagreement between East and West – Algren has nothing but contempt for Custer’s ego-driven suicidal last stand, while Katsumoto finds the story enchantingly inspired – but doesn’t allow these to get in the way of the romance. And by the end of the film, there is certainly no criticism for the suicidal charge Algren and Katsumoto lead the samurai into.

The modernising Japanese forces are given far less understanding. Of course, historically, if Japan wished to engage with the modern world and trade, it needed to undergo a certain level of progression from its feudal background. Historically this shift may have been too drastic – a rejection of the past rather than a development – but needless to say, here the modernising Japanese characters are uniformly presented as cowardly, selfish and greedy. Not to be outdone, it also introduces a racist American colonel, with a career of brutal campaigns against Native Americans, to serve as Algren’s nemesis (and to provide a small, audience-pleasing victory when he is killed off in the final battle).

I’m being very hard on The Last Samurai, which, within the confines of the Hollywood predictability it inhabits, is in fact a fairly decent film. Cruise is rather good as Algren, even if his drunken self-loathing is sometimes over played. He’s perhaps not completely convincing as a bitter ex-soldier, but he nails the depression and lost-soul nature of Algren. The Japanese actors are all excellent – there is barely a weak link in the cast, with Koyuki particularly soulful as the widow of a man killed by Algren.

The film is brilliantly shot by John Toll and looks wonderful, and even if it is slightly predictable and directed with a mundane lack of imagination (Edward Zwick is a competent but uninspired director and he creates an epic here in that image) it’s still fine and entertaining viewing. Cruise and especially Watanabe create heroes you care for. The final battle sequence does move, with its final triumph of mechanisation over blind courage. Zwick does have an eye for capturing the warmth and simplicity of the samurai village life, and he and screenwriter John Logan deserve a lot of credit for their research, respect and understanding of Japanese culture (the film was well received in Japan). The Last Samuraiis a clichéd and slightly flawed epic, but it has a nobility and honesty to it. With some excellent performances, it is more than entertaining enough.