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The Last Samurai - Edward Zwick realises a dream



Compiled by: Jack Foley

FOR Edward Zwick, The Last Samurai marks the realisation of an ambition he has held since being a teenager, when he first discovered his passion for Japanese culture and films.

"I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai when I was 17 and, since then, I’ve seen it more times than I can remember," he admits.

"In that single film, there is everything a director needs to learn about storytelling, about the development of character, about shooting action, about dramatising a theme.

"After seeing it, I set out to study every one of his films. Although I couldn’t know it at the time, it set me on the course of becoming a filmmaker."

Long a student of history, Zwick found the period known as the Meiji Restoration particularly compelling, given that it marked the end of the rule by the old Shogunate and led to Japan’s first significant encounter with the West after a self-imposed isolation of 200 years.

"Most of all, it was a time of transition," he explains. "In every culture, that moment of change, from the antique to the modern, is especially poignant and dramatic.

"It is also wondrously visual. Each image, each landscape, each room tells the story, the juxtaposition of the old and new. A man in a bowler hat strolls beside a woman wearing a kimono. A man firing a repeating rifle faces a man wielding a sword."

Zwick’s films have often explored the complexities of war and honour (such as in his Oscar-winning Glory), but the opportunity to dramatize the differences, as well as common ground between a Western soldier, and a Samurai warrior, was simply too great to resist.

"First in college, and then for years after, I read a great deal of Japanese history," he recalls. "I was deeply moved by Ivan Morris’s ‘The Nobility of Failure’, which tells the story of Saigo Takamori, one of Japan’s most famous figures, who first helped create and then rebelled against the new government.

"His beautiful and tragic life became the point of departure for our fictional tale."

The change from feudal Japan to a more modern society meant the demise of certain ‘archaic’ customs and values epitomised by the Samurai.

For many years, they held a highly-respected place in the social order, rather like England’s knights, protecting the lords, or, in their case, the Shogunate, to which they had sworn lifelong allegiance.

In contrast the modern weapons the West began to offer Japan, however, the Samurai seemed anachronistic to the proponents of progress and as Japan’s lust for all things modern grew, there seemed to be no place for the Samurai’s fabled swords and old-fashioned notions of honour, given human form in the movie by Ken Watanabe’s last remaining leader, Katsumoto.

"I’ve always found the core values of the Samurai culture to be both admirable and relevant," continues the director. "In particular, the understanding that violence and compassion exists side by side, and that poetry, beauty and art are as much a part of a warrior’s training as swordsmanship or physical strength.

"Also, I’m interested in the unexpected possibility of spiritual rebirth reaching those lives for whom it seemed impossible," he adds, in reference to Tom Cruise’s character, Captain Nathan Algren.

"Our story is a romantic adventure in the broadest sense of the word and, at the same time, a very personal odyssey. The challenge is to create a story in which the relationships rival the larger context, the inner landscape resonating against the epic canvas."

It is a challenge which viewers should feel that has realistically and comprehensively been met.

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