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East of Little Big Horn

"The Last Samurai" puts a Yankee in the Emperor's court and lets Tom Cruise show off his swordsmanship.

11:00 PM, Dec 4, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Zwick's direction is steady, if uninspired, save for his penchant for slow-motion flashbacks. On this count, he is a repeat offender. More serious is the movie's failure to adequately explain the intricacies of Japan's Imperial system. The emperor was considered infallible, and as a result he did not rule on any proximate matters of state--since decisions made on near-term matters might be proven incorrect by events. This meant that on important issues--such as those of war, or internal rebellion--decisions were made by the generals. For instance, at the 1941 meeting where Japan's military and government officials decided to go to war with America, Emperor Hirohito attempted to intervene only by saying:

All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world;

So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?

This bizarre hierarchy contributed to Japan's entry into World War II and, in the context of "The Last Samurai," allows a handful of Japanese industrialists to fight an undeclared civil war against Katsumoto and the samurai. Both sides claim to be fighting for, not against the emperor--and the hierarchy does not permit the emperor to choose sides. It's an interesting dynamic--a sort of constitutional Mexican standoff--but while Zwick uses it as his dramatic engine, he never opens the hood to examine it in sufficient detail.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, "The Last Samurai" sits in a tier beneath recent historically-themed successes, such as "Master and Commander." But at the same time, it is better--much, much better--than the rest of what constitutes Oscar bait this holiday season. To appreciate the small pleasures of "The Last Samurai" and Tom Cruise, one need only sit through soon-to-be Best Picture nominee "Cold Mountain." More on that next week.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.