I approached The Last Samurai with trepidation, having read that it was like a Japanese version of Dances With Wolves. I’m not a great fan of Tom Cruise and I feared that a long, slow "meaningful" vehicle for him would be unbearable. Fortunately, I can say that my fears were wrong and I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Samurai.
The plentiful and well coreographed action sequences are terrifically exciting, the pace of the movie rarely flagging. Yet there is also emotion and I found myself genuinely caring for the characters, especially Katsumoto, the samurai lord, played by Ken Watanabe. In what must be a first for a Hollywood movie, the Japanese characters were all played, and played well, by Japanese actors, rather than the usual mishmash of "anybody with a remotely asian appearance".
New Zealand’s scenery (the movie was filmed there) was typically beautiful and the sets certainly looked appropriate to my eyes (based on a one week holiday to Japan). I could smell the straw tatami mats and greatly enjoyed being able to understand some of the language without resorting to the subtitles. There’s a real sense of satisfaction in being able to translate a foreign movie, although no such skills are required for this movie.
Like many stories, The Last Samurai glorifies past ideals. However, it is brave enough to show that you cannot stop the clock., let alone turn it back. While superior technology will not always win you wars, the ability to adapt probably will.