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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Last Samurai (Okami yo rakujitsu o kire 1974)

Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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June 23, 2012 -- I think of this epic film as the Japanese samurai version of “War and Peace.” It is not so much about battles, although there is plenty of swordplay in it. It is really about one man's struggle for peace within himself as Japan violently tears itself apart from 1864 through 1877. It should not be confused with the 2003 film of the same name (which is a good film in its own right), although both films share a similar period of Japanese history. The two films also share some of the same historical characters.

At the center of the film is a highly skilled Samurai, Sugi Toranosuke (played as an adult by Tashaki Hideki) who is trained from a young age by his sensei, Ikemoto Mohei (played by Ikinam Shotaru). Ikemoto counsels his pupil, Toranosuke, to abandon the ways of war and to take no sides in the upcoming civil war in Japan between the armies of the Tokugawa Shogunate and other rival forces. Ikemoto tells his former pupil to “Live for the new age.” When Toranosuke asks what this new age will be, Ikemoto replies he doesn't know, but whatever it is, his greatest desire is for Toranosuke to be alive to witness it.

Then Ikemoto sums up all the conflicts going on, and says, “Satsuma and Choshu (two feudal domains) Vs. Tokugawa (the Shogunate), Imperials vs. Shogunate, Internationalists vs. Isolationists. We all live in the same country, yet we fight our fellow countrymen. Don't you think it is a senseless fight?”

Confused, Toranosuke replies, “But Sensei, How can you say that after risking your life for the Tokugawa.” Ikemoto replies, “That's right. Only after risking my life did I realize the futility of it all. However, even though I know this, some destinies cannot be changed.” The film takes place during the Bakumatsu period of Japanese history, during which the city of Edo is renamed Tokyo.

Although the dreaded destiny word is used here, the story is not about destiny, but loyalty and idealism. Like Ikemoto, some of Toranosuke's friends and families have been loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate for years, generations in some cases. Others, like Nakamura Hanjiro (Ken Ogata) were devoted to a particular charismatic leader. In Nakamura's case, he followed the charismatic Saigo Takamuri (Ryutaro Tatsumi) the most famous of all Japanese samurai, widely known as “the last true samurai.” There is a similar character in the 2003 film, “The Last Samurai,” played by Ken Wanatabe. However, Saigo Takamuri is a minor character in this 1974 film of the same name, despite his historical significance.

The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 plays a major role in the fate of some characters in the movie, along with the decisive Battle of Shiroyama in that conflict. This battle, a key part of the 2003 movie, is portrayed only for a few seconds in this movie. That is because the war and the battles are not really what this film are about. This film is about the struggle within Toranosuke himself to get past his old alliances and his desire for revenge. The wars and battles in the film can be seen as outward manifestations of Toranosuke's inner conflicts.

That being said, there is plenty of action in this movie. In fact, it opens very suddenly with a violent battle between two of the many warring factions in the film. There is plenty of time for both action and reflection in this long movie (it runs 159 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles). Like “War and Peace” this is a long story with a lot of characters, some of whom even change their names as the film goes along. Some change their allegiances, too, fighting against the very forces they once fought for. It is truly an epic film.

Fortunately, the fine new Neptune Media Special Edition DVD (to be released on June 26, 2012) of this film includes a brief historical time line which is very helpful in following all the competing forces in the movie. Bonus supplements include cast and director biographies, movie stills, a film to novel comparison, historical photos of real people and places depicted in the film and the theatrical trailer. The digital transfer is clean and the images look great, even on a big screen. It is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (the original soundtrack was probably mono as well), which sounded fine on my sound system when reprocessed to surround sound by an amplifier using Dolby Pro Logic II. This is a classic samurai film by award-winning writer-director Kenji Misumi and it gets the treatment it deserves in this excellent DVD. It rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2012 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)