Lets Talk: The Music Of The Last Samurai – By Stephen Stachofsky.
SPOILER ALERT for the film, but you’ve had 18 years…
The Last Samurai was directed by Edward Zwick, scored by Hans Zimmer, and released in 2003. Set in the mid 1870’s as Japan was closing the Edo period and moving into the Meiji period, the film’s historical inspiration comes from the actual rebellion led by Saigo Takamori. Look him up. The film shows the western modern world of the late 1800’s set to envelop the quiet, traditional nation of Japan. The young emperor, Emperor Meiji, has invited top experts of modern innovation from all over the world to help Japan adapt to a more trade-friendly and European culture. One of the key points the young emperor recognizes is that the Shogun culture of Japan’s warrior class, the Samurai, needs to be replaced with a professional standing army. To this end the young emperor grants authority to his cultural minister Omura, to hire officers from the American military to train the new Imperial Army of Japan. One of these officers is Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise). Algren fought against the Cherokee and the Sioux nations with the 7th Army cavalry after serving for the union in the American Civil War.
Algren suffers nightmares and alcoholism brought on by PTSD as a result of his actions against Native Americans. During his time in Japan, he is captured by the Shogun Katsumoto( loosely based on Takamori) leading a rebellion of Samurai against the emperor. During Algren’s captivity, which lasts for the better part of 8 months, the Samurai teach Algren the ways of Bushido. The simple life of the village and the lives of the people around him help Algren find a new purpose and quiet his inner demons. Algren eventually adopts the samurai way of life, and rescues his new mentor and friend, Katsumoto. The movie ends with an epic, though one sided battle between the new Imperial Army of Japan, and the traditional Samurai, a battle between old and new. In the end Katsumoto is defeated. In his defeat, Katsumoto convinces the Emperor, his former student, that modernization, if it sacrifices what it means to be Japanese, is an evil that will ruin Japan forever. Nathan Algren survives the battle and lives out the rest of his life in Japan, at least that’s what the narrator likes to think. The movie ends with Algren, a man who’s life was consumed by war, finding “A Small Measure of Peace” (my favorite track of the score).
The movie’s core focuses on a battle between east and west, old and new. Not much else in the world shows the dichotomy of these two cultures more than it’s music. Hans Zimmer really had his work cut out for him as he endeavored to compose music that would both aid in the storytelling of the movie, but also showcase the blending of cultures that Nathan Algren goes through. I would posit that the Zimmer’s score finds a near perfect balance between traditional Japanese instruments, like the Shakuhachi, Koto, and Taiko Drumming, and the western film-score style that big epics demand for their audiences. Say what you will about Hans Zimmer; he is a gifted composer. There is plenty of praise and criticism to throw his way. Zimmer is no stranger to historical epics either, with his film credits including Gladiator, Pirates of the Carribean, and the Thin Red Line. He would later go on to score the Dark Knight trilogy, Rango, James Bond: No Time to Die (releasing later this year) and countless other movies.
The track “A Way of Life”, opens the official soundtrack of the movie, and the movie itself. It heavily features the authentic sounds of classic Japanese instruments which slowly fade into the main theme in the violins and string sections of the Hollywood style symphony. This track doesn’t introduce a full western orchestra until minute 5:00, and then the traditional instruments don’t fade away; they just become part of the overall texture. I think that this and the final track, “A Small Measure of Peace” encompass the moral of the story as it were; that the Emperor was right to modernize, but not at the cost of his people’s identity. The rest of the score follows the same formula, lots of use of the traditional, from Taiko Drumming to give a stirring Samurai march, to the Koto and Shakuhachi to achieve the meditative sounds central to the code of Bushido. The score that Zimmer brought to this movie adds to the beautiful cinematography by helping flesh out the backgrounds. Beautiful shots of Japan accompanied by the traditional instruments of the land being shown help take the viewer even deeper into the story. At the same time, the epic fight scenes and marches of both the Samurai and the American trained Army of Japan, feature moving and martial music from Zimmer’s western discipline. The more tender moments of the movie however are where the blend of the two disciplines bring the most emotional moments to new heights.
The whole score is 59 minutes as a studio released album. It is worth mentioning that this album has appeared in my top 10 most played on spotify for 10 years now. The scenes following the initial intro don’t feature movie score music, as we are introduced to the protagonist Nathan Algren. Instead there are some musicians on set providing period appropriate, diegetic, march music for a festival in San Francisco celebrating the centennial of the United States. Zimmer’s score doesn’t come back until Nathan sees Japan for the first time. I think this helps demonstrate the emptiness Nathan feels in his own country and amongst his own people. We come to find out that Nathan Served in the American civil war and on multiple campaigns against the Native American Tribes of the west. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his distinguished service, but even his commanding officer asks him “What is it about your own people that you hate so much?” When the score comes back, it is to back up Nathan’s journal entries and is strictly the western instruments. The orchestra hints at one of the main themes, Nathan’s theme of regret (my designation, not the album’s) that follows Nathan all through the movie. Again after arriving in Tokyo, the movie score is done away with, but this time I think it is in an effort to highlight the din of the city and still allow for the dialogue to be heard. The tracks “Know My Enemy” and “A Hard Teacher” are a blend of the east and west that serves to heighten the emotion of a scene, the titles of which are pulled directly from the movie dialogue, and directly correlate with two scenes.
However the track “Know My Enemy” does not feature during the scene which its title is taken from. This track is a haunting and raw piece of music. Often it appears in a moment of what might have been called victory by the history textbooks. It’s from the eyes of the soldiers, such as our protagonist, that we realize victory looks very different to them. The raw feeling of loss felt in this track gives it so much power, especially when it is paired with the cinematic elements. The track can be heard especially during Algren’s nightmare sequences, where he relives his role in the massacre of a Native American village. “A Hard Teacher” is contrastingly rather stagnant, and devoid of emotion. I think this is the point, until the Koto enters half way through the track, it feels empty. This track is heard accenting Algren’s sea voyage, and several of his journal entries. However the Koto entrance signifies a shift, as if the listener or the character has come to learn something new, and the themes in the second half of “A hard Teacher” are associated heavily with Algren’s interactions in Katsumoto’s village.
One of the movie’s strengths comes from its portrayal of war. We get repetitive glimpses into intense scenes of battle and these scenes are jarring in their visceral detail. The music takes these scenes to another level allowing us to feel the soldiers emotions during the melee, or looking back on it. There is an unnamed officer in the Imperial Army of Japan who is trained by Algren in the beginning who is directly tied to this feeling of pyrrhic victory. All throughout The Last Samurai, there are glimpses of the toll soldiers endure when they have to take life, or have taken lives on orders. The emotion of the music helps heighten the sense that even Samurai, a people “whose sole occupation for the past thousand years has been war”, put value in human life. “Know My Enemy” segues into the “Red Warrior”, which is the samurai battle music, and prominently features Taiko Drumming. The traditional Japanese drumming fades into the din of combat as the movie editors attempt to make the drumming sound like the rhythm of the battle being displayed. Aside from the drums, the battle music and melodic themes feature almost exclusively the western instruments.
After Nathan is defeated by the samurai, the Shakuhachi becomes closely tied to the presence on screen of Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai. During his time plagued by fever we hear a recurrence of the “A Hard Teacher/ Know My Enemy” in its entirety with a feature of voices. This is one of my favorite tracks because of its raw emotion. Again here the music is serving to accentuate the emotion of the movie and its lesson of pyrrhic victory being just that; a defeat in the long-run. The first time Nathan is let out of the house and into the village, the rural japan theme in the second half of “A Hard Teacher” is played. The theme sees several different iterations throughout the movie. The simple melody is neither western nor eastern, and instead uses a modal scale to achieve a sense of being both.
There are two scenes in the movie that stand out as being fueled by the music as much as by the actors who feature in them. The foremost musical feature in the movie comes when Nathan and Taka come to terms with their feelings for each other. Taka is a complex character even though she lacks any significant dialogue. She was “voluntold” to house Algren after his capture by Katsumoto, her brother. Katsumoto commands this even though Algren killed Taka’s husband. Over the course of time Algren falls in love with the culture, and starts to adopt it himself. The track is called “Idyll’s End” and I recognize it as the love theme in the movie. It comes about in many places, not just associated with Taka, the love interest, but also associated with the life Nathan has come to love; the simplicity and the two sons of Taka, and the way of bushido. The most prominent scene to feature this track is when Taka robes Algren for battle. The theme presented in “Idylls End” also reemerges in “A Small Measure of Peace” at the end of the movie. Traditionally, japanese wives would know how to dress the husband or lord in his armor, and often this was something that the man himself didn’t actually know how to do. It also shows that Taka has come to care for Nathan Algren in a deeply intimate way. In an intimacy deeper than any scandalous sex scene could have portrayed without demeaning the characters, in my opinion. The love theme also features a solo cello played by Yo-Yo ma, one of my most favorite musicians. The Last Samurai has no nudity or sexual content at all, but achieves a moment of intimacy even more intense than most movies that do include those aspects of the human experience.
The second most powerful music scene is when Ujio beats the tar out of Nathan with a practice sword. This scene may pluck a few nationalistic chords with american audiences but is also one that shows Algren’s character strength the most. Algren sees Taka’s oldest son sparring with another boy. When one of the boys is disarmed, Algren picks up the practice sword and offers it back to the young man. Nobutata, Katsumoto’s son, tells Algren that even these middle school aged boys can be skilled opponents. Nobutata encourages Taka’s son Higen, and Algren to spar. Algren, fairly trained with a cavalry sabre finds no contest in Higen, though he also doesn’t endeavor to really fight the boy either. This reluctance to devote himself to a fight rankles Ujio, a fierce warrior and one of Katsumoto’s top men. Ujio is also upset because he sees Higen trying desperately to beat the man that killed his father, and Ujio’s friend. Ujio takes up Higen’s practice sword after Algren disarms the boy, and lays out Algren in one or two strokes. This helps show the true difference between a master swordsman, a competent swordsman and a novic, but the movie doesn’t stop there. Ujio starts to walk away, but, contrary to fighting another Samurai who would accept the shame of their defeat and stay down, Nathan pulls himself up again and again. Ujio strikes him down repetitively, each time with more force. This musical theme played during the fight is a marriage of Nathan’s regret theme, and the theme of the samurai which can be heard in the track “Safe Passage”. Musically it foreshadows the marriage of east and west that Nathan comes to represent, and it features a military bugle as well as the low brass, low strings, and the traditional Japanese instruments. It is the best use of all the instruments in the movie.
Hans Zimmer is a prolific composer and one of the largest current names in film score, but of his many, many, film scores the Last Samurai is my top favorite. I regard it as his best score both aesthetically and technically. It shows a master stroke of both western tradition, and innovation. Nathan’s story is fictional but rooted in some historic fact. The movie itself is a beautiful movie to watch and the score adds only to perfect the emotional and contextual setting of this period epic. I hope that this commentary adds to your enjoyment the next time you view this film. If you have never seen The Last Samurai, I highly encourage you to watch it and then give this another read through. From all of us here at Storytelling Breakdown, thank you for reading
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