Legends of the Fall

'The Last Samurai' reveals how the west was wan

The hair department for The Last Samurai--in which Tom Cruise plays a mop-topped Civil War vet who joins a cadre of Japanese warriors--was headed by one Janice Alexander. But she could hardly be said to have performed the lion's share of work. The film's end credits also acknowledge a key hair stylist, four associate hair stylists, a wig maker, and 22 other laborers listed under "additional hair" (including one woman I'm pretty sure I went to grade school with).

Lest you think I'm veering from the topic of yu, the samurai word for heroic courage, let me assure you that hair is of the utmost importance in The Last Samurai--or at least of equal importance to anything else in the movie. A scene near the start of the film has Cruise's Capt. Nathan Algren, newly stripped of his horse, standing in a Japanese forest clearing and being surrounded by sword-wielding samurai. With only a flagpole to defend himself, the captain rears back and readies to swing his makeshift weapon in a half-circle at the encroaching enemy. Conveniently at this point, Algren's near-shoulder-length mane suddenly parts from his eyes, wraps itself from the right side of his face all the way to the left, and then hangs there a moment, defying nature and allowing us to notice how amazingly textured this man's rug appears even in the heat of battle. That's Hollywood for yu.

Reviewing Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, another epic about a beautifully coiffed Civil War veteran-turned-traitor, the late Pauline Kael legendarily wrote: "Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head." Cruise, I think Kael would agree, has a head for business and the hair to prove it. Pitting his fashionably shaggy American hero against an army of clean-cut Japanese samurai, then putting him on their side in the losing battle with Western modernity, co-producer Cruise has contrived to cash in on Costner's antiquated ode to the Native American. Where Dances would have grossed next to nothing on the reservation, The Last Samurai, with its own dying breed located in what is now a major ancillary market for Hollywood, stands to follow the Matrix trilogy and Kill Bill Vol. 1 into pan-Asian box-office heaven. "There is something...spiritual about this place," observes Algren-san in voiceover, having decided that if you can't beat these noble Japanese, you might as well try to get them to like you.

Humbled by a samurai beating so fierce that even the widow of a man he killed in battle conveys her anguish, Cruise's rebounding stud dares to ask the Japanese word for chopsticks and even bows before a kindergarten warrior (Warner Bros. calling Hasbro Asia...). Nevertheless, director Edward Zwick reserves his own rei (that's polite courtesy) for the Western culture of yore. Less an exercise in Zen montage à la Kagemusha than a slightly more exotic Gone with the Wind, Zwick's epic waits more than an hour to deliver a compelling shot--of Algren rehearsing his swordplay before the sort of fluorescent orange vista that exists only in dreams or on David O. Selznick's back-lot Tara. Alas, the gargantuan scene of mass carnage to which all of this solemn soul-baring inevitably leads has nothing on even the weakest set piece in Kill Bill. Targeting not just the samurai but an older and more personal way of life, the Japanese emperor's newly acquired Howitzer appears the ostensible villain of the gory denouement even as its automatic action finally allows Zwick to point and shoot his own weapon with comparable ease.

In other words, modernity has its virtues--although yu and rei clearly aren't among them. Zwick's state-of-the-art tale of a guilt-ridden Yankee hired to teach Western warfare abroad but driven to study the real masters upon his arrival doesn't mean to suggest that Hollywood pros no longer have much of value to show the rest of the world. But that's exactly what it does. Indeed, the last samurai of Tinseltown may well be wielding their magic wands in hair and makeup.

 
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