There’s a recurring thing in movies called the White savior narrative. Essentially, it’s when a movie depicts a white person coming to the rescue of a group of some non-white nationality or diversity. Dances with Wolves, Avatar, and even Cool Runnings fall into this trope, with Kevin Costner, Sam Worthington and John Candy coming to the rescue of the determined but naive Native Americans/Na’vi/Jamaican bobsled team. Even if it’s historically accurate, it can be a harmful trope, since it portrays those diverse individuals as being inept until they met the glorious white man.
The Last Samurai comes close to being a white savior narrative but isn’t one entirely. Tom Cruise’s character is a bumbling drunk war hero that gets captured by the honorable and studious samurai. The only reason they’re keeping Tom around is who because they want to learn how to defeat their enemies in battle, and Tom has the inside scoop. They’re already really good warriors and really smart people, they just kind of need Tom for this one specific thing. Not your standard white savior stuff.
Still, even though it isn’t a white savior narrative, it feels like there is something…off, about The Last Samurai. It isn’t disrespectful to this portion of the Asian community, and actually depicts Japan at that place and time pretty well, a country grappling with whether they should embrace urbanization and technological change or stay true to their fastidious rural upbringing that is very heavy on tradition. But the film is an over-romanticizing of Japanese culture, almost like a reverse of the white savior narrative. Watching this film feels like inviting a Japanese friend you met at school over for dinner, and your family, wanting him to feel comfortable, dresses up in kimonos and sits on the floor while eating rice with chopsticks. You want to honor his culture, but at the same time, you don’t see him as anything else besides being Japanese.
The Last Samurai is a perfectly enjoyable movie beyond that. It isn’t a great epic by any leaps, although the battle scenes at the end are quite thrilling. It’s more of a watch on a Saturday afternoon-type movie where you can drift in and out of it while doing chores around the house. There’s little rewatch value, though. The first time you watch it will probably be your last.