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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 12:11 GMT
Review: Cruise and Coppola explore Japan's culture
by Jason Korsner
BBC News Online

Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson
No romance for Bob and Charlotte

The Last Samurai and Lost in Translation are both about Americans working in Japan and their struggle with cultural differences.

But the two films could not be more different.

One is a big budget period epic, with one of the world's most bankable stars leading a cast of hundreds. The other, set more than a century later, is a quaint personal film from one of the hottest young directors around.

The Last Samurai begins in 1876. Tom Cruise is Captain Nathan Algren, a cantankerous, alcoholic civil war veteran, sent to Japan to train the emperor's army how to use guns.

Battle

The emperor wants to cast off centuries of culture to join the international fast lane, adopting western dress, western technology and western weapons.

One stubborn group of samurai, led by the noble Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is staging a violent rebellion against the modernisation. Determined to crush them, the emperor arms his soldiers with guns, but they have no idea how to use them.

Scarlet Johansson
Scarlet Johansson is only 19
Algren is taken captive in the ensuing battle, but Katsumoto spares his life, so that he can learn about his enemy. Paradoxically, Katsumoto appears to share the emperor's fascination with the West. He even speaks perfect English.

Another notable contradiction is that Algren, sent to Japan to teach the locals western ways, ends up learning how to be Japanese.

Taken in by the samurai's honourable lifestyle, Algren rejects the corrupt forces of capitalism in favour of the "savage" way of life.

Stunning

But this tale of the natives as the good guys against the evil white men falls slightly short of becoming Tom Cruise's Dances With Wolves.

Director Edward Zwick delivers a beautifully shot and acted portrayal of the samurai.

But the thoughtful script suddenly gives in to Hollywood's primal urges towards the film's conclusion.

Bill Murray (right)
Tokyo leaves Bill Murray's character bewildered

It looks spectacular. But a few too many false endings blur the final message, despite tugging at the heart-strings.

It is ironic that more than a century after the emperor's ostensibly successful efforts to westernise, the cultural chasm between East and West appears as wide ever.

Replacing the honour of the 19th-Century samurai with the polite reserve and respect of 21st-Century Japan, even the title of Sofia Coppola's excellent bitter-sweet comic drama Lost in Translation suggests as much.

Bill Murray is middle-aged, middle-ranking actor, Bob Harris. The spark has gone out of his life. Just the thought of his wife seems to leave him drained.

Bond

The offers of work are not flowing like they used to, and they are certainly not flowing like the whisky he has been paid to advertise in Japan.

Alone in a Tokyo hotel, he is baffled by everything around him, from the automatic curtains-cum-alarm-clock to the peculiar notion that Japanese seems to need two minutes to say what English can say in two seconds.

Tom Cruise
The film went straight to number one at the US box office
Bob Harris, like Nathan Algren, eventually finds solace in the bosom of the enemy. His trip to Japan is a convenient excuse to escape his nagging wife, yet it is someone else's wife who rescues him.

The remarkable newcomer Scarlett Johansson is newly-wed Charlotte, whose husband is travelling around Japan, photographing celebrities.

Another American, alone in the same hotel. The beauty of this film is that unlike others involving middle-aged men, a mid-life crisis and a woman young enough to be his daughter, theirs is a purely platonic relationship.

When they are together, it does not matter that they do not understand the world around them. They understand each other.

Although Johansson is a refreshing surprise and a tremendous discovery, the film is carried by a particularly outstanding and complex performance from the always dependable Murray.

Unsurprisingly, it has earned him a nomination at the Golden Globes for best actor in a musical or comedy - Scarlett Johansson and Tom Cruise have also been nominated for best dramatic actress in a comedy and best dramatic actor.

It could be a big night for US-Japanese relations.

Lost in Translation and the Last Samurai are now showing in the UK.

Have you seen either of the films? Send us your views on the form below.

Lost in Translation - in a word, breathtaking. A wonderful portrayal of westerners lost in a sea of Eastern culture. Beautifully played and shot (who would have thought Bill Murray could pull off such a gentle performance?), I want to go see it all for myself now.
Dave Wright, Oxford, UK

The Last Samurai bowled me over with its beautiful cinematography and the way in which people's emotions were conveyed. It was more than one usually expects from a Hollywood film by a long way, and I plan to see it again as soon as possible.
Dianne Khan, Newbury, Berks, UK

I went to see the Last Samurai last night and absolutely loved it. I am not a fan of Tom Cruise as such but his acting has to be respected. The sword fighting and custumes were great, the storyline was good, not cheesy as I thought it might be. There are parallels to Dancing with Wolves but this movie goes a step further than Costner's film.
Monika, UK, London

I saw The Last Samurai last Friday and I thought it was a fabulous film. Definitely a great contender for the Golden Globes and the Oscars. It was so interesting learning about the Japanese culture and history. My sister is learning to speak Japenese so listening to the actors speaking the language was a real insight. Overall a great film, Tom Cruise was very sexy and didn't fail to deliver.
Faye Sullivan, Coventry, UK

I loved Lost in Translation. Bill Murray was, as always, excellent. But it was Scarlett Johanson and the character she played who really bowled me over. Imagine: the young woman she played WAS NOT A DITZ!! Obviously a female director. A subtle, leisurely film about believable people - except few people can be as effortlessly funny as Bill Murray.
Georgie Hall, Perth, Western Australia

Lost in Translation could so easily be a boring, arty film - lots of scenes of Scarlett Johansson moping about and not much talking per se, just lots of facial expressions.

However, I have always loved watching Bill Murray's facial expressions in Scrooged. In this film, he elevates it to an art form.

This the first time I've seen Scarlett Johannson on screen and I definitely believe the pundits who are calling her 'the next big thing'.

The small but adequate part of Anna Faris' character with her irritating, 'positive mental attitude' persona provides a stark but necessary contrast to the lonely, introspective and philosophical character played by Scarlett.

If you have experienced some kind of love that could not be or some opportunity that could not be taken, then this is the film for you. And definitely a late night film when you feel like hamletising.

Finally, Oscars for Bill and Scarlett!
Lilin Mak, London, UK

I saw Lost in Translation yesterday and loved it. The frustrations of the cultural barrier were presented brilliantly. Both my friend and I thought that parts of the movie really hit home about life in Japan, especially the moments of translation. A charming and witty film about cultural difference and alienation in foreign countries, I would recommend it to everyone. The Last Samurai, however, I wouldn't. It was pure Hollywood. Visually beautiful, but still a Tom Cruise (ie him loving himself) movie. Lost in Translation is definitely better!
Paul, Japan

The Last Samurai was definitely a good movie. The story unfolds nicely and the film falls short of going on too long which was great. However I thought the final scene was a bit of a let down after such a great story, it seemed a little rushed. The other little thing that got to me was the fact that the computer generated graphics in some parts of the film were a little disappointing.

However the film has beautiful camera work and wonderful scenery which really puts you in the atmosphere. Well done to Tom Cruise as well for the training he went through and portraying his character very well.
Gabriel Asseily, UK

After wading through a year of mostly achingly derivative action drivel, and with the line-up in 2004 not looking much better (I mean, live action 'Garfield'?!), Lost In Translation is a blessing in every way. Not astoundingly funny or far-reaching, not particularly anything, in fact, besides a beautifully shot 2 hours of characters to connect with. I feel like I have actually watched a proper film again!
Graham Bradley, Edinburgh, UK

Now I know why I don't go to the movies that often! Lost in Translation it certainly was. Mr Murray's telephone conversations with his wife were as bland and uninteresting as his flat bored face and demeanor. If a new 19 year old pretty girl is all that it takes to make a movie 'exceptional', heaven help us!
Keith Cheshire, San Antonio, Texas, USA

I've visited Japan several times, and while I absolutely love it, it is still a very strange place for Westerners; part of the problem being a very thin western-style 'gloss' overlaying a millennium of very strong Japanese culture, which tends to lull the visitor into a false sense of security. Lost In Translation, therefore, perfectly captures this. One of my funniest memories was seeing an Arnold Schwarzenegger ad for a sports drink, in which he played the banjo and attempted to sing into a microphone that kept sinking into the floor; far funnier than any of his so-called 'comedies'!
Rob, London, UK

I saw the Last Samurai the other night and enjoyed it enormously!! Everything about the film was done extremely well. I did think it was interesting that an American film portrayed the US in a bad light, coercing the Japanese to get rid of their rich history and culture for the benefit of the US government and businesses.
Omar, Stirling

The Last Samurai is an excellent film best enjoyed on a rainy day rather like a good book. A nice touch was the use of English subtitles whenever actors spoke Japanese! Much more effective than the use of voice dubbing.
Evelyn Hong, London, UK

Lost in Translation had me hooked from the very begining, it is easily the best film I have seen over the past couple of years, and this is mainly due to the fantastic performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Murray was perfect for the role, sad and funny, you really felt for the guy, and Johansson was just a joy to watch. Praise must also go to the music director too, great 'dreamy pop' that creates a tremendous atmosphere.

I came out of the cinema and wanted to go straight to a sushi restaurant, get drunk on saki and sing Karaoke! Well done Sofia Coppola.
Marc Baker, Sydney, Australia

I saw Lost in Translation today and was bowled over by it. Bill Murray is effortless on the screen, and never really seems to be acting, you warm to him from the start. And Scarlett Johansson was wonderful as the neglected young wife. The whisky commercial and Murray¿s dry wit were very funny, the film tends to keep you on the edge of laughing to yourself and thought about when something is going to happen to Murray/Johansson. Wonderfully filmed and the ending just leaves you wanting more. Fabulous.
David, Brighton, England

I saw the Last Samurai yesterday, and thought it was very good, my only issue with it was Tom Cruise. Something about his acting didn't feel right and it felt like acting I would have thought an actor that could engage the audience better (like Brad Pitt in Seven) would have been a better choice.

I've been struggling to learn Japanese for nearly eight years now and progress of learning the language felt very familiar and well paced through the film, and well done to who ever it was that made it so that Tom's character could talk/listen but not read the Japanese etching on the sword at the end... Great touch!
Nigel, Wimbledon

Excellent film capturing the Japanese samurai way of life, Bushido,very well. Very good fight scenes with excellent technique used throughout. A mixture of shogun, dances with wolves and finally the charge of the light brigade. Well worth seeing.
Kevin Young, Hornchurch England

The Last Samauri was very intensly written around deceit and honor. The ending was actually quite exciting and surprising. I would not mind seeing the battle scenes again because of the slow motion sword fights. However there wasn't enough educational content in the movie for my taste, definitly a piece of fiction.
Becky Eagle, Dayton, Ohio

I saw The Last Samurai yesterday and it is definately one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. Zwick took the time to show what kind of man Nathan Algren was, his struggles and you really feel the changes in his mind, and all the different sides and feelings of everybody involved, especcially Nathan's, Taka's and Katsumoto's. I hope it will get many Oscars because it really deserves this! It's Tom Cruise's best performance ever!
Caroline, The Nethelands

I found Lost in Translation highly original, with great acting. The first 20 minutes kept me intrigued, yet it turned out to be one of the most frustrating and tedious films I have ever seen- I kept waiting for something interesting to happen but in the end it was a completely dull and dreary affair. I felt like I had wasted my time and money.

The Last Samurai, on the other hand, was formulaic but very entertaining- beautiful cinematography and well choreographed battle scenes. Both stories are rather depressing in their own way, but clearly these are two very different films for two very different audiences.
N, UK (currently in US)

I found Lost In Translation a bit slow at times (don't expect a typical Bill Murray comedy), but the two central characters were interesting enough to carry it.

The Tokyo culture and lifestyle is always portrayed through the visitors eyes (we never see subtitles of the Japanese dialogue), and it's suitably different enough to my own to convince me that the characters could indeed be utterly baffled by it.

Bill Murray can be funny without even speaking. His expressions say it all. And Scarlett Johannson is absolutely stunning, so I was perfectly content to wait out some of the slower moments.
Nick, London

Last Samurai is a beautiful film; understated, and well performed, yet felt familiar (Dances of Wolves came to mind). Lost in Translation felt more of a character piece, allowing the film to focus on getting to know characters as the drive for the film, rather than have a "goal" which pushes the film along. Performances by the two leads Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are subtle, powerful and endearing. A must-see.
Peter Midgley, Cambridge, UK

I saw Lost in Translation last month in the US and it is the best film I have seen for a long time.

The isolation and awkwardness of the two Americans in an incomprehensible Japanese environment is perfectly portrayed by Murray and Johansson. It is a refreshing change that the plot is subtle enough to let the audience think and have their own interpretations of various scenes.

Highlights for me are the Japanese TV interview and the ad for Santori Smooth. I guarantee you will be mimicking Murray's multitudinous methods of drinking whisky for years...
Joe Taylor, London, UK

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