The Last Samurai appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I expected a solid visual presentation for this film, and I got what I anticipated.
Sharpness seemed virtually immaculate. I noticed no instances of softness that marred the image. Instead, the movie remained nicely detailed and crisp from start to finish. No jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and only a little light edge enhancement cropped up from time to time. As for print flaws, the movie seemed free of them.
Samurai presented a fairly natural palette that imbued a moderate golden tone at times. This seemed appropriate for the setting, and the movie took pains to bring out the beauty of the Japanese countryside. The colors looked warm and precise at all times. Blacks seemed dense and dark, while shadows were appropriately thick but never too murky or excessive. Overall, the picture of Samurai seemed very satisfying.
In addition, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Last Samurai worked well. Nor surprisingly, it fared best during the film’s fight sequences. These used the various channels nicely, as they kicked into action. Those moments featured a lot of material from all the speakers and made the battles aggressive and involving.
Otherwise, the track manifested the environment in a satisfactory manner. Natural elements cropped up from the appropriate locations and blended together well. Music also offered good presence and delineation.
Audio quality appeared positive. Speech came across as concise and natural, with no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Music seemed a little subdued but mostly sounded bright and lush, with tones that delivered the score well. During a few occasions, I felt the effects were a bit metallic and harsh, but those occasions didn’t dominate the film. Instead, the elements mostly presented accurate and well-recorded material with clarity. Low-end response was quite good, as bass seemed tight and warm. Though not a stellar track, the audio of Samurai proved effective.
For this two-disc DVD, we get a slew of extras. Only one of these appears on DVD One: an audio commentary from director Ed Zwick, who provides a running, screen-specific discussion. Among other things, he gets into research and historical considerations, casting and working with the actors, character concerns, thematic subjects, visual design, sets and locations, and various logistical issues. Zwick provided a pretty good feel for things and made this a reasonably informative track, though I must admit he never offered a very compelling presence. I often started to drift off and found it tough to focus on what he said, as I rarely became terribly interested in the material. Since Zwick covered all the appropriate material in a thorough and concise manner, I can’t really criticize the commentary, but I also didn’t much enjoy listening to it.
Now we head to DVD Two and its supplements. We open with Tom Cruise: A Warrior’s Journey. This 12-minute and 52-second featurette presents the standard combination of movie clips, behind the scenes materials, and interviews. We get notes from Zwick, actors Cruise, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shin Koyamada, Masato Harada and Ken Watanabe, producer Paula Wagner, producer/screenwriter Marshall Herskovitz, associate producer/Japan casting Yoko Narajashi, and stunt coordinator Nick Powell. They cover character notes and the samurai code, Cruise’s preparation and training for the role, “Journey” includes too many movie snippets, and these bog down the program. It also seems generally fluffy and without much substance, as we mainly hear about the glory of Cruise. It doesn’t give us much of interest.
In Edward Zwick: Director’s Video Journal, we find a 26-minute and 14-second look behind the scenes. We see video footage from the set that Zwick narrates. Among other things, he chats about locations and sets, photographic techniques and working with the cinematographer, visual choices including props and costumes, working with Japanese crew, authenticity, and fight choreography and practical visual effects. It’s a fairly good view of the shoot, and Zwick’s narration adds depth to the piece. Conversely, however, it’d be nice to be able to turn off the narration and hear the audio from the set on its own; Zwick’s commentary gives us perspective, but it’d also be fun to get more of a “fly on the wall” feeling.
Next we find Making an Epic: A Conversation with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise. It goes for 17 minutes, 46 seconds as it offers exactly what it implies: a discussion between the director and the actor. We also see some movie snippets and shots from the set. They get into their early meetings together about the movie, personal connections to the material, goals for the flick, story issues and the shoot, language issues and casting, and rehearsals. Expect more mutual backslapping here, as the pair don’t tell us much of substance. However, the behind the scenes clips are good, as they offer some nice glimpses of the production.
A History Channel program, History Vs. Hollywood: The Last Samurai lasts 22 minutes and four seconds. It uses the standard format and includes interviews with Zwick, Cruise, historian/author Mark Ravina, and military historian Geoffrey Wawro. They discuss some story elements about the movie, the history of the samurai and their code, information about Japan with a particular emphasis on the era in which the movie takes place and how their society got there and beyond, the impact of this material on the film, and how much of Samurai resembles historical fact. The program keeps fluff to a minimum as it provides a tight look at history and its enaction in this film. It’s probably the DVD’s most informative piece.
Next we find a series of fairly short featurettes. We get A World of Detail: Production Design with Lilly Kilvert (seven minutes, 10 seconds), Silk and Armor: Costume Design with Ngila Dickson (6:25), Imperial Army Basic Training (5:40), and From Soldier to Samurai: The Weapons (5:05). In these we hear from production designer Kilvert, Zwick, costume designer Dickson, Herskovitz, Wagner, costume props head technician Roger Murray, off set 3rd assistant director Louise Boothby, key off set second assistant director Geoff Dibben, military technical advisor Sgt. Maj. James D. Deaver, prop master David Gulick, armorer Gunner Ashford, battle extra Mark Okita, assistant military technical advisor Daniel King, firing weapons coordinator Robert “The Rock” Galotti, cannon master C. Robert “Bob” Gillmor, assistant prop master Peter Clarke, actor Shin Koyamada, assistant prop master Parker Swanson, and special effects supervisor Paul Lombardi. They discuss fashioning the sets, the general visual presentation and details, costume choices and their creation and influences, training extras, and the movie’s weapons and battle concerns. Each of these explores its subject nicely. They move reasonably briskly and offer solid examinations of the material. We learn some nice details in these informative and well-executed featurettes.
Bushido: The Way of the Warrior gives us some information about the samurai code. It presents stillframes of text with information about concepts such as “Duty and Loyalty” and “Complete Sincerity”. It’s a moderately interesting piece.
After this we locate two deleted scenes. We see “The Beheading” (101 seconds) and “Algren and Katsumoto” (two minutes, 17 seconds). The former shows a conflict between a samurai named Ujio and some modernized Japanese that forms Algren’s first encounter with one of the warrior elite, while the latter offers a discussion between the pair about killing, honor, and the unstoppable force of modernization. Both seem reasonably intriguing but would have been somewhat redundant in the final flick.
The deleted scenes can be viewed with or without commentary from Zwick. He aptly tells us why he cut them and tosses in a couple of additional notes. In addition, the first segment comes with “Behind the Beheading”, a two-minute featurette. Visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun tells us how they executed the execution in this tight little piece.
Lastly, we get the movie’s theatrical trailer and Japan Premieres. The latter runs six minutes, 55 seconds and shows Cruise, Koyuki, Watanabe and a number of the other actors as they show up at the events and chat about the flick with the press. They offer some generally fluffy remarks about the film and that’s it. The program is a decent curiosity but nothing more.
The Last Samurai presents attractive visuals and occasional scenes of excitement, but that’s about it. It seems to lack much substance and seems too erratic to succeed. The DVD presents excellent picture and audio plus an inconsistent but generally fine set of supplements. A solid release, fans of Samurai will feel happy with this package, but I’d advise a rental for those new to the film.