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THE LAST SAMURAI – Hans Zimmer

December 5, 2003 Leave a comment Go to comments

lastsamuraiOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The star of Hans Zimmer continues to grow as, year by year, he and his crew at Media Ventures continue to become attached to some of the most high profile, prestigious projects in Hollywood. With Klaus Badelt, Steve Jablonsky, and former alumni such as Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell all having successful years, Zimmer has increasingly found himself in an “over-seeing” role, or leading a team of composers in a multi-faceted approach to a project, such as this year’s Tears of the Sun. Only occasionally does Zimmer approach a score on his own: these projects being the ones which have the potential to become box-office blockbusters, or which could garner awards. The Last Samurai is one of these scores.

Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall), The Last Samurai tells the story of American Civil War captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) who is hired by the Emperor of Japan to help train and modernize the Japanese military so that it can wipe out the remaining Samurai warriors and make Japan into a more “modern” society. With his friend and colleague Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), Algren travels to Japan, but his plans are thrown into turmoil when he is captured by a Samurai warrior, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). While in their captivity, Algren learns about their traditions and code of honor, their mentality and bravery, and is thus caught in a conflict of interest that would lead him to learn the ways of the Samurai himself.

In many ways, The Last Samurai could be considered a sister score to titles such as The Thin Red Line, Gladiator and Pearl Harbor, in that it continues the trend of setting sweeping themes against a backdrop of large-scale action, accompanied as usual by the familiar Zimmer wash of synthesizers to add a sense of scale and depth to the music. However, while sharing some superficial similarities with its predecessors, The Last Samurai takes a step further by incorporating a number of ethnic instrumental elements into the mix – massive Taiko drums, the 13-string koto harp, the shakuhachi bamboo flute, and various other ethnic woodwinds. The combination of these traditional instruments, with Zimmer’s ultra-modern scoring techniques, make for an intriguing, and very satisfying listening experience.

At the center of all this is Zimmer’s main theme, a rising, powerful, almost arrogant orchestral anthem that forms the core of the album. Cues such as the opening ‘A Way of Life’ (parts of which remind me of Kitaro’s Heaven & Earth), ‘Spectres in the Fog’, ‘Idyll’s End’ and ‘Safe Passage’ all contain rich performances of Zimmer’s melody, but whereas other scores have simply been content to state and re-state, here the cues are given an original individuality. Powerful percussion work, fluttery woodwinds, slow piano and harp lines over a soft electronic string pedal, and various performances of the Japanese instrumental dart in and out of the theme, enriching it with a great deal of Oriental flavor and texture.

Action, as one might expect, also plays a large part of the score – but whereas in the past I have been not over-impressed with the structure of some of his action cues, the ones in Last Samurai have a strident, striking sense of balance throughout them, as well as some monumentally powerful percussion courtesy of Emil Richards and the Taiko drums. The conclusive part of ‘Spectres in the Fog, as well as tracks such as ‘Ronin’, ‘Red Warrior’ and ‘The Way of the Sword’ are quite immense, occasionally incorporating rapid rhythms, pulsating ostinatos, and spine-tingling warrior chants above massive performances of the main theme. The finale duo of ‘Way of the Sword’ and ‘A Small Measure of Peace’ are almost spiritual in nature, revisiting the heartbreaking cello performances from Gladiator, but adding a sense of awe and wonder, combined with an unexpected feeling of sadness and reflection.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised with how good The Last Samurai turned out to be. I was expecting little more that a “Japanese Gladiator” score, with input from possibly half a dozen other artists, mystical Lisa Gerrard vocals, and the usual electronic whizzes and pops that more often than not spoil Zimmer scores. I did not expect the epic sense of scale, the instrumental intricacies, or the emotional content that The Last Samurai ultimately contained. It just goes to show what old Hans can do when given enough time, enough inspiration, and when left to his own devices.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • A Way of Life (8:03)
  • Spectres in the Fog (4:07)
  • Taken (3:35)
  • A Hard Teacher (5:44)
  • To Know My Enemy (4:48)
  • Idyll’s End (6:40)
  • Safe Passage (4:56)
  • Ronin (1:53)
  • Red Warrior (3:56)
  • The Way of the Sword (7:59)
  • A Small Measure of Peace (7:59)

Running Time: 59 minutes 42 seconds

Elektra 62932-2 (2003)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Blake Neely. Orchestrations by Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli, Blake Neely, Trevor Morris, Bruce Fowler, Suzette Moriarty and Ladd McIntosh. Featured instrumental soloists Craig Eastman, Steve Erdody, June Kuramoto, Emil Richards, Bill Schultz, Fred Selden and Hans Zimmer. Special vocal performances by Delores Clay and Benjamin Hale. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Marc Streitenfeld. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

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