The Last Samurai Score Review
In December of 2003, the epic war film The Last Samurai was released to mixed reviews from critics, who either hated the movie or thoroughly enjoyed it. This didn’t stop the film, though, from grossing nearly $500 million against a production budget of $140 million. Nor did it stop the film from garnering four Academy Award nominations and three Golden Globe nods as well. One of the film’s aforementioned Golden Globe nominations came in the category of Best Score for composer Hans Zimmer.
The director, Edward Zwick, was (and still is) a nomad with regard to composers. However, he had worked most frequently with the late James Horner who had provided scores for Glory (1989), Legends of the Fall (1993), and Courage Under Fire (1994). After shaking up the composing duties by hiring Graeme Revell for The Siege (1998), Zwick continued this trend by bringing on the eminent Hans Zimmer for The Last Samurai. Zimmer was fresh off the release of Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men and was eager to explore the instrumentation of the Far East. To tackle this project, Zimmer would bring on Media Ventures colleagues Blake Neely, Trevor Morris, and Geoff Zanelli. Neely handled the conducting tasks (the Hollywood Studio Symphony was contracted for the score) while Morris and Zanelli were credited with the majority of the programming for the synthesizers. As for the instrumentation, Zimmer employs the shakuhachi flute, koto, and Taiko drums to give the score a uniquely foreign flavor. So, how did Zimmer’s foray in this war epic fare? Put simply: Very, very well.
The album opens with a track entitled “A Way of Life”. It begins with strings, koto, and the aforementioned shakuhachi flute before a mellow violin introduces the main theme. The strings and woodwinds return to play in a subdued manner before the violin reappears. It is this violin theme, and especially the theme, which begins at 5:01, that really makes this piece. It is a mellow opening that introduces Katsumoto and his rebellious clan of Samurai. The piece closes with a howling flute that corresponds in the movie and represents the modernization of feudal Japan and the impending fall of the Samurai. The second track, “Spectres” in the Fog”, opens with the solemn and Taiko-powered march for the Samurai. The track soon reflects the battle scene between the Imperial Japanese conscripts and the Samurai. It is with this scene’s action music that one of Zimmer’s production decisions rears it’s ugly head.
Just as he did on Gladiator, Zimmer makes the rather curious choice of layering his brass and strings with such a heavy mix which makes the orchestra sound almost entirely synthetic. This is not to mention Zimmer’s love of amplifying up the bass to the point where speakers might just give out. This is especially the case on his later scores, like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Thankfully, though, neither of these faux pas are enough to sink his ship.
This score is simply full of too many highlights to dislike. From the triumphant, brass-led, Samurai march, to the cacophony of horns for the reveal of the Prussian-trained Japanese soldiers (both found in the track “Idyll’s End”), this soundtrack features both sad, moving moments (“Safe Passage”) and intense battle music (“Red Warrior”). Zimmer also utilizes his main theme effectively throughout the album along with the motifs he establishes for the Samurai, the Imperial Japanese Army, et cetera. It is this melodic writing which truly makes this work a fantastic achievement by Zimmer.
At a robust 59 minutes, the score for The Last Samurai is definitely worth a complete listen if not an outright purchase. Zimmer’s seamless blending of ethnic instruments with a Western orchestra is truly a gauntlet that he emerges from with flying colors. One of Zimmer’s best works, The Last Samurai showcases a composer at the height of his craft with a strong grasp of melody and instrumentation, both traits which have become noticeably absent in his recent works.