Journal of Theatrical Combatives Jan 2004

A second look at The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai poster
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Photos by David James

The Last Samurai is a highly romantic yarn of friendship and idealism set in Meiji-era Japan.  Star/producer Tom Cruise, director Edward Zwick and writer John Logan have created an epic story, in which a drunken ex-hero of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, Nathan Algren (Cruise) is talked into going to Japan as an American military advisor to the Emperor Meiji’s army.  Soon after his arrival, Algren is forced to bring his green troops into a disastrous confrontation with a rebellious group of samurai, led by a renegade daimyo, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).  Algren is captured by the rebels and carried off to Kyushu, where he is stuck in their mountain retreat through the winter, held in the house of Katsumoto’s sister, Taka (Koyuki Kato).  Taka is distressed to have the man responsible for her husband’s death in her house, but she obeys her brother, in spite of the fact that Algren “smells like a pig.”  Algren eventually comes out of his alcoholic stupor and learns to appreciate his captors and their way of life.  They, in turn, teach him some fighting techniques of their own.  When the last battle with imperial forces comes the following spring, Algren knows he cannot fight on the side of his former employers.  Instead he lends his strategic abilities to the renegades.

The Last Samurai Photo by David James

Reviews have generally praised the look of the film, but have said the story and characters lack depth.  I went to see the film with several fellow martial artists, and, while they also praised some aspects of the film, they were disappointed in others (for example, the ending evoked some cries of “typical Hollywood”).  As a long-time student of Japanese swordsmanship and culture, however, I felt there were things about The Last Samurai that the reviewers, as well as my colleagues, missed.  Given the subject matter, as well as the significance of a major studio release with a nearly all-Asian cast, it seems to me that The Last Samurai deserves a more thoughtful look.  I hope in this essay to introduce some background to the time period in which the film is set, and offer some observations, thereby to correct a couple of misconceptions.

To begin with, we should take a very brief look at foreigners in Japan.  European traders and missionaries came to Japan in the late 16th century.  Over a relatively brief time, the government of Japan, which became consolidated under the Tokugawa shoguns in the early 17th century, became concerned that Western (and Christian) influences would destabilize the country.  The government closed Japan to foreigners, with the exception of the Dutch trading settlement on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor.  This situation remained in place until Commodore Perry’s “black ships” forced Japan to sign a treaty in the early 1850’s.

We should pause here to consider the disposition of the Western powers in this period.  European powers and the United States had established colonies throughout the world.  Though we mostly think of the British when we think of Western empires, we would do well to remember that the U.S., Spain, France, Italy and Russia also had global ambitions which they acted on to various degrees.  In Asia, the Europeans and U.S. had divided up China into “spheres of influence,” ostensibly running these areas as though they were individual colonies.  Spain annexed the Philippines, which in turn, became a war trophy of the U.S. after the Spanish-American war in 1898.  There was little Asian territory that had not at least been forced into major concessions by the Western powers by the mid-19th century.  When Admiral Perry arrived in 1853, Japan was made well aware of the possibility that it could be next.  The shogun’s government was weak, and forward-thinking Japanese were concerned that Japan needed both to recognize that a foreign threat existed, and to organize itself to deal with it (Keene 2002: 14-16).  Some factions felt the best course of action was to replace the shogun’s government with a central monarchy by giving ruling power to the emperor.  They set about devising a means by which they could make this happen.  Weirdly, they were aided in this effort by some European traders, notably Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911), a British tea merchant who lived in Nagasaki.  His interest in seeing the emperor rule had much to do with the idea that if Japan had an imperial government that resembled his own, it would be good for international cooperation and trade (besides, Glover was used to imperial rule, and no doubt felt it was the most civilized of governments).  Therefore, the differing factions found common cause - one who felt an imperial government would be able to more strongly resist foreign influence, and another who felt that an imperial government would be more cooperative with foreign governments, thereby increasing their influence.

The young Emperor Meiji took the throne, and the government was changed over in 1868.  The young man’s advisors were very keen to modernize Japan, both to prevent foreign domination (though to cooperate with foreign powers) and to stabilize their own position against unhappy members of the formerly ruling samurai class.  The emperor himself was somewhat mad for things Western, as were members of his inner circle, and they quickly adopted European manners and dress.  His advisors, in a more practical mode, realized they could not accomplish modernization without Western help, and they invited (as is pointed out at the beginning of The Last Samurai) European and American advisors of all kinds: educators, engineers, tradesmen.

Impressively, compared with much of modern history (remember the German states spent most of the 1870’s in one bloody war after another) the transition to imperial rule was relatively peaceful.  Some Tokugawa-era samurai administrators were happy to continue in some imperial equivalent.  However, the transition was not in any way altogether smooth, either.  The largest, most threatening, and famous uprising was the Satsuma Rebellion (1877), in which powerful clans from the south, initially supportive of the change of government, began to realize their best interests might not be represented by the new regime.  Their uprising managed to effectively threaten the new government (though not for long).  However, as opposed to some popular lore, they did not eschew modern or Western-type weapons.  Woodblock prints from the period show the rebels armed with both rifles and cannons.

However, a year earlier, in 1876, a small group of men from Kumamoto, in the Southern Island of Kyushu, known as the Shin’puren, were convinced that the gods would deliver Japan from Western influence, using them as the instrument.  They did stay with traditional weapons and tactics, shunning anything of Western origin, even if it was made in Japan.  Their first, and only, engagement was against the Kumamoto garrison of the Imperial Army.  Taking the place by surprise, at night, the warriors were able to rout better-armed soldiers, setting fire to the barracks.  The small band of about 200 rebels managed to kill 300 peasant conscripts before commanders managed to rally the remaining troops, who opened fire.  Those of the rebels who survived the onslaught killed themselves rather than be taken alive.  Though their sacrifice was essentially senseless, they provided inspiration for the better armed and organized Satsuma Rebellion the following year (Keene 2002: 263-265).

The Last Samurai story is drawn from bits of both the Satsuma Rebellion and the Shin’puren uprising.  The character of Katsumoto is based, to a certain extent, on the real Saigo Takamori, a former advisor to the emperor, who broke with him over the “too Western” attitude of the new government.  Once one of the architects of the Meiji government, he became one of the leaders of the Satsuma Rebellion.  Katsumoto’s anti-western ideology is based on the philosophy of the Shin’puren.  The success of Katsumoto’s men over the raw recruits in the forest is reminiscent of the Shin’puren’s surprise, initial victory.  Katsumoto’s ultimate defeat and death, rather than compromise, also echoes their fate.  Western military advisors did train the new Imperial Army which prevailed over both the multiple small uprisings and the much more formidable Satsuma clans.

The story of Nathan Algren’s involvement and subsequent capture, therefore, though it never took place in actual fact, is plausible, as are the other elements in the story.  Like any good historical yarn, elements of it ring true because they are in fact true.

Many critics have pointed out that Algren’s situation is a “typical fish out of water story,” or even “dances with wolves in kimono” (Hoberman 2003: 63).  Captivity narratives are a classic genre, one that dates back, at least, to the early days of American colonization.  Sensational tales of being captured by “savages” were staples of 17th, 18th and 19th century popular American literature.  Mid-20th century films, such as The Searchers (1956), and later, Little Big Man (1970), are more modern examples of the same genre, in addition to the more recent Dances with Wolves (1990).  Anthropologists’ arrival tropes that start off their monographs are a more carefully-observed, non-fiction version, if not of captivity, then at least of the “stranger in a strange land” narrative.  The fact that The Last Samurai fits into this genre is not, in itself, a real criticism.

A great deal of print has noted the careful depiction of 19th century Japan in the film, so I will not repeat much here, except to say that certain historical aspects were surprisingly well-researched.  The most obvious example is the Emperor Meiji’s high pitched voice.  According to scholar Donald Keene (2002), in fact, Meiji did have a soft, high voice, and he hated speaking in public, even as he became more visible in the manner of a European monarch.  Ambitious advisors definitely had vested interests in opening up Japan, though they historically fall short of the evil Minister Omura (Masato Harada).  Story and screenwriters Zwick and Logan did some real homework here.  Details in the mountain village, such as winter vegetables hanging on racks outside of houses, were also very well-observed.

Much has been made of the setting of New Zealand for much of the film; however, it is obvious that not all the scenes were shot there.  The castle town of Himeji stands in for 19th century Tokyo, and the “family temple” is actually the 1,000 year old Engyoji, a monastery in Mt. Shosha in Western Japan.  (I knew, when I saw it, that it was no “Family temple,” but it is so impressively beautiful, I forgave the filmmakers on the spot) (Erdmann, et al. 2003: 108).

The relationship of Algren and Katsumoto is central to the film.  The two men, though they appear quite different (Katsumoto’s life is sober discipline and based in an appreciation of the fragility of life; Algren is a drunken ex-soldier who is ashamed of his past.  Katsumoto tells him, “You are not afraid of death; in fact, you welcome it”), they share some crucial similarities.  Katsumoto has excellent command of English, just as Algren is an expert in Native American tactics and speaks Blackfoot.(1)  Both harbor an interest in studying the ways of their enemy.  Algren asks the English scholar Graham (Timothy Spall) to translate some books on samurai; Katsumoto reads Algren’s diaries.

Of course, the most important aspect of a film that purports to be about late-19th century samurai and the code of bushido is: how authentic is it?  With some forgivable modifications (it’s a feature film, not a documentary) a great deal of loving energy went into the fight and battle scenes.  The actors recruited to play Katsumoto’s warriors have obviously trained in swordsmanship - even the two children are not exactly playing when they engage in some mock battling.

The Last Samurai Photo by David James

Of course, to a martial artist, the practice sessions are most interesting.  The training sessions and duels between Algren and his teacher, Ujio, resemble kenjutsu, in which partners square off using wooden swords in two-person forms, much more than the later martial sport of kendo - something I found most gratifying.  Stunt coordinator Nick Powell has to share credit with Hiroyuki Sanada, who played Ujio, for a great deal of uncredited work in designing the sword practice and fighting scenes (http://lastsamurai.warnerbros.com/ 2003: n.p.).  Publicity articles released by the filmmakers have underscored the meticulousness of the weapons and armor.  Though they have spent much less time discussing them, the sword techniques being practiced look pretty genuine to someone who has practiced them for 18 years.

This made the fight scenes especially fun.  For example, the band of assassins who come to attack the village and kill Katsumoto (to their everlasting credit, no one in the film refers to them as “ninja”) provide some exciting close-quarter fights.  Unlike what an audience might expect, the assassins use authentic tactics (including real shuriken, as opposed to “throwing stars”), rather than the flash we have come to expect from similarly-clad characters.  Even Taka successfully takes part in the fight.  Leaving aside the current trend for women to take part in fight scenes, samurai women were trained to fight, to defend both their honor and their homes during men’s frequent absences, when necessary.

Unfortunately, the least satisfying of the small-scale engagements should have been one of the better ones.  Algren, warned that Katsumoto is in custody and will either be killed or forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), takes off down the street, only to be confronted by four sword-wielding men.  Having forgotten his pistol, Algren manages to dispatch all of them by use of his newly acquired samurai skills.  Leaving aside the probability that a man with six months of training would actually prevail (though he has surprise on his side), the fight itself looks unclear, a departure from the other scenes.  Zwick decided all four assailants should attack Algren at once, something that is unlikely to occur (combatants would be afraid of hurting each other) (Erdmann et al 2003: 85).  The decision to slow down the action may have been an attempt to save the scene from simply being a blur.

The Last Samurai, photo by David James

That said, my favorite small-scale fight scene is the one that follows when Algren and Graham arrive at Katsumoto’s Tokyo residence, along with some of his men, in order to rescue him.  Katsumoto’s son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada), mortally wounded in the fight, tells his father to leave him.  After the group does so, Nobutada repeatedly fires arrows at the guards, to cover his father’s escape.  When he runs out of arrows, he draws both swords and rushes them.  The fearful guards fire at him repeatedly until he falls.  Rather than quietly dying, Nobutada buys his father crucial time in which to escape what would have been a more shameful death in captivity.  Only Algren turns to look at his heroic last stand.

It is at this point that we come across the only romance scene in what is unabashedly a romantic film.  As the Imperial Army advances for the final battle, Taka, after overcoming her misgivings about Algren, offers to dress him in her dead husband’s armor in order to protect him in the coming battle.  As romantic scenes go, this one is very much characterized by restraint of feeling, strange by Western-style movie standards, but in keeping with popular Japanese samurai novels (Moss and Tokita 2003, n.p.).  Taka sits in the kneeling position of seiza as she makes this request of Algren.  Some newspaper reviews suggested this position suggests submission, but this is a Western interpretation.  What Taka is offering Algren, finally, is respect.  By offering him her husband’s armor, Taka is not only admitting depth of feeling, but a sense that she accepts what happened to her husband by Algren’s hand.  It hardly need be pointed out that as Katsumoto’s dutiful sister, Taka could not make this offer without Katsumoto’s consent.  Like a lot of other things in The Last Samurai, there is more to this scene than what meets the eye.

The final battle is very carefully laid out, even though the strategy of the samurai takes the imperial army, as well as the audience, by surprise.  Happily, we do not learn the plans through exposition, but through the action.  Though much of the scene is shown with a lot of rapidly cut, short sequences (thanks, MTV), at one point, the camera does pull back and lingers to reveal about 50 people locked in hand-to-hand combat.  It’s a brilliant shot.

The Last Samurai, photo by David James

Only one aspect of this otherwise great scene was annoying to someone who studies Japanese sword.  In the final charge, it is altogether likely that Algren, a former cavalry officer, would unsheathe his sword to lead the troops; however, no Japanese would.  Also, the sound of scraping metal employed when the men draw is totally out of character with Japanese sword techniques.  Scraping the sword against the its wooden saya (sheath) would result in cutting through it into the swordsman’s hand.  Only in the earlier scenes depicting training drills with swords were the sword draws and resheathings properly silent.

The end of the final battle is no less tragic for being predictable.  The Japanese army’s overwhelming firepower in these scenes also struck me with a sense of forboding.  About twenty years after the events of The Last Samurai would have taken place, Japan would be taking territory in the Chinese mainland in the Sino-Japanese war.  Whether intentional or not, the director hints that Japanese militarism was taking root as the big guns were turned on its own people.  Nevertheless, the samurai die so bravely, the rank and file soldiers kneel in seiza and bow in respect and not a little sorrow when they see what their mechanized weapons have wrought; a sense of regret that we know did not exist when it came to the years of imperial conquest that followed in the real history of Japan.

My friends did not like the end of the film (if you have not seen it yet, you may want to stop reading here).  I think, though, that it was the only way the film could have ended.  It is Katsumoto’s “destiny” as he calls it, to die in battle.  As much as he loves his life, it is his fate.  Algren, on the other hand, has become heedless of his life, but it is his fate to live.  In the beginning of the film, Katsumoto acts as kaishaku (assistant) to his friend General Hasegawa (Togo Igawa), a samurai who has become an officer in the Imperial Army.  At the end of the film, Algren acts as kaishaku to Katsumoto, helping the dying man end his life at the end of the one-sided battle (in spite of Omura’s insistence, the soldiers, for their part, refuse to simply shoot them both down).  While he learns to respect Katsumoto’s beliefs, Algren still cannot share them.

It would also have eclipsed Katsumoto’s moment for Algren to die as well.  In spite of the hype surrounding Cruise as the star, the “last samurai” is really Katsumoto (as Cruise has pointed out in interviews).  And, since the plural of “samurai” is “samurai,” the title also implies, as the film does, that a way of life has disappeared on the battlefield as well.

Narratively, the filmmakers decided that Algren is the means by which the last loose ends of the story should be tied up.  A wounded Algren interrupts a formal imperial audience wherein the American ambassador is about to sign an arms treaty with Japan, by appearing there in order to present Katsumoto’s sword to the emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura).  In doing so, he fulfills his vow to Katsumoto to make the emperor “listen.”  Algren, in true samurai fashion, offers his life to the emperor, as Katsumoto had done before; though as an American, the gesture comes off as being highly melodramatic.  The emperor accepts the sword.  He then rebuffs the ambassador and the evil Omura.  Omura finally gets his due by being stripped of his railroad and other holdings.  The emperor not only listens, he finds his own voice as well.

A voiceover in the character of Graham suggests that though Algren may have died of his wounds or gone home, he may in fact have returned to the mountain, and it is this scene that the filmmakers choose to show us.  Algren returns to the village and Taka, who turns to greet him with a soft, enigmatic smile.

So, the hero dies in battle.  The bad guys get their comeuppance.  The antihero not only lives, but gets the girl.  While the ending definitely fits my friends’ definition of “Hollywood,” I have trouble figuring out how it could have ended differently.  Should Algren have killed himself as well?  No.  Algren is not really samurai, as much as he has come to admire them.  Besides, he has a vow to fulfill to Katsumoto.  Should Taka and her children have killed themselves rather than live with the shame of defeat?  That depends.  Katsumoto and his men are aware that they will not be returning from the final battle.  Rather than killing themselves, it is plausible to consider that family members (and it fits with the romantic character of the film) may have been asked to live on, so that the children of the rebels could survive, in order to remember and tell the story of The Last Samurai.

1. Though Katsumoto’s command of English strikes us odd, Keene (2002) points out that one of the Japanese envoys to Admiral Perry’s ship in 1853 spoke to the Americans in English, at a time when Japan was still isolated from the West.  It is possible that Katsumoto, as a former cabinet member, might have learned English as part of his job at the time.


The author wishes to thank Stanley Chin, Helen E. Moss and Terumi Tokita for their assistance in preparation of this article

Bibliography and Works Cited

Erdmann, et al.
2003 Tom Cruise: The Last Samurai NY: Time Inc. Home Entertainment.

Hoberman, J.
2003 “The Robe Warrior” (Review) Village Voice, Dec. 3-9, p. 63.

Keene, Donald
2002 Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World 1852-1912 NY: Columbia Univ. Pr.

Kitoh, Mutsuyoshi and Burke-Gaffney, Brian
1988 Nagasaki: Japan’s Window to the World Nagasaki: Nagasaki Photo Service, Ltd.

Lumenick, Lou
2003 “Cruise more sanctimonious than samurai” NY Post Dec. 5, 2003, p. 45.

Matthews, Jack
2003 “Tom’s saga could be sharper” (Review) Daily News Dec. 15. 2003, p. 57.

Mitchell, Elvis
2003 The Last Samurai (Review) The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2003 (http: //movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html).

Moss, Helen E. and Tokita, Terumi
2003 Personal communication.

Stuart, Jan
! i-720 2003 “Typical Cruise Fare, Any Way You Slice It” (Review) Newsday, Dec. 5, 2003 p. B3.

Trask, David
n.d. “The Spanish-American War” Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/Trask.html)

2003 “Hiroyuki Sanada” n.p.

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