“The Last Samurai” is a war movie set in 19th Century Japan. It was directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, Defiance) and released in 2003. It did well at the box office in the U.S. and Japan. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Kenneth Watanabe), Art Direction, Costume Design, and Sound.
The movie opens in San Francisco in 1876. A Civil War/Indian Wars veteran suffering from PTSD (and the resulting alcoholism) named Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is recruited by a Japanese businessman named Omura to help train the new, modern Japanese Army. Japan is going through the Meiji Restoration when the newly empowered emperor was attempting to modernize and industrialize Japan. The warrior caste of samurai is considered to be obsolete and are deemed “renegades” when they refuse to accept “Westernization”. The American-trained and equipped Imperial Army will eliminate the rebels.
A surrealistic flashback explains Algrens PTSD as the byproduct of his witnessing, but not participating in, a Battle of the Washita-type massacre of an Indian village under his Custer-like Col. Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). How ironic that now he is helping the Imperial Army to do the same thing! He accompanies his newly trained conscripts into a misty forest ambush similar to the skirmish in “Glory”. Surprise, the samurai warriors trounce the rookies. Algren fights like Rambo and is spared because of it.
Algren is taken to the samurai village for the “Dances With Wolves” portion of the film. He detoxes, learns Japanese, immerses in Japanese culture, trains with swords, and woos the wife of a man he coincidentally killed (honorably) in the battle. All in record time. The samurai leader Katsumoto (Watanabe) befriends Algren. Of course, his top swordsman is less befriendly. Will he earn the man’s respect?
During a play, ninjas stealthily attack to assassinate Katsumoto. This gives us the chance to see ninjas (with their crossbows and throwing stars) and some mighty frenetic sword-play. To prove he’s the good guy and does not want war, Katsumoto goes to speak to the Emperor. Unfortunately, the teenage emperor is under the thumb of Omura and Katsumoto is arrested. Algren and his retinue rescue him in an action (and arrow) filled scene.
The village is prepared for defense ala “The Magnificent Seven”. With the Imperial Army approaching, Algren dons his girlfriend’s husband’s armor (he would have wanted it that way!) to fight alongside his new comrades. Only this time he is an Indian.
The Imperial Army is led by both of our hissable villains – Omura and Bagley. They bring their modern howitzers and their modern snobbery. Their infantry assault is met by a field set afire by incendiary arrows like in "Spartacus" and "Braveheart". Although the defensive tactics are working, Algren orders a cavalry attack that results in a melee which is graphic and sometimes in slo-mo (naturally). When the enemy retreats, the samurai regroup for the last suicidal charge. Suicidal because it’s across an open field against a more numerous enemy which bombards them with artillery and Gatling guns. Banzai! What a glorious way to die!
The movie does not claim to be a true story, but it does have some basis in historical events and personages. The Meiji Restoration started in 1867 when imperial authority was reasserted over the Tokugawa Shogunate. Meiji and his oligarchic council decided to modernize Japan with industries like railways and a European-style army trained by advisors mainly from Prussia. (Hollywood decided America should stand in for the European powers.) This included artillery and breech-loading rifles. One part of the reforms was the abolishment of the samurai caste. This included making the carrying of swords in public illegal. Most of the samurai accepted the reforms and landed on their feet in the new Japan. A few decided to fight to preserve their privileged status (moreso than their traditional way of life).
The Satsuma Rebellion broke out when samurai rebelled against the new rules. It was led by a famous samurai named Saigo Takamori. Earlier he had led a group of samurai who had captured the Imperial Palace and helped restore the power of the emperor. He, at first, had favored the move toward Westernization as an advisor to the emperor, but soon turned against modernization (especially the new railway system) and commerce with the West. He resigned when the oligarchs refused his plan to foment war with Korea. In the Satsuma province, he established academies that taught weapons training and the bushido code. When Satsuma “seceded”, a police force (sorry, no ninjas) was sent to “deal” with Saigo, but he got the best of them and the revolt was on. Saigo took a force with him to go to negotiate with the emperor, but they stopped to besiege a castle along the way. Samurai flocked to join him.
The arrival of a larger Imperial army forced Saigo to give up the siege and withdraw. At the Battle of Tabarazuka, Saigo was defeated after a hard fight. He and the survivors made their final stand on the slopes of Mount Endake. Greatly outnumbered, most either surrendered or committed suicide. Saigo escaped again with a small force. At the Battle of Shiroyama, artillery and bombardment from nearby warships wreaked havoc on their defensive positions. Only 40 warriors survived until the final assault. Saigo either died from a bullet wound or committed seppuku. He became a martyred hero and was later posthumously pardoned by the emperor.
Cruise’s character is based on a French officer named Jules Brunet who was in Japan earlier as a trainer. He trained the shogun’s artillery and stayed with the rebels after they lost to the Meiji forces. In the Boshin War (1868), the shogun forces were defeated at the Battle of Hakodate and Brunet returned to France.
Omura is based on Okubo Toshimichi. He was a nobleman who served as Home Lord under Meiji. He promoted industrial development and passed a law against samurai carrying swords. He parted with Saigo over the reforms. He led the army in the Satsuma Rebellion. A year after, he was assassinated by some samurai.
The samurai were different than depicted. By the 1870s they had not worn the lacquered armor for almost 250 years. They were also armed with the same types of rifles as the Imperial Army. They only fell back on their bows and swords if they ran out of ammunition. They lost because they were outnumbered, not outgunned They also were not the pure traditionalists the movie has them. The minority that rebelled were mainly interested in keeping their medievally-exalted status. You could argue they were blocking progress.
You have to admire the effort that went into “The Last Samurai”. The scenery is awesome. Most of the production was done in New Zealand. The sets are well done, especially the samurai village. The costumes were worthy of an Academy Award nomination. The involvement of respected Japanese actors really made a difference. The score by Hans Zimmer is excellent.
The acting is noteworthy. Watanabe is the standout, but Cruise does not embarrass himself. He prepared two years for the role and this included swordsmanship and Japanese language training. It may be a vanity project, but you have to admire his commitment.
The movie does not break much new ground plot-wise or character-wise. You can recognize ground trod already by “Dances With Wolves”, “A Man Called Horse”, “The Magnificent Seven”, and “Glory”. It is stocked with stereotypes: the shell-shocked soldier seeking redemption, the noble rebel against the corruption of modernity, the Robber Baron, the puppet emperor, the atrocity-loving commander, etc. The villains are over the top and one gets a ""take that, you bastard" Hollywood death. The stereotypes are matched by the clichés. All of the major scenes appear in other movies. The movie would have been a great parody if humor had been added.
The action is excellent. The combat is graphic and macho. It has explosions and fire! Clangs and bangs. Limbs are hacked off and there are decapitations. But you also get a chaste love story to keep the ladies happy.
The main strength of the movie is it is educational. Although the historical accuracy is a C+, the viewer does get a nice portrayal of Japan during the Meiji Restoration. The tension between modern Japan and medieval Japan is well played. The samurai culture may be anachronistic, but it is realistic (if idyllic). The film is sincere in its desire to open people’s eyes to a little known era. It is noteworthy that the movie was well-received in Japan.
CRACKER? Probably. It is well-balanced and accurate enough.
Tom Cruise vs. 5 assassins