The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick, provides a deep immersion into traditional Japanese culture that could be called “Lawrence of Japan” or “Dances with Samurai,” thus joining the genre of the 1935 (and 1962) and 1990 films, respectively. The story is fictional, recasting actual historical events for dramatic effect. The plot begins in 1876. Thirty-two-year-old Captain Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) is at a fair in San Francisco, exhibiting Winchester rifles that he used from 1861, first fighting the South in the Civil War and later fighting Native Americans under General George Custer. But he is drunk, haunted by his battles on the North American plains, with no other prospect of employment. After work one day, Colonel Benjamin Bagley (played by Tony Goldwyn), his former commanding officer, introduces him to a Japanese business executive named Omura (played by Masato Harada), who wants to hire both of them to train the Japanese army, with particular emphasis on gaining proficiency in shooting rifles. (Whereas the Portuguese introduced firearms into Japan much earlier, the film pretends that the Japanese first learned about modern firearms purchased from the United States in the mid-1870s.) After Algren arrives in Japan, he learns that the real purpose for hiring him is to shut down the Katsumoto clan, which lives in Yoshino province on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, where a renegade band of samurai are sabotaging the construction of a railroad line. The clan stubbornly adheres to traditional values in a modernizing nation ruled by a weak Emperor Meiji (played by Scichinosuke Nakamura), whom Omura advises to abolish feudal clans so that Japan will be a unified nation, strong enough to avoid European colonization. (Historically, there was no Katsumoto clan, but the last remaining feudal clan, the Satsuma in southern Honshu, was suppressed in 1877.) Led by Lord Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe), the samurai use traditional methods of fighting, including archery and swordplay, though Katsumoto believes that the samurai are actually defending the emperor from those who are shamelessly commercializing and Westernizing Japan, notably Omura and his minions. Even though the new Japanese army is not combat ready, however, Omura wants to defeat Katsumoto and his samurai before winter makes the route to his mountain residence impassable. Algren and Bagley then march the troops to engage Katsumoto in battle, but the emperor’s army is defeated and Algren is captured, largely so that Katsumoto can “learn more about his enemy.” Marooned in the highlands, Algren has no alternative but to live with the clan, and in time he gains such a deep appreciation for the bushido code of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice that he is ready to defend the clan against the Japanese army for the inevitable battle next spring, by which time Bagley doubtless would have the troops better trained. The best part of The Last Samurai, thus, is the focus on traditional Japanese culture, which Algren and filmviewers assimilate as much by observation as by the dialog. The subtext appears to be that the change from the benevolent and intellectual aspects of the bushido code led to the crass commercialism that later motivated Japanese expansionism. Toward the end of 140 minutes of film footage, Emperor Meiji is emboldened to embrace the movie’s subtext (though anachronistically, as the Townsend Treaty that brought Japan into the global economy had been signed in 1858, nearly a decade earlier). Although the outcome of the battle is obvious from the film’s title, one puzzle remains for filmviewers to decide: Who was the last samurai? For historical accuracy, they might prefer to read Mark Ravina’s Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Taigo Takamori (2003). MH

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