The Last Samurai, released in 2003, has been one of the most successful examples of “Western” Samurai films and managed to get nominated for 4 different Oscars. With the underlying nationalist sentiments that existed in the 19th century Japan, and their struggle for modernisation – the movie has a captivating plot.
Set in the politically and socially chaotic 1870s Japan, Captain Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise), a veteran who is haunted by the cruel memories of his time as a middle-ranking soldier during the American Civil War, is presented with an opportunity through an old friend. Arranged by his former superior, the very person in charge for the atrocities Algren had to commit, he is recruited by the other antagonist, a businessman and a member of the Japanese Emperor’s cabinet named Omura, to teach the newly-recruited peasant conscripts the modern methods of warfare to turn them into an effective fighting force. The priority of the Imperial Cabinet is to crush the rebellion led by yet another, now absent, cabinet member: a well-known and highly reputable warrior, advisor and teacher to the Emperor, Katsumoto (played wonderfully by Ken Watanabe). Katsumoto is a samurai belonging to a hereditary warrior class and portrayed to have remained dutifully devoted to the young Emperor. He also, however, rejects the Westernizing policy imposed by the likes of Omura as, according to him, it infringes with the Japanese traditions and identity. Refusing to bear any firearms as a method of protest against the Western sentiment, he and his followers conduct ambushes and attacks on the things that symbolize this shift towards the Western countries – one of which being a railroad owned by Omura himself. Enraged upon the damage inflicted on his property, Omura asks recently arrived Algren to immediately clash with the forces at hand. Objecting at first, Algren leads the ill-prepared troops to their inevitable demise – getting himself captured in the process. Katsumoto spares his life thanks to his unrelentless stand and takes him back to his base of operations to learn more about his enemy. Over time, Algren learns and respects the Japanese way of living, and the traditions of the samurai. Earning the favour of all during his captivity, he gets released when Katsumoto gets invited to the Imperial capital to make his case in front of the Council and the Emperor himself. Failing to convince the Emperor to protect the old ways, he gets arrested and manages to barely run away thanks to the Algren and his companions – who now are facing the threat of a fully-modernised Imperial Army. Retreating, they prepare for a last stand against all odds. In a suicidal attack to send a message to the Emperor, the samurai rebels get annihilated. Katsumoto commits seppuku with the help of his new ally, grating himself a warrior’s death. After the battle, Algren takes Katsumoto’s sword and message to the Emperor, who now changes his mind upon the sacrifice of his old teacher and refuses to sign the cooperation treaty with the Americans.
There are, as one can expect, several historical inaccuracies within the film. For starters, one can easily spot the out of ordinary interactions between Algren and his host, Kata, whose husband had been killed by the American captain in the initial battle. Even though several scenes depict the frustration of Taka and her attempts to get rid of the foreigner by appealing to his brother Katsumoto, her increasing fondness of the American captain over a comparatively short period is far from being convincing – especially considering the nationalist and anti-foreigner sentiment within the nature of the movement she is a part of. One other issue that is easy to recognise is how Katsumoto was portrayed as an English speaker. Admittedly, his initial crude English improves over time as he practices with Algren, nevertheless, historically it is far from the reality for a man in his position to have even the basic understanding on the language. The Emperor is also subjected to the same movie sin, as he is shown to have a grasp on the language through the captivating speech he gives at the end of the movie, to explain the rationale behind his refusal to accommodate the American arms deal. Yet another issue stems from the wrong portrayal of the Japanese elite during the period. In the movie, the Emperor (who is believed to be the well-known Meiji) is seen to be interacting with foreign delegations, and even with a comparatively low-ranking American Captain Algren. It is easy to understand how this misinterpretation might have taken place as it is indeed true that Emperor Meiji, unlike his previous counterparts before him, was more active in such state and foreign affairs. However, being as active as portrayed in the movie would put him in a position of humiliation due to the holy and sacred position he was believed to be in. The attempted demonstration of procedures and court etiquette is also violated several times, and this violation reaches its peak when the Emperor gets on his knees to accept the sword presented by Algren. Unacceptable by all means in the Japanese contemporary mindset, I find it hard to believe how the Emperor “degraded” himself in such a manner.
We might have started in a negative tone, yet, The Last Samurai does a wonderful job in depicting the modernism struggle of Imperial Japan, and the natures of the conflicts emerged as a result. Elegant references to the Japanese culture, such as the depictions of “sakura” and “haiku”, as well as the samurai codes and ethics, has made the movie a pleasant work to watch. The lack of nudity, something rare to find nowadays, was impressive and the building up of the sexual tension between the lines was masterfully crafted. The movie can also allow us to speculate how Imperial Japan had crafted a radical and expansionist foreign policy while utilizing the code of the samurai in the upcoming decades. Being fascinating at pretty much all of the things it attempts to do, The Last Samurai is a must-watch.
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