The Last Samurai is a pretty solid, although underrated film. The action is well done, and the fusion of old and new, as well as the many ideologies throughout the movie are delivered in an interesting and enjoyable fashion.
No Hollywood historical epic is accurate, although almost all are based on a well-known story or a particularly important period. The Last Samurai picks a fascinating time and place; the Meiji Restoration period of Japan.
This was a difficult period. It is often simplified by explaining it was the modernization of Japan, specifically the evolution of its military and the decline of its warrior class of samurai.
The Meiji Restoration usually refers to when the Meiji Emperor was restored to power. However, enormous strides in modernization including Western styles of dress and weapons had been adopted during the civil war which brought about the Restoration. These modernizations were streamlined when the government became more stabilized.
Japan had initially let a few European traders into their nation. They came with guns and goods from all over the world. Fearing a dilution of traditional values, the Tokugawa Shogunate expelled all Europeans from the islands in the 17th century, limiting European trade to a small Dutch port in Nagasaki.
Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with massive ships carrying dozens of canons about 200 years later. The Japanese found themselves completely surpassed by almost every other established nation in the developed world.
Japan was firmly stuck in the middle ages while America was building up to its deadliest conflict in its Civil War. Europe already had the experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Cameras, electricity, and countless other inventions had permeated the rest of the world, while Japan was still in a feudal system.
Unsurprisingly, common sense prevailed when the Japanese saw the massive warships in their bays. They opened up trade, encouraging foreign nations to bring them into the modern era.
In The Last Samurai, this is presented as a thoroughly mixed idea. Tom Cruise’s character, Captain Algren, is brought in to train a new Japanese army. Men previously regarded as a too-low class to serve are prepared to fight against rebellious samurai.
These samurai are condemned as belligerent rebels until Captain Algren is captured and taken to an inescapable land of the samurai. There he learns of their peaceful and simple way of life. Algren discovers how the Japanese Emperor is being manipulated and the samurai are being oppressed to the point of being eliminated entirely.
When Algren returns to Tokyo, he finds the Japanese modernization has rapidly moved forward. Diplomats are making sales pitches for their weapons. It looks more like London, with people in top hats and horse-carts traveling around the streets which are crisscrossed by electrical wires.
Samurai leader Katsumoto is extremely depressed to learn his Emperor is merely a puppet of Japanese businessmen reaping the rewards of European business and war.
The individual men of the new Imperial Army were not demonized, but their higher command and nearly every aspect of the government and foreign influences were vilified. Hollywood simplifies the scenario to show the samurai as simplistic, good, and pure, and the modernization as quite evil and oppressive.
In reality, the Meiji Restoration by breaking down social classes was the opposite. The new government went to work abolishing the samurai class. Samurai were supported mainly by peasants and were often cruel and tyrannical throughout Japanese history.
In giving commoners the right to join the army, the government was widening the traditional role of the samurai to every man. They also brought in mandatory conscription.
All Samurai were not against this. As samurai were a part of the upper classes, many of them found roles in the new regime. Samurai formed the veteran officer core of the new army, and many became successful businessmen.
Some samurai, however, were not thrilled by all the changes. They saw the new government as directly taking away their power and so armed rebellions ensued.
The Last Samurai blends several rebellions that occurred over many years into one. The fictional leader Katsumoto was based on the influential and honorable Saigō Takamori, leader of the final rebellion.
The blending of events persists until the last battle of the film, which is a direct correlation to the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion. Katsumoto/Takamori dies at the hands of a thoroughly modernized Imperial Army thus ending the rebellions.
The samurai in combat are wonderfully depicted in the film from an entertainment perspective. The first battle shows how the samurai expertly wielded their swords and bows to rip through an armed but inexperienced army.
The last battle shows the samurai using excellent tactics to trap units of infantry and wear them down in melee before finally charging to their deaths in the face of canon fire and Gatling guns. This dichotomy further shows the ideological differences of the samurai and gives them sympathy for sticking to their antiquated weapons.
History, however, shows a very different story. While one of the rebellions eschewed modern weapons, the rest of the uprisings, including the final Satsuma one, used modern weapons.
The Satsuma rebels, including Takamori, used rifles and often wore Western style uniforms with a few wearing traditional samurai armor. The rebels had over 60 pieces of artillery and used them.
The Imperial Army at the final battle of Shiroyama won due to superior numbers more than anything else. The final charge of the samurai was symbolically quite like how it was presented in the film.
Although Captain Algren appears to be a fictional character included to have someone to relate to, he is, however, based on a historical character with strikingly similar views and actions.
The real man, Jules Brunet, was French. He was sent to train soldiers in the use of modern artillery much earlier than the Satsuma rebellion, and before the official Meiji Restoration.
Brunet was called back to France but chose instead to remain and fight in the Boshin War, a civil war ending with a Meiji victory and restoration of Imperial rule. Brunet fought on the losing Shogunate side and participated in a glorious and epic last battle which he survived. The parallels between Algren and Brunet show that Brunet was a definite influence.
The Last Samurai blends over a decade of real history into a shorter narrative, while changing a French hero into an American one. It also vastly alters the attitudes of the sides, making the new government out to be evil and oppressive. In reality, this new government gave the Japanese more freedoms and a place on the national stage for the first time in their history.
Some of the samurais were honorable, but others fought the system because they bitterly resented their greatly diminished role in the new Japan. The final battle of Shiroyama was symbolic and a bittersweet moment of Japanese history.
When they rebelled, the samurai were a threat, but once vanquished they became more idealized. Eventually, the samurai’s history and warrior culture were used to motivate Japanese troops during their great wars in the 20th century.
The film does an excellent job in basing Katsumoto on one of the most respected rebels and Algren on an actual historical figure.
In showing the vast changes in Japan during the 19th century, although with a very idealized version of the various rebellions, the movie brings an often-hidden aspect of Japanese culture to the West.