“They say Japan was made by a sword. They say the old gods dipped a coral blade into the ocean, and when they pulled it out four perfect drops fell back into the sea, and those drops became the islands of Japan. I say, Japan was made by a handful of brave men. Warriors, willing to give their lives for what seems to have become a forgotten word: honor.” – Simon Graham narrating beginning of film
When Commodore Matthew Perry showed up with his fleet and its big guns in 1853 to forcefully open up an isolated Japan to the World, the Japanese realized that the world had long passed it by and it needed to modernize and quickly catch up. Japan brought in experts from the West and mimicked the best of everything in the modern world. As Emperor Meiji is credited for realizing the need for and decreeing the drastic change in Japan, the time period is known as the Meiji era. However, rapid change conflicts with the status quo. As such, traditionalists started to resist modernization and a rebellion is lead by the Samurai, Japan’s warrior class. Eventually, the Samurai were crushed by Japan’s modern army. The specific time period within the Meiji period when the Samurai fell is known as the Meiji Restoration. The Last Samurai is set during this time. The movie does an excellent job portraying the era and the differences between modernization and tradition as well as the contrasts between Western and Eastern cultures. However, it obviously idealizes the Samurai. While the positive aspects of the Samurai shown in the film are definitely true, it does not portray a complete picture as it does not address the criticisms of the Samurai. The main point omitted from the movie is the notion that the Samurai were fighting to maintain their power and elite status rather than the purely noble reasons suggested by the film. Nevertheless, it is a movie and not a documentary. It does not need to present a fair and balanced portrayal. I agree with just focusing on the appeal of the ways of the Samurai because it was very well done. When the protagonist of the film, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), is in a Samurai village within Japan’s countryside, he notes that “There is so much here I will never understand. I’ve never been a church going man, and what I’ve seen on the field of battle has led me to question God’s purpose. But there is indeed something spiritual in this place. And though it may forever be obscure to me, I cannot but be aware of its power.” Those words reflect the way I feel about the movie. It is very spiritual and powerful. Hans Zimmer’s score for The Last Samurai is perfect as it is able to capture the intensity of war and the tranquility of peace and harmony needed for this film.
The movie begins with Captain Nathan Algren in San Francisco. He is a former, American war hero who fought during the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Due to his traumatizing memories from war, he is haunted by the experiences and has become an alcoholic in an effort to drown out the images. Although he has a distinguished military career, he is now nothing more than a sideshow as he performs in mock skits of battles to sell guns for Winchester Company. A former colleague, Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), convinces Algren to have dinner and meet with some gentlemen who want to offer them a new opportunity. The men at the dinner include Algren’s former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), and the chief advisor for the Emperor of Japan, Omura (Masato Harada). Omura wants to recruit and hire Algren to train a modern army in Japan to defeat the Samurai. There is a lot of tension at the dinner as Algren resents and hates Bagley. As Algren’s commanding officer, he ordered his troops to massacre Native American civilians that included women and children. Although Algren opposed the order, he still followed them and participated in the massacre. Algren’s struggle with the guilt and redemption is a key theme in the movie. Tom Cruise does a very good job portraying the character and his demons. As Algren is drunk and angry at Bagley during the dinner, he is rude to both Bagley and Omura before walking away from the dinner. Nevertheless, the money is too much for Algren to turn down. When Bagley tries to talk to and convince Algren to take the job, Algren responds “You want me to kill the enemies of Jappos, I’ll kill the enemies of Jappos… Rebs, or Sioux, or Cheyenne… For 500 bucks a month I’ll kill whoever you want. But keep one thing in mind: I’d happily kill you for free.”
When Algren arrives in Tokyo, Japan, he trains an army with the help of Gant. He also receives the help of British translator, Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), and General Hasegawa (Togo Igawa). Graham is a minor character but I like his role in the movie. He is enthusiastic about learning about different cultures and it rubs off on the viewer. He also narrates the first and last sequences in the movie. Hasegawa is another good minor character. As a former Samurai, Hasegawa is important in providing insight about them and their leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Some interesting information that they provide Algren is that Katsumoto no longer uses firearms as he views the use of modern technology as dishonorable. While it is a nice touch by the film to show that the Samurai are defenders of tradition, they actually did use firearms during their rebellion in real life. Although Algren makes progress training conscripts, the army is far from ready to take on the Samurai. However, Omura and Bagley are impatient and rush the army into battle. Building on the animosity between Algren and Bagley, they disagree on the issue. Bagley does not see the problem as the Samurai do not have a single firearm. In his words, they are just “savages with bows and arrows”. Algren correctly points out “whose sole occupation for the last thousand years has been war”. Of course, Algren’s assessment proves accurate as the new army is completely overcome with fear on the battle field and gets crushed by the Samurai. The defeat also results in the Samurai capturing Algren and holding him in captivity.
The Samurai bring Algren deep into the mountains to the village of Nobutada (Shin Koyamada), Katsumoto’s son. Algren is nursed back to health and cared for by Taka (Koyuki), who is Katsumoto’s sister and the wife of a Samurai Algren killed in battle. Although she holds a lot of hate toward Algren for the death of her husband, she does her duty and cares for Algren gracefully and diligently. She only treats Algren with kindness and masks her anger. It is very noble and speaks greatly to her character and her culture. At the beginning of Algren’s captivity, he is tormented by his nightmares without reprieve as he is denied sake by Taka. Over time, Algren wins her trust and affection. In a great scene, Algren helps Taka with her chores. While she notes that Japanese men do not help with her tasks, he responds that he is not Japanese. In that moment, he also takes the opportunity to apologize for killing her husband. In a powerful moment, she comes to peace with it and says “He did his duty. You did your duty.” It shows the honor and respect between warriors. They understand that they are performing their duty by fighting for their country or for their cause. Unfortunately, killing another person is part of that duty and it is not personal. For these reasons, Taka accepts Algren’s apology. Taka also has two young sons, Higen and Magojiro. Algren also develops a relationship with them and the scenes that build that rapport are very well done.
Although Algren is technically a prisoner, he is allowed to roam around the village unrestricted with an escort from the Silent Samurai (Seizô Fukumoto). Although the Silent Samurai does not speak, there are funny moments when Algren talks to him in unsuccessful attempts to provoke him to speak. In one of the scenes, Algren decides to call him “Bob” as the Silent Samurai never reveals his name. Katsumoto’s son, Nobutada, is also very welcoming of Algren to his village. He is very ecstatic that Algren is eager to learn about Japanese and Samurai culture. In addition, Nobutada encourages it. However, not everyone is inviting of Algren. One of the strongest Samurai, Uijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), cannot stand Algren at first. Sanada does an excellent job portraying the very proud Samurai. Uijo protests Katsumoto’s decision to allow Algren to live. He sees the westerner as barbaric. In addition, Uijo does not understand why Algren does not end his own life as he has been defeated. As Samurai, they are taught that they must end their life as the shame of defeat is unbearable. However, Katsumoto explains that it is not Western custom to commit suicide when defeated. When Uijo asks for permission to kill Algren, Katsumoto denies the request as there will be plenty of killing to come and he would like to learn more about their new enemy. Moreover, Katsumoto believes it is fate that Algren is with them even though he does not yet know the reason.
Of course, it does not stop Uijo from teaching Algren some tough lessons. When Taka’s oldest son, Higen is practicing with a wooden sword, Nobutada encourages Algren to spar with the young boy as the Samurai children are stronger than they appear. As Higen is initially angry with Algren for the death of his father, he aggressively but unsuccessfully attacks Algren with the wooden sword but is easily blocked. When Uijo sees it, he takes the wooden sword and handily defeats the novice Algren in swordsmanship. Moreover, he brutally beats Algren. Nevertheless, Algren repeatedly gets back up and continues to take a beating until he is knocked unconscious. The scene is very important for various reasons. For Taka and her son Higen, it allows them to see Algren punished. However, their emotions change from anger to sympathy as Algren is severely beaten. It begins the path to forgiveness as they get some retribution and get to see that Algren is just a soldier doing his job rather than a monster. Although Uijo does not show much compassion as he beats Algren, the resilience in enduring the beat down does eventually gain the respect of a tough warrior like Uijo. In reality, Algren and Uijo have a lot in common. They are great warriors that are fierce combatants. As a result, it is natural that they initially have animosity and distrust towards each other. Due to their similarities, they grow to respect each other. Moreover, Uijo teaches Algren the “way of the sword”. One of the better scenes in the movie is when Algren is finally able to spar with Uijo and fight him to a draw. At that point, Ujio gains complete respect for Algren. The progression of this relationship is very well done in the movie.
The signature relationship in the movie is between Algren and Katsumoto. Ken Watanabe is the star of the movie and plays the character flawlessly. Katsumoto is a great leader and warrior. He is wise and honorable. While he is a great fighter, he is also a graceful and peaceful person. Katsumoto is always polite. While Algren is distrusting of Katsumoto at first, he grows to respect and admire the Samurai leader. Their conversations are the best parts of the movie as they share their experiences in war and teach each other about their unique cultures. The movie does an excellent job of using those interactions to highlight key differences between Western and Eastern cultures. The earlier discussions are tense as Algren’s aggressiveness conflicts with Katsumoto’s calmness. Algren has issue with a few customs. First, he believes it is savage when Katsumoto beheaded the defeated General Hasegawa. However, Katsumoto explains that Algren is unfamiliar with Samurai customs. From his point of view, “A samurai cannot stand the shame of defeat. I was honored to cut off his head.” In reality, Katsumoto’s actions are a gesture of respect for his adversary rather than a depraved act it appeared to Algren. Another great conversation is when Algren notes that his commanding officer was lieutenant colonel Custer. From Katsumoto’s perspective, Custer is a great general as he killed many warriors. However, Algren disagrees noting that “He was arrogant and foolhardy. And he got massacred because he took a single battalion [two hundred and eleven men] against two thousand angry Indians.” and “He was a murderer who fell in love with his own legend. And his troopers died for it.” Nevertheless, Katsumoto’s point of view is that it is a good death since Custer died a warrior’s death. Moreover, he respects that Custer had the bravery to fight to the death against impossible odds. It is for this same reason that Katsumoto feels no anger for Algren killing his brother in law, his sister’s husband, in battle as it is a good death.
As Algren continues his conversations with Katsumoto and observes the Samurai, he falls in love with the way of the Samurai. The film does an excellent job showing beautiful landscape in illustrating the Samurai village. It is great in making you feel like you are in that time period. While the Samurai are known by history as warriors, I like that the movie shows the peacefulness of daily life in the villages. In the words of Algren, “They are an intriguing people. From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen such discipline. I am surprised to learn that the word Samurai means, ‘to serve’, and that Katsumoto believes his rebellion to be in the service of the Emperor.” For a man haunted by his past and unable to rid himself of the images of war crimes that torment him, the way of the Samurai has great appeal: “What does it mean to be Samurai? To devote yourself utterly to a set of moral principles. To seek a stillness of your mind. And to master the way of the sword.” As adapting those principles allows Algren to clear his mind, he has his “first untroubled sleep in many years”.
In another great conversation between Algren and Katsumoto, they discuss his nightmares. When Algren points out that “every soldier has nightmares”, Katsumoto wisely responds with “Only one who is ashamed of what he has done.” Nevertheless, Katsumoto admits that it is difficult at times to deal with what they have seen in war. As such, he shares with Algren how he deals with it. He goes to “the place of his ancestors”, the garden where they are standing. In the garden, there are beautiful pink blossoms. Katsumoto also mentions “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.” Like the blossoms in the garden, he remembers that we all die. However, he also remembers that there is life in every breath as well as the way of the warrior, or bushido, which still allows for the violent nature of the warrior to be tempered by wisdom and peacefulness. Naturally, bushido has great appeal for Algren and ultimately helps him come to peace with his demons. At the end of the conversation, Katsumoto also informs Algren that the Emperor has granted them safe passage to Tokyo to speak at his council. As such, Algren will soon be freed in Tokyo to go as he pleases. In addition, Katsumoto gives Algren back his journal noting “When I took this, you were my enemy.” This gesture completes the evolution of their relationship as they have become true friends.
When they arrive in Tokyo, Omura is eager to speak to Algren to gain information about the Samurai. Moreover, Omura offers Algren more money and a new contract to lead his army against Katsumoto. However, Omura knows that Algren’s time in captivity has changed him. While Algren tries to lie in stating that the Samurai are just “savages with bows and arrows” as Bagley earlier suggested and that Katsumoto is just another tribal leader, Omura points out that Algren has never met a tribal leader that is Samurai and that “their ways have great appeal”. Despite Algren’s attempt to appear indifferent, Omura knows that Algren has fallen for the way of the Samurai and will be a problem. In the meantime, Katsumoto speaks to the Emperor. As the Emperor’s former teacher, Katsumoto is in a unique position to influence the young Emperor. While opportunists like Omura have no moral issues with manipulating the young man for their personal gain, Katsumoto is a man of honor and refuses to tell the Emperor what to do as the Japanese believe the Emperor is a living god. Although Katsumoto points out that the Emperor’s other advisors are only out for their personal gain, the Emperor responds that he needs the advisors to fulfill his dream of a modern Japan. As Katsumoto is a supporter of tradition, he offers the Emperor to command him to take his own life if the Emperor believes Katsumoto is obsolete and of no use. However, the Emperor says that it is not what he wants as he needs Katsumoto’s voice in the upcoming council. When Katsumoto tries to remind the Emperor that he is a living god that must make the decisions for the country, the Emperor notes that “I am a living god so long as I do what they [his advisors] think is right. Katsumoto responds that those words sadden him as it proves a living god is controlled by weasels like Omura. The Emperor begs Katsumoto to tell him what to do. However, Katsumoto remains humble and insists that only the Emperor can find wisdom for all of Japan. It is a scene that gives me even more respect for Katsumoto. He has fought hard for tradition. Even though he can command the emperor and win, he truly believes that he needs to do the right thing in the right way. That selfless sense of honor has great appeal for me.
Nevertheless, Omura has no problem manipulating the Emperor. While Katsumoto is in Tokyo, Omura passes strict laws banning the ways of the Samurai such as decor and carrying a sword. When Katsumoto enters the council with his sword, Omura demands that he remove the sword as it is illegal. However, Omura notes that he must refuse to remove the sword unless the Emperor commands it. Unfortunately, the Emperor does not have the will to oppose Omura and stays silent. Omura has a smirk as he proclaims that the Emperor’s voice is too pure to be heard in the council and orders his soldiers to arrest Katsumoto. As Katsumoto leaves the council, he is heartbroken as he sees his Emperor with his head down and unable to stand up for what he believes in. Although Katsumoto is under house arrest, Algren is able to help free his friend and flee Tokyo. While Katsumoto returns to the Samurai to lead them, he laments to Algren that “The Emperor could not hear my words. His army will come. For nine hundred years, my ancestors have protected our people. Now, I have failed them.” When Katsumoto says “the way of the Samurai is not necessary anymore”, Algren reminds his friend that the Samurai stand for “life of service”, “discipline”, and “compassion”. Consequently, he notes that there could be nothing more necessary. While Algren is adapting the Samurai culture up to this point, he convinces Katsumoto to adopt some western beliefs in regards to fighting to the end for what you believe in and dying at the hands of your enemy rather than accepting defeat and ending one’s own life. As such, I like how the movie shows that there are strengths of both cultures that can be combined.
The scenes leading up to the final, climatic battle are brilliantly done. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Algren is scouting the Emperor’s army with Katsumoto. As the Samurai are significantly outnumbered and outgunned, Algren shares a story of a famous, ancient battle to inspire Katsumoto: “There was once a battle at a place called Thermopylae, where three hundred brave Greeks held off a Persian army of a million men. For two days, the Greeks made them pay so dearly the Persian army lost all taste for battle and were defeated soon after.” Of course, I love the reference to one of the greatest last stands in history as it foreshadows an epic, final battle. Next, Algren helps Katsumoto devise a strategy where the Samurai can get close to the soldiers so they can use their swords and neutralize the advantage of guns. Accordingly, Katsumoto asks “You believe a man can change his destiny?” Algren has a great answer: “I think a man does what he can, until his destiny is revealed.” It is the same notion that I believe in. While some aspects of life may seem predetermined, I believe in trying to make our own destiny by battling until our fates are revealed to us.
Back in the village, Taka’s son, Higen, does not understand why Algren is going to fight. Algren notes that the reason is “Because they come to destroy what I have come to love.” Nevertheless, Higen has trouble accepting it. Taka points out that the way of the Samurai is difficult for children and that Higen misses his father. Although Algren asks if Higen is angry because he feels Algren is at fault for his father’s death, Taka smiles and responds that Higen is upset because he is afraid Algren will die too. While it would be usually adding insult to injury for Algren to kill his enemy then win the affection of his wife and children, the movie does an excellent job in portraying it in an honorable manner and develops the characters and relationships very well so it is believable. The scene shows how Algren has transformed from an unlikeable outsider to a loved member of the family. Taka also asks Algren if he can honor their family by wearing the armor of her deceased husband into battle. When Algren walks out of the home in the armor, Uijo is the first one to greet him. Instead of belligerently confronting Algren like he would have earlier in the movie, Uijo tugs on the armor to ensure that it is put on tight and secure. I love the scene as it shows that Algren is completely accepted as one of the Samurai as even his biggest detractor views him as a friend. In addition, the movie puts in an excellent touch when Katsumoto presents Algren with a new sword with the inscription “I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have joined the new.”
The final battle in the movie does not disappoint. There is great action and the tactics that the Samurai use to try to neutralize the advantages of modern technology is fascinating. Before the battle, Algren rides with Katsumoto to greet Bagley and Omura. Of course, Katsumoto refuses to surrender. When Bagley warns Algren they will offer him no quarter, Algren promises Bagley that he will look for his former commanding officer on the battlefield in order to finally settle their long feud. Before Katsumoto joins the actual fighting, he asks “What happened to the warriors at Thermopylae?” With a smile on his face, Algren responds “Dead to the last man”. Of course, the movie is titled “The Last Samurai” so the Samurai cannot win. The Samurai’s final charge is valiant but stalled when the army utilizes a new modern weapon. As Katsumoto is severely injured and his Samurai defeated, he moves to end his life. While Algren tries to stop his friend, Katsumoto pleads “You have your honor again. Let me die with mine.” Consequently, Algren sorrowfully agrees while noting that “I will miss our conversations.” In an elegant touch, blossoms are gracefully floating around in the background. As Katsumoto dies, his last words are “Perfect. They [the blossoms] are all perfect”. Consequently, the scene beautifully links back to their earlier conversation when Katsumoto speaks about bushido, life, death, and finding peace within the way of the warrior. In a touching gesture of respect, every soldier in the Imperial Army bows to the defeated Samurai. Although they needed to perform their duty and defeat the Samurai, they pay tribute to the centuries of service the Samurai have given for Japan and the great values of honor they represent.
Although Algren is severely injured, he limps to talk to the Emperor right before Japan can complete its trade treaty with the United States. Algren kneels, presents the Emperor with Katsumoto’s sword, and says “This is Katsumoto’s sword. He would have wanted you to have it. He hoped with his dying breath that you would remember his ancestors who held this sword, and what they died for. May the strength of the Samurai be with you always.” Inspired by Katsumoto’s death and Algren’s plea, the Emperor finally has the strength to stand up to Omura and his other advisors. In a powerful speech, the Emperor declares “My ancestors have ruled Japan for 2,000 years. And for all that time we have slept. During my sleep I have dreamed. I dreamed of a unified Japan… of a country strong and independent and modern… and now we are awake. We have railroads and cannon, Western clothing. But we cannot forget who we are… or where we come from.” The last sentence includes words that I have remembered and taken with me for the last decade. Although countries change and become modern, they should not forget the traditions that have made them great in the past. It is a principle that I try to apply in my own life. While I have grown and am a very different person than I was a decade ago, I do not want to forget who I am and where I came from regardless of the failures or successes I have experienced or will experience. We are the sum of all of our experiences. It is a source of strength and not weakness.
As the Emperor rules against the treaty, Algren is in tears as his friend, Katsumoto, did not die in vain. When the Emperor makes a request to “tell me how he [Katsumoto] died”, Algren answers “I will tell you how he lived.” It is a poetic way to emphasize the great life Katsumoto led and how it influenced both the Emperor and Algren. Similar to the opening sequence of the movie, Simon Graham narrates the ending sequence “And so the days of the Samurai had ended. Nations, like men, it is sometimes said, have their own destiny. As for the American Captain, no one knows what became of him. Some say that he died of his wounds. Others, that he returned to his own country. But I like to think he may have at last found some small measure of peace, that we all seek, and few of us ever find.” It is a perfect end to a great movie. It reemphasizes the main reason I love the Last Samurai as it is an action movie that is about finding peace in the way of the warrior as it is about action and great battles.