Monday, November 20, 2017

MM Movie Review: The Last Samurai

“The Last Samurai” is a 2003 film I shall classify as “historical fiction” directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall and Ken Watanabe. In describing what the film is about one of the major problems with it comes up immediately. As it is entirely a work of fiction, there is some debate over exactly what events the filmmakers are trying to portray here. It depicts a washed-up American cavalry officer who is hired by the government of Meiji Japan to train the newly established Imperial Japanese Army. This officer, Captain Nathan Algren played by Tom Cruise, is a veteran of the Indian Wars who is haunted by his experiences, particularly the atrocities committed by his unit in fighting the American Indians. He is then pushed into acting as an advisor to the Imperial Japanese Army as they confront an army of rebel samurai. Algren is taken prisoner by these samurai rebels, comes to sympathize with their cause, seeing them as analogous to the American Indians who fought the U.S. government, and finally joins them in their “last stand” against the imperial army.

Teaching the Japanese what they already would've known..
One thing to make clear at the outset is that absolutely nothing even remotely like this ever happened in Japanese history. However, the events in the film are generally said to have been inspired by the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 with the leader of the samurai rebels, Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto played by Ken Watanabe, standing in for the historical figure of Saigo Takamori. The character in the film, however, is nothing like the historical figure and no one like the character of Captain Algren ever existed at all. He is portrayed as an alcoholic, haunted by demons from his past, forced to take a job because of his desperate poverty. His former superior officer who recruits him for this job in Japan is a moustache-twirling villain who is hired by equally stereotypical villainous Japanese government officials who are portrayed as cruel and corrupt, dominating the noble, young, Meiji Emperor to enrich themselves in collaboration with the unscrupulous Americans. Again, nothing like this ever happened. Captain Algren begins training the Imperial Japanese Army but, before he thinks they are ready, these men are sent into combat after a series of attacks by samurai rebels.

If all else fails...CHARGE!!!
For some reason, despite being hired simply as a military instructor, Algren accompanies these soldiers on their campaign and, of course, ends up taking part in the battle, effectively commanding them, they are wiped out easily by the samurai and Algren is taken prisoner. Held in the stronghold of the rebels in a remote village, he lives with the wife of a samurai he had killed in the battle, eventually learns Japanese and comes to sympathize with his captors. He trains with them, learns their ways, all in a part of the film that has caused many to refer to this as “Dances with Wolves” set in Japan. Finally, the rebel leader Katsumoto goes to the capital to attend a council meeting in which he hopes to convince the Meiji Emperor to see things his way. However, he doesn’t attend the meeting at all because he refuses to take off his swords, the wicked government officials try to assassinate him and Algren goes with him to prepare for the final battle. Algren becomes a samurai and fights with Katsumoto in the climactic battle of the movie against the Imperial Army, presumably based on the historic Battle of Shiroyama though of course what happens in the film is nothing like what happened in real life.

The most obvious problem with this movie is Tom Cruise and his character. The Japanese did not hire American veterans to train their army. During the period of modernization the Meiji government did try to learn from the west but they were much more influenced by the European powers such as Britain, France and Germany than by the United States. The U.S. had obviously played the decisive part in opening Japan up to the outside world but after that point American involvement was minimal. Indeed, the closest historical parallel to the character of Algren is usually given to be Captain Jules Brunet of the French army, however his involvement in Japan was earlier than the period depicted in this film. He was involved in the Boshin War, part of the fighting over the Meiji Restoration, not the subsequent modernization that happened in Japan. This, however, necessitates pointing out another glaring inaccuracy in the film which is the attitude of the rebel samurai toward foreigners and foreign ideas and tools, particularly weapons.

Muskets and volley fire were long established
In the movie, the rebel samurai are portrayed as fighting for the pure soul of Japan, Japanese tradition and as a matter of honor only fight with traditional Japanese weapons. This means they do not use firearms. Pardon me for being blunt but this is flat out retarded. The samurai rebels of the Satsuma rebellion were, to an extent, fighting for traditional ways but they were not stupid and would not refuse to use weapons that would help their cause. The Japanese had been using firearms for centuries ever since the first Portuguese explorers came to Japan and showed them what they were and how they worked. The Japanese immediately built their own firearms and used them forever after. Ranks of ashigaru armed with muskets were a staple of Japanese samurai armies throughout the famous Sengoku Period. Prior to the period of isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate, many Japanese daimyos made extensive use of firearms with muskets, artillery and naval canon. The man who began the reunification of Japan, Oda Nobunaga, was one of the most enthusiastic about these western innovations.

Personally, I have often imagined what might have happened if Oda Nobunaga had not been assassinated, imagining Japan being united and modernizing earlier and sailing out into the northern Pacific to get in on the colonization of North America via Alaska and California, but that is getting off topic. The point is that no one in Japan would have considered firearms to be dishonorable or even “foreign” at all considering that they had been making and using such weapons for centuries to the point that their warfare was dominated by them long before Commodore Perry ever appeared on the horizon. This also highlights the way the film tries to simplify everything by having one side working with foreign powers and the other side shunning them (aside from Algren of course who adopts Japanese ways). The open to foreigners versus nativist dynamic was not the primary element of the Satsuma Rebellion but would have been more closely related to that of the previous Boshin War. However, even then, it was not so simple as both the shogunate and imperial forces had foreign powers they worked with against each other. As the historical case of Captain Brunet demonstrates, the forces loyal to the shogun had French backers whereas the imperial forces had British support.

Saigo Takamori
Brunet himself wrote to Napoleon III that the daimyos loyal to the shogun were friendly to France and that their victory would mean a greater French influence in the future Japan. No doubt the British backed the imperial forces for the same reason. Neither were open allies of course and neither would have all that much greater a position of favor in Meiji Japan but the point is that each side had foreign support and the rebels were not so puritanical as to shun any and all outside assistance. They would even ultimately adopt a rather foreign government model with a republic and a president; the Republic of Ezo. Their system was, to an extent, inspired by that of the United States yet there was no significant American involvement in this and it all happened in 1869, long before the events portrayed in this film. Saigo Takamori, on whom Katsumoto is based, fought with firearms as Japanese armies had long done, he often wore the western-inspired uniform (most similar to that of the French army of the time) as did the earlier rebel leaders of the Boshin War. Captain Brunet, it should also be mentioned, quite unlike Algren, did not ‘go native’ but rather insisted the Japanese adopt French customs.

Moreover, Saigo Takamori was no isolationist or backward-looking reactionary. He had supported the imperial party in the Meiji Restoration, he helped in the modernization and formation of the Imperial Japanese Army and advocated the conquest of Korea as a way to unite the country, gain foreign respect and provide the disgruntled samurai with an honorable death in battle. Far from shunning western technology, he established his own network of military academies throughout his prefecture and opened his own artillery school. Rebellion broke out when the imperial government tried to disarm these academies, fearing they could pose a threat and inadvertently provoking the very rebellion they had hoped to prevent. Saigo Takamori agreed to lead the rebellion that had already broken out, wearing his western-style army uniform at the head of a column of well-armed men who had raided government arsenals in order to do no more than demand reforms and the removal of corrupt officials and their replacement by men of more traditional Japanese morality.

The Battle of Shiroyama
The film is correct in depicting Katsumoto as a reluctant rebel. Saigo Takamori was insistent that he did not desire war and was loyal to the Emperor, that his only concerns regarded the government but the government would agree to nothing under threat of force and so warfare ensued. However, unlike in the film, the rebel forces never won any significant victories over the imperial forces. Their final confrontation, the Battle of Shiroyama, was not like what was depicted in the film at all but was similar at least in so far as it was an extremely heroic stand against impossible odds. The rebels were outnumbered roughly 60-to-1, were intensely shelled and faced assaults by huge numbers of imperial troops until the last handful of survivors drew their swords and charged to certain death. Saigo Takamori did not survive the battle though there is some dispute as to whether he died of his wounds or committed ritual suicide. Either way, even those who blamed the rebellion for setting back the Japanese economy and causing the samurai class to be viewed with suspicion could not help but admire the heroism of Saigo Takamori and his men.

His Majesty the Meiji Emperor did pardon Saigo Takamori posthumously but it is rather overstretching things to say, as the film does, that this gave Emperor Meiji the courage to slow down westernization and insist on Japanese traditions being retained. This was not something that the actual Meiji Emperor needed to learn. His father had been the most vociferous in rejecting any foreign contact with Japan at all and the Meiji Emperor was always cautious and rather suspect when it came to foreigners from the very beginning. He simply understood that isolation was no longer an option and if Japan was to avoid being dominated by foreigners, it would have to become as strong as the other foreign powers and this, during his reign, the Empire of Japan managed astoundingly well.

Low ranking foreign devils meet the Emperor
On the whole, “The Last Samurai” seems rather too full of tropes and very much lacking in any semblance to actual history. It is very well photographed, the visuals are extremely good and it at least does not ultimately depict the lone westerner as the one who saves the day. Algren is just along for the ride. It can be very moving at times and does get some things right, at least in terms of overall sentiment, which is to say being ‘true to life’ rather than actually true. I did like the scene toward the end when the imperial soldiers all bow down in respect to the courage of the defeated samurai rebels. Actual history is practically nonexistent. What is portrayed is simply not what happened in the Satsuma Rebellion, the rebels did not refrain from using firearms, the imperial army was not inept and not trained by American soldiers nor would any hired captain ever have been allowed into the presence of the Emperor. However, the actors mostly do very well, it can be entertaining and you do get to see Tom Cruise get the ever living crap beaten out of him on several occasions. There is that.


  1. Well said here, Mad Monarchist. When it comes to "historical" films, sometimes all you can hope for is a film representing the "spirit of the times" accurately, if not the times themselves.

    This is off topic but I was recently asked by someone whether the US Constitutional Bill of Rights would work in a Monarchy. I did some research, but I can't seem to figure out the answer for them, and I was hoping you might know.

    1. I would say it would work as well as it does here. It didn't spring from nowhere after all but was, in part, inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, a product of the "Glorious Revolution" which is today almost completely ignored and unknown but still technically the law in the UK and Commonwealth Realms.

      The fact is that the Bill of Rights does not count for as much as most people think. It has weight only insofar as our rulers find it acceptable. At the first hint of inconvenience, it is tossed right out the window as has been shown on numerous occasions.

  2. I knew of its historical inaccuracies, but I had taken it as if Algren was disgusted by the atrocities, and was disillusioned from some sort of chivalric ideal. He goes through a period of nihilism, and then finds purpose in the Samurai, who fight for something meaningful. It's as if you took a veteran from the Great War, and put him at the Council of Clermont, and right with a band of Crusaders. The way I had seen it, the government was shown as bad as part of an anti-imperialist message; tradition > progress. Naturally I found the film incredibly moving. Mind, I haven't seen the film in ages, in fact so long ago that the last time I watched it I don't think I had the same mindset as I do now. Also, I'm not anti-imperialist, as it's only natural that it come, and depending on the imperialism....
    On another note, I'm blind to Nobunaga, besides that he employed Western technology, was a murderer, and often portrayed as a kindly leader. Any recommended readings? Didn't see an article by you when I searched.

    1. It can be moving, it is a well made film, the problem for me anyway comes when people try to distort history. They could tell the same story in a completely fictional environment and I could probably accept it better but by making it fiction but tied in with actual history, all I see is how wrong it is. I don't know of any bios on Oda Nobunaga off-hand but you have the basics down, other than the 'kindly leader' part maybe. He was extremely brutal, extremely effective and is still the center of a great deal of a kind of admiration because of what he did to set events in motion for the reunification of Japan.

    2. Well, I've seen a few examples where he was portrayed as a chivalric lord. Anyway. I take issue with historical inaccuracies when the subject in question sets out to be "historically accurate" a la "Battlefield 1" or "Dunkirk", but am able to put those nitpicks aside if it isn't the point (unless I need to tell someone else who might get the wrong idea, but usually it's only mentioned if it's relevant).


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