How True to History is Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai?
By Jonathan Dresner
Mr. Dresner is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at the University of
Hawai'i at Hilo. His research examines Meiji-era (1868-1912) social history.
And he is a member of the HNN group weblog Cliopatria.
From the opening voiceover and title to the final scene, The Last Samurai
is an historical disaster. I expected it to be bad, based on early reviews (e.g.
Paul Dunscomb's social critique and Tom Conlan on
mythology and discussions on H-Japan). This isn't surprising, of course:
popular representations of historical circumstances are often badly done. But
this is distinctively and truly awful. There was real drama and adventure in
late nineteenth century Japan that could have been even more powerful, but instead
we get a pastiche of Dances With Wolves , Karate Kid , Kagemusha
and Shogun .
A quick summary of the movie for those who haven't seen it. Yes, I'm going
to give away the ending, but if suspense is what interests you, this is the
wrong movie anyway: there is almost nothing about the plot or characters that
is surprising or original. In 1876, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a PTSD victim
who was once a U.S. cavalry captain under Custer, is hired by Japanese industrialist/politician
Omura (noted actor/director Masato Harada) to train Japanese military conscripts
for combat against a gathering storm of rebellion by "the samurai"
who do not wish to modernize their ways. In an early skirmish he is injured
and captured by the rebels, and recovers in their mountain village encampment
over the course of the Fall and Winter when the snows cut them off from the
outside. (This begins the Dances With Wolves section.)
As he recovers, he gains remarkable facility with the language -- and the
rebel leader Katsumoto (Ken
Watanabe see also here)
speaks excellent English -- and becomes impressed with the purity and simplicity
of the samurai way ( bushido), not to mention getting really good at Japanese-style
armed and unarmed combat (that's the Karate Kid part). Algren joins Katsumoto
to lead the rebels against the Imperial forces trained and led by his former
commander (Tony Goldwyn, not Custer, but representing the same mindset). Though
the rebellion is tactically innovative, the rebels are limited by their adherence
to traditional weapons and are obliterated by modern military technology. (Kagemusha,
though in that story the leaders were taken by surprise and had the good sense
to be horrified at the slaughter of their followers.) Their purity of spirit
and devotion to duty nonetheless moves the Japanese Emperor (the Kabuki-trained
Shichinosuke Nakamura II), once a student of Katsumoto, to reject a U.S. arms-for-trade
treaty brokered by Omura. Algren then returns to Katsumoto's village to take
up with Katsumoto's sister, Taka (Koyuki), and her children, whom he has converted
from hatred (since he killed the man of the house in the course of getting captured)
to deep affection with his simple honor. ( Shogun 's romantic plotline was equally
implausible, though for different reasons.)
To be fair, some of the background to the story is reasonably true to life.
Japan in the 1870s was in the throes of industrialization and radical social
and political changes, the process we used to lump together as "modernization."
There were samurai who objected to the changes that directly affected themselves,
some of whom took up arms in rebellion (more about that below). There was even
a plot to assassinate the historical analogue of Katsumoto (though it certainly
did not involve a corps of crossbow-wielding ninja). Westerners in 1876 generally
considered the Japanese to be an uncivilized people, inferior to Caucasians
in culture, intelligence and character. The Japanese government did pay extravagant
salaries to foreign experts in fields ranging from history and law to military
technology and technique who could teach Japanese to be experts in those fields.
Most of those Westerners spent a few years in Japan and then returned to their
homelands. Some Westerners, though, became so enamored with Japan that they
remained and became quite expert at Japanese culture, even living and dressing
in Japanese style. The Meiji Emperor was indeed a young man (about 25 years
old in 1876-77) who was largely a puppet of his advisors.
The score will probably get nominated for an Oscar, though its predictable
pseudo-exoticism -- wooden flute and twangy strings leavening an otherwise competent
musical backdrop -- is a pretty good metaphor for the entire film. The costumes
and sets and scenery and military hardware are precise and proper and the swordplay
is first rate (aside from some highly implausible sword-throwing). Even the
Japanese language material was fine, though the subtitles were idiosyncratic.
The consultants (including Mark Schilling, who chronicled his experience in
the Japan Times) did their jobs well enough. And I'm pleased that they
showed even a brief snippet of kyogen (comic theater) or a country variation,
including participation by the leader Katsumoto. Japan 's deep tradition of
humor, including slapstick, sexual and situation humor, is too often lost in
the haze of "serious" traditions like Zen and samurai and No.
The acting is mostly competent, though there are some standouts. One of the
best roles in the film is played by Seizo Fukumoto. Fukumoto is a four-decade
veteran of Japan 's samurai and yakuza movies, describing himself as a kirareyaku
-- literally, "the actor who gets cut," whose main role is to be killed
by the hero in a climactic fight scene. In The Last Samurai he is "The
Silent Samurai," whose wordless watchfulness draws Algren's ire and derision,
but whose martial skill and valor are undeniable by the end. Though standard
Japanese TV samurai dramas are a little less bloody than this film, they feature
most of the same good qualities: historical scenery, redemption through honor,
and neat swordfighting. When I lived in Japan , my favorite regular hour of
TV was Mito Komon , the tale of the retired daimyo lord and his samurai
retainers who travel the countryside incognito, righting wrongs. I wonder why
more of them haven't been made available in the U.S., when there is clearly
The movie actually gets some of the deeper historical context right, probably
accidentally: After a decade of intense social and economic change, the Imperial
government in the 1880s began a deliberate program of moral and ethical and
historical propaganda, the aim of which was to instill in Japanese a sense of
unity centered on the Emperor, particularly on his mythological status as a
"living god," a direct descendant of the deities which created Japan.
(see, for example, the preamble to the 1889 Constitution) The tropes and themes
of this newly constructed nationalism were drawn from Japanese Confucianism,
Bushido and Shinto, with a bit of Prussian constitutionalism for legal structure,
and it was transmitted through the most modern institutions of the day: the
national education system and the military. This retention and reinvention of
tradition led pretty directly to Japan 's imperialist expansion into Asia and
the Pacific, so it's a little hard to see the ending of The Last Samurai
as a victory for good and right.
Another accidental truth: the Satsuma rebellion, and quite a few of the other
samurai rebellions, were rooted in the inability of those samurai to envision
duty and honor without status, or to be a part of a nation striving for growth
rather than a privileged class with inherent qualities. In this movie attachment
to the symbolism of the sword trumps the fulfillment of duty, or common sense.
In the real history, a few thousand samurai's belief in their moral superiority
as a class, their refusal to relinquish the privilege of offering special service
to the nation, and their attachment to the symbols of the past, trumped participation
in the political and technological growth of Meiji Japan. But hundreds of thousands
of samurai -- the samurai class was about 5 percent of a population of thirty-five
million -- transformed their sense of duty and purpose into new forms, serving
in national and local governments, working as police, military officers, and
teachers, and investing their time and energy and wealth in modern economic
What's wrong with this film, then? Well, almost everything else, starting
with the basic premises of the plot. Stephen Hunter's
deconstruction of Cruise's Algren character is singularly thorough. Japan did
use U.S. surplus military equipment, particularly around the end of the U.S.
Civil War (1861-1865), but by the 1870s Japan had settled on other models: the
British Navy and the Prussian Army (they had started with the French model,
but switched in 1871, though they continued to use French officer instructors
for a few years). So it is highly unlikely that the Japanese would have hired
By 1876, the Imperial Army was, indeed, a conscript army, but had a strong
core of volunteers, mostly samurai, and a pretty well-defined training program.
They were not using primitive muzzle-loading rifles at that point, either. Japanese
commoners, who are so inept at the beginning of the film that they literally
can't shoot if their lives depend on it, had proven quite adept with military
technology in the 1860s, when small mixed samurai-commoner militias with breech-loading
and repeating rifles defeated much larger Shogunal forces still heavily reliant
on traditional spear, sword and arrow weaponry. Those militias formed the core
of the post-Meiji Restoration (as the 1868 transition is usually called) Imperial
Army. And Imperial forces had a few adventures in the 1870s, including the Taiwan
expedition (1874) and the mission to secure the Kanghwa Treaty in 1876, not
to mention suppression of a number of domestic disturbances, including both
samurai and cultivator uprisings.
The rebellion led by Katsumoto in the movie is supposed to be a scaled down
version of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by SAIGO Takamori. It's a shame that
the moviemakers didn't take that more seriously, because the uprising, known
in Japanese as the "Southwestern war," was a true crisis. Every resource
of the new government was called upon, including its modernized shipping lines,
rail transport, police forces (who were reorganized into military units), samurai
volunteers, officer trainees, and fiscal reserves (the Matsukata Deflation of
the early 1880s was partly necessary because of the excessive costs of putting
down the rebellion). The rebels, protesting the loss of the traditional privileges
and domainal autonomy, were quite well-armed, having seized several local armories
early in the uprising: many of their officers were trained in modern methods,
and they led both artillery units and riflemen. The rebels were only outnumbered
by two-to-one; there wasn't a long, tense run-up to the conflict, as the movie
insists; Saigo Takamori was not the leader at the beginning; and the fight ran
constantly from February through September, rather than being a pair of battles
separated by winter storms. There were other samurai uprisings in the years
leading up to the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, some of which actually resemble the
movie more closely, at least in terms of scale and the ease with which they
were suppressed. But none of the others were led by men who had been Imperial
advisors, as Saigo had been. After 1877 there were no more samurai uprisings.
(For more details on Saigo, see Mark Ravina's biography, The Last Samurai:
The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, which is currently selling considerably
better than the official movie guide.)
One intriguing element that the film could have exploited but didn't was the
analogy between the Native American tribe and the samurai clan. Very different
social institutions, of course, but historians of Japan have long recognized
that the failure of samurai rebels to ally across clan lines in the Meiji era
(1868-1912) doomed them to failure against the increasingly coherent national
polity. Domainal loyalties plagued Japanese politics and military affairs well
into the twentieth century. But the movie clearly can't differentiate between
the individual samurai clan and the samurai class. The vast majority of Japan
's ruling elites, the modernizers who are so thoroughly evil in the film, were
also samurai (many of them from Satsuma), who made the decision to eliminate
their own aristocratic privileges. The vast majority of samurai did not protest,
did not rebel, and were rather relieved to be freed from the samurai restriction
on earning an honest living to supplement their increasingly meager official
The most blazingly bad bit of history has to do with the arms-for-trade treaty,
and I'm surprised that more commentators haven't noted this. The U.S. didn't
need to parlay its military technology for trade advantages in Japan . From
1858 to 1899, U.S. trade with Japan was governed by the 1858 Japan-U.S. Treaty
of Amity and Commerce, sometimes known as the Harris Treaty after U.S. ambassador
Townsend Harris (played by John Wayne in The Barbarian and the Geisha
). That agreement fixed Japan's import duties at a very low level, established
the right of Americans to practice their religions freely and to be tried in
non-Japanese courts for crimes committed in Japan, and is considered the first
of the "unequal treaties" that clearly established Japan as an inferior
nation to the Western powers. The Most Favored Nation clause in the earlier
Kanagawa Treaty (1854) meant that this was just a starting place: the U.S. would
get every advantage negotiated by any other country with Japan . The Japanese
were not in any position to make demands or set conditions in their foreign
affairs: they spent three decades proving to the Western powers that they were
a "civilized" nation that deserved more equal treatment. U.S. diplomatic
treatment of Japan was heavy-handed and unpleasant, but it wasn't tawdry in
a grovelling, money-grubbing way; it's bad enough, I guess, that the only American
with any depth is the one turning samurai (the other respectable caucasians
are British and Irish), but there's no need to pile on indignities.
There are a few minor points which I can't just let slip by:
--The title of the movie is The Last Samurai but the Japanese ideograph
which overlays it just says "samurai."
--The opening voiceover refers to the creation of the Japanese islands by
a divine sword, which was dipped into the ocean and dripped foam, but every
version I've ever seen of Japan's founding myths describes the creation of
a single island by foam dripping off of a spear, with the rest of the islands
birthed by the gods. Swords don't come up until later.
--The Meiji Emperor didn't speak English, and nobody outside of the most senior
advisors saw him without an invitation. And he certainly didn't make important
political decisions on the spur of the moment.
--The Omura industrialist/politician character is difficult to pin down historically.
He might be an amalgam of political heavyweight OKUBO Toshimichi, the younger
but more radical and economically connected OKUMA Shigenobu, with some of
the Mitsubishi founder IWASAKI Yataro thrown in. Industrialists did not have
the Emperor's ear (they didn't need it, having close ties to the samurai oligarchs)
and Imperial advisors did not jaunt off to other countries to conduct job
--Most samurai lived in large urban areas, though low-ranking Satsuma samurai
were some of the few who lived in the country and also farmed. Even then,
nobody lived in the mountains if they could avoid it.
--The method of "no mind" is not "The Force" -- simply
a matter of clearing one's mind of distractions and then the right thing will
happen. It is a Daoist concept, originally, which became part of the martial
arts tradition in China , then in Japan and elsewhere. It is a function of
training constantly (certainly over more than four months) so that one can
react instinctively, automatically, to a rapidly developing situation. Effortlessness
comes after lots of hard work. The Karate Kid got that part right,
--The notion that the samurai have been "protectors of the nation"
for nine hundred or a thousand years (and Katsumoto uses both figures) is
absurd: the samurai began as rent collectors and estate protectors for the
Kyoto nobility, and evolved into an aristocracy in their own right. Only against
the Mongols (1274, 1281) can they be considered protectors of Japan ; it's
highly unlikely that Katsumoto's clan was in one place that entire time; very
few samurai clans survived the century-long civil war (15-16c) and most of
those were relocated in the late 1500s. The Shimazu family which ruled Satsuma
did originate in the 11th or 12th century, but Saigo Takamori wasn't a Shimazu.
Like most samurai, his family attained warrior status in the 1500s and were
unremarkable low-ranking retainers until Saigo.
--Taka, attempting to refuse Algren's help with housework, says that "Japanese
men don't do that." But many Japanese men did a great deal around the
house, just not samurai. The Japanese very rarely referred to themselves as
a collective, particularly on cultural matters, as early as 1876-77.
--When they eat, they are consistently shown eating fluffy white rice, but
only the wealthiest Japanese ate that regularly, and certainly rural samurai
would have been more likely to eat rice gruel and other grains like barley
and millet and buckwheat, either as gruel or as noodles, that grow better
in upland conditions. And the movie glosses over Algren's introduction to
chopsticks, which is not an insignificant event in acculturation.
--By 1877, very few Japanese would have been particularly frightened of samurai,
even samurai as backwards as Katsumoto's band, nor would they have bowed en
masse. Urban Japanese had gotten over treating common samurai like daimyo
lords a long time before.
--Even allowing for Algren's remarkable immersion in Japanese language and
culture, the likelihood is pretty small that he'd have run across the Japanese
term for "President" in a rural samurai village, but that doesn't
stop him from understanding the term when it comes up in a crisis.
--Algren's first experience with armor on the day of the climactic battle
is pretty implausible. Even allowing for superior physical conditioning and
excellent training and the fact that Japanese armor is light and flexible
relative to its Western analogues, there's almost no way he wears it as comfortably
as he is shown.
--The samurai warrior-cherry blossom (sakura) motif is so clichéd that
I was surprised that it came up at all, and nearly laughed out loud when it
came back just in time for Katsumoto's death. Judging by color, the blossoms
were plum, not cherry.
Does it matter? Perhaps not. Perhaps it's too much to expect that our entertainments
have a factual basis. But now I have to deal with the aftermath, with students
who will think that all samurai (all five hundred of them, instead of nearly
two million) were pure warriors who lived in the mountains, instead of as underemployed
urbanite bureaucrats. I have to explain how rare seppuku (ritual suicide, also
known as hara-kiri) was, how tenuous the samurai sense of loyalty, how the Japanese
did not "Americanize," and I have to hope that my careful deconstruction
can make some dent in the technicolor, surroundsound, adrenaline-enhanced images
in their minds. The Meiji transformation of Japan is one of the most dramatic
social and economic periods in modern history, and it ties directly to some
of the most important turning points and processes of the twentieth century
and present. But instead, The Last Samurai is another barrier to understanding,
a step backwards in our collective education.
Note: Japanese names are traditionally written with the family name first;
the movie credits put the family name last and I follow that for the cast members,
but for the names of Japanese historical figures I have put the family name
first and in all capital letters on first appearance: e.g. SAIGO Takamori.
Further Commentary by Loftus
Three final things. The whole notion of the samurai village bothered me. What
were they doing there? Samurai had been pulled off land the by Hideyoshi way
back in the 1570s and 1580s. They were forced to decide between remaining on
the land and giving up their swords (and their status as samurai), or joining
their lord, the Daimyo, in his castle-town. That means they had been urban dwellers
for nearly 300 years before the 1870s. True, domains like Statuma and Choshu
had a high proportion of samurai in their populatiosn, and some of them might
have lived in a village near the castle town. But this had to be an anmoly.
They no longer had any direct ties to the land, a point well-established by
Thomas Smith in his classic article, "Japan's Aristocratic Revolution."
And if they had somehow escaped to a village and lived there, would there have
been a Buddhist Temple there? In a remoted mountain village? A shrine, yes,
but weren't temples limited to the towns?
Secondly, I would have to say that the ending bothered me. Nevermind that
we see fifty-calibre machine gun bullets from the Gattling guns rip through
both Katsumoto and Algren; once his new-found brother decides to commit suicide,
shouldn't Algren have followed suit? Or at least had the good graces to crawl
off somewhere and die from his wounds? When he comes back, just dropping in
on the emperor to bring him Katsumoto's sword, I was shocked. First, that scene
seems totally implausible to me. How would he get IN to see the emperor? Did
the emperor ever have audiences with foreigners? He certainly did NOT speal
English! And then, in a scene reminiscent of the ending of The Seven Samurai,
Algren returns to the village presumably to settle down with Taka who has now
forgiven him for killing her husband just because her kids think he's cute?
Hard to swallow. So, if it were me, I would have ended the film on the battlefield
with Katsumoto and Cruise dying together. End of story.
Third, if this film sets out to celebrate the samurai values of loyalty to
the emperor and strict adherence to traditional values, how does this square
with all the people in Hollywood and throughout America who so loathe these
same values when they were taken up by the Japanese military in the 1930s? As
we know, many (of the same?) Americans will not tolerate an exhibition on the
Enola Gay which includes any description of the horrific deaths caused by the
two atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one wants to even broach
this subject in a film unless the attack on Pearl Harbor is shown first. Many
critics thought Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August was a travesty because
it seemd to portray an American (Richard Gere) apologizing to some Japanese
people for the bombing of Nagasaki (which, in fact, the film did not do). So,
since American critics and the veiwing public cannot seem to handle any treatment
of the bomb that doesn't justify its use, how can they so readily embrace the
very values in The Last Samurai that in a sense led to and justified
the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941? Is it too much to expect a little consistency
For another interesting review click here.