‘The Last Samurai’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) is an epic drama film that takes place in a unique period of Japan’s history and highlights the conflict between modernization and tradition, between cultures, and also between different styles of warfare. However, it is not just the conflicts that are highlighted in this film but also the cooperation and the understanding that can happen as well in certain aspects such as between cultures. While this film is not specifically based on a true story, it is based on a number of true events that took place in the latter half of the 19th century for Japan and highlights the role of Western influence in Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration or Reforms.

The main character, Nathan Algren (played brilliantly by Tom Cruise) is a Captain in the United States Army of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Nathan is a veteran of the American – Indian Wars and perhaps the Civil War as well. He is a bitter man who is suffering from trauma related to the atrocities committed against the Indian tribes during these brutal battles. When the film starts, we can see that Nathan is an alcoholic who is regretful over the orders that he had to follow and what happened to innocent Indian women and children whose lives were disregarded by his commanding officers.

However, for lack of purpose or money, or perhaps both, Nathan is recruited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, whom Nathan still resents for his role in the Indian massacres, to help train Japanese soldiers in the Western way of combat to put down the Samurai rebellion, which is ongoing in Japan. Algren is dealt a bad hand as he has to train peasants and not actual soldiers who are firing guns for the first time and would be better suited to the farms than to the battlefield.

In addition to that, he is expected to lead them soon into battle against the Samurai for which they do not have enough time to prepare. One of themes of this film is how good men are often corrupted by following misguided orders by their superiors and often end up harmed, captured, or killed for the negligence or ignorance of those with a higher rank. Nathan is a good soldier, but he cannot train peasants into soldiers in the time that is given to him especially when he is not familiar with the ways of the Samurai and how lethal they can be compared to his peasant conscripts.

In the battle between his soldiers and the Samurai, the Samurai end up killing most of them through surprise attacks and then an ambush in a refusal to fight the way of the ‘modern’ army that Nathan has assembled. One of Nathan’s fellow American army colleagues is killed in the battle while most of his army is decimated. Undeterred and with nothing to live for, Nathan fights the Samurai ferociously and is able to hold his own. Instead of killing him, the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, decides to capture Nathan instead and hold him as their prisoner. Unbeknownst to Nathan, Katsumoto sees something in Nathan and believes that he is a good warrior, who although tries to kill the Samurai, may be one of them due to his capacity to fight to the last breath.

At first, Nathan is not treated kindly by the Samurai given that he is a former enemy and that he also killed the husband of Katsumoto’s sister who resents Ethan’s presence in their village. Nathan also has his preconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Samurai and their culture. Over time though, Nathan starts to acclimate to his new life as a prisoner. He embraces the Japanese language and culture as well as earns the respect of the other Samurai by learning swordsmanship as well as how to train with others.

He also finds he has an affection for Katsumoto’s sister and ends up befriending her son as well. While it is not easy, he gains an appreciation for the Samurai and their way of life. He even begins to resent the modernity and the loss of the tradition that is being imposed on them by the imperial Japanese government. In this way, ‘The Last Samurai’ does an excellent job what it means to ‘go native.’

When you live in another country for long enough, you start to really embrace certain aspects of the culture and also if you take a liking to the language, you may realize you may want to stay there now that you’re acclimated rather than return to a home culture or country whose flaws become so visible to see when you were blind before to them. This movie does a great job of showing ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and how powerful it can be over time especially if you have a romantic interest in a woman or a man after a long enough period of time.

Algren is also no longer haunted by the nightmares of what he experienced during the Indian wars and has also forgone alcohol as he has found other ways to sustain himself while living with the Samurai. Perhaps most importantly, he develops a friendship with the Samurai’s leader, Katsumoto, who explains to Nathan their worldview and while preserving their 1000-year heritage is so important to them all. Nathan agrees with them and starts to see how important the ways of the Samurai are to Japanese culture and customs themselves.

The biggest turning point in the film is when Nathan begins to fight alongside the Samurai against attacks by both Ninjas, which one of the coolest scenes I have ever watched still. It is an amazing scene when you have Samurai battling with Ninjas and it is a very powerful point in the movie to show Nathan help save Katsumoto’s life. The Samurai are so dedicated to their way of life that they will die or commit ‘seppuku’ (suicide) to preserve their honor.

Without giving away the rest of the film, we can see that the Japanese emperor is being betrayed by big business interests and Western nations in the rapid attempt to modernize. While Japan was right in that it needed to catch up in areas of commerce and warfare, it is also important to remember the ways of the Samurai and to remember their customs as well. It is not right to destroy an important part of their culture and erase it from the history books.

That is what the Samurai leader, Katsumoto, and also Nathan wanted to preserve even if they knew that they were fighting a losing battle. A culture’s customs must be remembered, and its history remembered by all even if the country is to go in a new direction. ‘The Last Samurai’ makes it clear that even if there are no more Samurai, their memory must be retained in the national consciousness and it is important for Japan to not be belittled or bullied around by other powers. Receiving western advice, arms, and goods was a paramount need at that time but not at the sake of destroying a part of Japan that made it a special nation to begin with.

‘The Last Samurai’ is a powerful film because it reminds us all how customs and traditions form the backbone of a country’s culture and its’ history. While nations shift and change, the traditions and customs should never be forgotten by its people. That is the main message of the film and why the Samurai fought and died to preserve their place in Japanese society rather than be changed into something they are not. Becoming ‘Western’ because they had to be was an insult to them and something, they were against in an effort to remain as ‘Samurai’ in whatever capacity they could in order to serve the emperor.

It is a powerful film and also shows the redemption of Nathan Algren who went from a drunken soldier without purpose to a powerful Samurai commander who was able to integrate himself as best as he could into a foreign culture and even earn the love of a woman whose husband’s life he had ended. ‘The Last Samurai’ has many themes to it and each one of them are powerful. Remembering traditions, seeking vengeance, earning one’s redemption are all themes to the film and make it stand out still today as one of the best films of the 2000’s and maybe of this young century still. I hope you will check it out soon and please always remember the Samurai.

Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration; São Paulo, Brazil

Cultural Spotlight – Carnaval

No one country does the festivities of ‘carnaval’ quite like Brazil. A festival that is just more than ‘Fat Tuesday’, it has become more than a month of celebrations beginning in early February and ending in early March even after ‘Ash Wednesday’ has passed by. The word ‘carnaval’ or ‘carnival’ comes from the Latin word ‘carnelevare’, which means to remove or to raise meat signifying how Roman Catholics would give up meat or poultry during the 40-day period of Lent before the Easter holiday. Because of the significance of Lent and not just for giving up meat but for other earthly pleasures as well, ‘Carnaval’ is a chance to enjoy some of those pleasures before the time of Lent and to revel in both culinary and cultural traditions.

Nowhere are these cultural traditions more proudly represented than in Brazil where the whole country has some form of celebration or observation of the Carnaval holiday. From the state of Pernambuco in the North to Bahia in the Northeast all the way down the Brazilian coastline to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, each year there is an informal competition to see which city can put on the best Carnaval and whose parades are the biggest.

Each city is different regarding how they celebrate Carnaval in Brazil but there are some similarities such as having huge street parades where crowds can dance and march to the bands and drum groups assembled as they go through the city. There are a huge variety of costumes, music styles represented but the most common one would have to be ‘Samba.’ In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian culture is heavily apart of Carnaval celebrations from the music being played to the design of the costumes. There are a number of variations of samba represented and they are all represented in the popular ‘samba schools.’

These small groups of performers sometimes prepare for the whole year before carnaval begins and are competing against each other in the ‘Sambadrome’, which are huge parade grounds and spectator events where these groups are being judged based on a number of factors against other schools. The biggest Sambadromes are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador along with Sao Paulo and these competitions take places over a period of four nights at the height of the carnaval celebrations. Not only are these groups being judged on their music style and quality but also their coordination, their rhythm, the theme of their performance, and the costumes, which can be quite elaborate and also quite expensive.

While there are different types of samba music involved, there are also lesser known music styles that are represented in Brazilian carnaval. They include ‘Frevo’, which is originally from Recife and Olinda in the state of Pernambuco and ‘Axe’, which is originally from Salvador in the Bahia state which combines different popular Afro-Caribbean music genres together such as calypso, marcha, and reggae. All of these popular music types mentioned have their roots in African cultures and diaspora influences.

In the 19th century, it was quite difficult for Afro-Brazilians to dance, sing, or even parade through the streets of Brazilian cities during Carnaval to express their cultural heritage but today, these forms of song and dance are the heart of the Carnaval celebrations. To put it simply, you cannot have carnaval without samba or costumes or drumlines. In a way, Carnaval is not just a celebration of indulgence and pleasure but of expressing your culture and your heritage. I found Brazilian carnaval to be also about celebrating the diversity and unity of the country itself and how that can bring people together despite past historical injustices.

In order to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, one does not have to go to a Sambadrome or to march in a formal parade or even wear an elaborate costume. You do have to sing, dance, and even drink or eat a little more than you normally would. The easiest way to celebrate especially as a foreign visitor is to check out some of the ‘blocos’ or block parties. They take place each and every day during Carnaval in different neighborhoods at different times. Each ‘bloco’ has different themes ranging from a celebration of ‘The Beatles’ to ‘R&B and hip hop.’ The blocos can also have ‘electric trios’ which are large trucks with huge sound systems where musicians on top of them sing famous samba or forro tunes to the crowd who often sing along with them as they cruise down an informal parade route.

These ‘electric trio’ trucks or floats can also include drum line groups or instrumental bands who walk down the parade route with these musicians. Each bloco has supporters who have specific shirts or costumes on to represent the theme of the block party as well. The trio truck or float is another symbol of Carnaval in Brazil similar to the block parties themselves, which can last from early in the morning until late at night.

While there is endless debate about where to go to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, my hunch is that you won’t be disappointed if you go to either Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, or Recife. The great thing about Brazilian carnaval is each city is likely to have a different feel to it as well as different types of music as well as different kinds of blocos represented. Rio de Janeiro’s carnaval is the largest in the world but you may want to go with the carnaval in Salvador to see unique forms of samba and other music styles represented. If you want a somewhat more subdued carnaval experience, going to Sao Paulo may be what you’re looking for.

Carnaval in Brazil is not just about coastal cities as there are celebrations that are lower key and smaller in the state of Minas Gerais, located in the interior as well as in smaller cities such as Manaus, Porto Alegre, and Florianopolis. This month-long celebration has something for everyone and while I have celebrated carnaval before a few years ago in Colombia, I have never seen such a unifying event that brings a whole country together as it does in Brazil. If you are expecting to see a lot of tourist sites and enjoy some museums here, you may want to wait until after Carnaval to do just that. Instead, bring your best costume, study up on your Samba moves, and get ready to buy those tickets way in advance if you want to see the Sambadrome in all of its glory when you visit.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil is a really unique experience and opportunity that I would recommend to everybody who enjoys dancing, singing, listening to good music, and experience one of the most joyous celebrations in the world.

A Profile in Courage – Marshal Candido Rondon

Who is Candido Rondon? It is likely you have never learned about this Brazilian figure of history, but he was not only an exemplary Brazilian, but he was also an extraordinary explorer, friend to indigenous peoples, soldier, statesman, and traveler. Achieving the highest rank in the Brazilian military, he devoted himself to the service of his nation in the twilight of empire and the forging of a new republic. While not a politician nor a man hungry for power, he was a man of great courage, fortitude, and moral fiber. He put others before himself and never wanted to be immersed in the modern wants for fame or fortune as others greedily claim for themselves in the modern era.

While a military officer first, he was a famous explorer who cared about the environment and did his best to balance that with his desire for progressive development of connecting a new nation together through telegraph lines as director of the official commission. He not only cared about the environment but also sought for the protection of indigenous peoples who he encountered during his explorations and made sure that all of his interactions with them were both peaceful and friendly.

He did many incredible things in his life but as far as what I have learned about him; he was never a big braggart who boasted incessantly and who was much more concerned with how his men were doing whether they were his fellow soldiers, explorers, or countrymen. He was very successful because he set a powerful example and took care to accomplish whatever he took upon himself to the best of his abilities. From being a director for the protection of indigenous peoples to setting up telegraph lines as a commissioner to commanding fellow troops to explore the unknown regions of the Amazon, Rondon was a man who was the epitome of a ‘profile in courage.’

Marshal Rondon was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has various catastrophes and tragedies befall him as a child. His father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was only two years old. His grandparents died when he was a boy, so he was cared for by his uncle. Rondon was a victim of discrimination for his indigenous origin and was bullied because of it. He was not tall or very strong physically either.

However, none of these setbacks stopped him because nothing would stop a man who was courageous, determined, and a hard worker. Most of all, it should be said that rather than let these personal tragedies derail him and his life goals, it is likely that they spurred him on to achieve great things and to make the most of the time that was given to him with more awareness of the preciousness of life and how quickly it can be taken away.

Marshal Candido Rondon has great discipline and determination especially when it came to his education as a teenager and as a young adult. He studied both Mathematics and Physical and Natural Sciences at the War College in Rio de Janeiro. He became second lieutenant of the Armed Forces of Brazil in 1888. He was directly involved as a military officer in the formation of the Brazilian Republic after the fall of the Brazilian Empire. In addition to all of these academic pursuits, he self-taught himself various skills especially engineering. He also became physically disciplined allowing him to spend months and years in the harsh tropical climate due to his time spent in the military and military school.

Rondon was instrumental in connecting the Amazonian region of Brazil to the rest of the country. As an Army engineer, he was in charge of expanding the reach of the new republic and removing the isolation that this part of Brazil had become accustomed to. He built the first telegraph line that crossed the state of Mato Grosso. With his leadership, construction began on a main road from Cuiabá to Rio de Janeiro (The Capital of Brazil at the time). Telegraph lines were also established from Brazil to Bolivia and Peru. He maintained peace both with the indigenous tribes and Brazil’s neighbors during his time as the Telegraph Commissioner.

You could argue today that Marshal Rondon was the closest to being thought of as a Pacifist that a military officer could be. He always tried to make friends with the indigenous tribes of Brazil especially. He never ordered his men to shoot the Indians, even when they were being attacked by them sometimes by poisonous arrows.

Because of Rondon’s beliefs in Positivism and positivist thought, he wanted to make the indigenous tribes civilized and connected to the rest of Brazil in a non-violent and gradual way. For his actions, he later on in life became the first director of the Indian Protection Service (SPI), which still exists in Brazil today under a different name of FUNAI (National Indian Foundation).

After 1888, Marshal Candido Rondon became a member of the positivist church in Brazil, which was based on humanist ideals. Heavily influenced by the Brazilian thinker, Benjamin Constant, the Brazilian military and its new republic helped to spread the ideals of positivism within Brazil. Mr. Constant was influenced by the French enlightenment philosopher, Auguste Comte. Positivism as an ideology emphasizes naturalism, science and altruism, rather than any religious doctrine in particular. Marshal Rondon was influenced by positivism in his actions with regards to supporting the telegraph expansion and by his pursuit of co-existence and eventual friendship with the Indigenous populations. The positivism movement and the spread of Republican beliefs among Brazil’s military and political leaders helped in a major way in changing Brazil from an empire to a republic.

What most people outside of Brazil, especially Americans such as myself who are fond of history would only know about Candido Rondon, would revolve around his historic journey of discovery and exploration with then ex-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1913-1914. The Roosevelt – Rondon scientific expedition was a research expedition between 1913 and 1914 to follow the path of the River of Doubt (Rio da Duvida) in the Amazon. Because of sheer physical dexterity and encyclopedic knowledge of the Amazon, Rondon, miraculously, was the only man who came back healthy. The ex-President, Theodore Roosevelt almost died of illness and it could be said that Rondon helped save his life and that of his son, Kermit too.

Three of the Brazilians died during the expedition sadly. Without Rondon and the local experience and knowledge of his men, the expedition would have been a disaster. Historically, this was also an important moment to solidify good relations between the two countries which were both far away in terms of language and cultural connections at the time. The ‘River of Doubt’ was renamed the Roosevelt River (Rio Roosevelt) in honor of the former American president for completing the journey which would not have been successful without the assistance and perseverance of Marshal Rondon. There are times in a man’s life where you can state how his leadership was instrumental to the success of a group and in this expedition, Rondon’s leadership was unquestionably the reason why it succeeded and why it is remembered so fondly today.

Few Brazilians have made as great of an impact on their country as Marshal Candido Rondon. The Indian Protection Service (SPI) had its problems, but it became FUNAI, which still helps indigenous peoples today throughout the country. The new Brazilian republic grew both more connected and stronger due to the telegraph and road construction commissions which were led by Rondon and his men. Rondônia is now a Brazilian state composed of the Amazon Forest that is named after the Marshal. His military service, his care for the Indians, and his positivist beliefs are still remembered by many Brazilians today. Marshal Candido Rondon died at the advanced age of 92 in 1958, in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of a country for which he did so much and honored so very proudly.

‘Governing The World: The History of an Idea’ – Book Review

Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower is an illuminating and insightful history regarding the shaky yet continuous rise of internationalism that began with the Concert of Vienna in 1815. Mazower’s look at the emergence of global governance continues up until the wake of the Eurozone crisis with regards to the present needs of reforming the European Union in the wake of unpopular austerity measures and burdensome bureaucratic regulations from Brussels.

His book addresses ‘globalization’ different from previous books I’ve read in the past with regards to focus on ‘ideas’ themselves and the rise and fall of those ideas throughout the 19th and 20th centuries led by primarily politicians and philosophers such as Kant, Metternich, Mazzini, Marx, Lenin, Bentham, Wilson, the Roosevelts, etc. among many others who were driven in defining what the international system should look, act, and be like.

A consistent theme of this history of ideas and institutions from 1815 to about 2012 was how instrumental the ‘Great Powers’ in each era were in setting up the foundation of the international system whether it was the ‘Concert of Europe’, the ‘League of Nations’, or the ‘United Nations.’ In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars I, II, the leading powers desired to create a ‘balance of power’ among the great nations yet whose actions could be backed up by a single hegemon such as the U.K., U.S. to set the rules and boost the institutions they founded. Mazower is clear in that the history of global governance evolved originally from the heart of Europe and then spread across the Atlantic as the title of global hegemon shifted from the U.K. to the U.S. with the emergence of Wilsonianism and the ‘fourteen points’ in the 1910s.

Whereas the origins of internationalism started out with a gentlemen’s agreement among the Great Powers of Europe to refrain from conquering each other in unending, bloody wars over territory based on religious and political aims, this shift has now ended up only two hundred years later encompassing the entire world over with 193-member states being represented from the People’s Republic of China to Tuvalu.

While the United Nations could be seen by some observers as a success story in terms of its inclusive nature and the ability for nations from around the world to have a voice regarding international issues, there are problems still today that plague the UN and its sister agencies and bodies. Whether it was how the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine could be implemented in different conflicts around the world with UN peacekeeping forces or the controversial over-usage of vetoes by the five permanent members of the Security Council to control the debate about their national self-interests, global governance increasingly mirrors national governance in being quite messy and imperfect.

Real questions remained in 2012 when this book was published and more so today regarding the vitality of the United Nations especially given the fact that the United States is responsible for 22 percent of the overall budget of the UN. In the 2nd half of the book, Mazower focuses on the differing approaches of various U.S. administrations towards the UN and how fundamentally the U.S. government, mostly during Republican administrations, were acting out of self-interest and would often go out of the way to create competing international bodies to marginalize the UN such as the IMF, the World Bank, and most recently the WTO. Often times, the U.S. has bypassed, ignored, threatened, and left UN bodies and have held themselves to a standard above those given to other member states which has caused a backlash among not only allies but also developing countries (see: International Court of Justice and U.S. nationals being exempted from its jurisdiction).

Similarly to how the League of Nations through the guise of British and French leadership failed to hold imperial ambitions in check between the World Wars, U.S. disengagement and disenchantment with the U.N. increasingly from the 1970s onwards and the rise of other ambitious states such as China, India, Brazil, etc. signals that there may be a shift towards a multipolar world where there is no true hegemon leading to more of a systemic anarchy within the international system in the near future.

By the end of Governing the World, Mazower sees serious needs for reform in not just the United Nations but also in the European Union, another leading international institution created during this period. Western-led international institutions are in real danger of losing relevancy, argues Mazower, due to a number of overlapping factors including rising political apathy, catering too heavily towards financial elites, and being unable to meet the lofty goals that they set for themselves. I didn’t even mention a resurgence in nationalism and populism around the world from Brazil to the Philippines, but you get the picture, right?

Much to the chagrin of internationalists, Mazower argues that the nation-state still remains the primary way for the average citizen around the world to receive or pay into ‘public goods’ so their attention will largely remain focused on what their President or Prime Minister is doing and not the UN Secretary-General or IMF Director. There are numerous challenges that face the international system currently and it remains to be seen whether the UN and numerous other bodies are ready to be able to tackle income inequality, climate change, financial crises, the threat of global pandemics in the rest of this tumultuous 21st century.

Overall, I thought it was refreshing to see his attention on the ‘Concert of Europe’ in Vienna and how he started this event as a jumping off point where leading powers would try to use regional and later international cooperation to prevent conflicts from emerging among nation-states. The lack of support given to bodies of ‘International Law’ remains as a consistent theme throughout this book and while ‘arbitration’ between nations was popular, it lost relevancy and hasn’t gained it back since.

Seeing ‘globalization’ through the ideas of influential thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Karl Marx to Henry Kissinger really paints a wholistic picture on how nation-states were driven by different belief and value systems. The clash between nations especially in the 20th century can be seen through the ideological lens (ex: Capitalism v. Communism). While I really enjoyed Mazower’s conclusion, I thought it could have been expanded upon a bit further especially with regards to the rise of private foundations, i.e. the Clintons, the Gates and other NGOs, and how that has affected larger institutional institutions which are now not as well funded. On that note, the chapters titled, “The Empire of Law” and “Science the Unifier” could have been shortened or condensed into one chapter. It took away from the timeline narrative of the book and didn’t relate well to the political history unfolding during the two centuries.

If you are looking for an interesting, comprehensive, yet digestible read regarding the tumultuous development of the international system over the past two centuries, then you will want to take a chance at reading Mr. Mazower’s Governing The World: The History of an Idea. The one question that we are left at the end of this over 400-page book is what will the international system look like for the rest of the 21st century? We shall have to wait to find out but there are numerous challenges and obstacles ahead.