‘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.