Film Review: The Last Samurai

by Celeste Heiter, Jan 30, 2004 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

A perfect blossom is a rare thing...You
could spend your life looking for one,
And it would not be a wasted life.
--Katsumoto, The Last Samurai

The year is 1876, a time of worldwide social, economic and political upheaval. On opposite sides of the globe, two nations are embroiled in the throes of recovery from civil war: the United States after the war between the North and South over the controversial issue of slavery; and Japan after the fall of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, which brought about the end of militaristic feudalism and the restoration of the Emperor Meiji to the Imperial throne. And although more than half a century would pass before the United States and Japan faced off in military conflict, in the epic film 'The Last Samurai', the destiny of the two nations intersects in the life of one man: an American Civil War veteran named Nathan Algren.

Within the context of the Meiji Restoration, The Last Samurai represents the end of an era. Much like the antebellum world of the Old South, with its elite aristocracy and grandiose plantations borne on the bowed back of slavery, brought to its knees by the Civil War, the floating Ukiyo-e world of feudal Japan was doomed to destruction by civil rebellion and the relentless march of progress. And like the tribal warriors of the American West, the samurai warriors of Japan were a dying breed.

The 45-year reign of the Emperor Meiji encompassed one of the most revolutionary eras in Japanese history. With the fall of Tokugawa Yoshinobu and the restoration of the imperial throne, Japan underwent dramatic changes in its government, its economy, and its culture. The Emperor Meiji seized control of all shogunate strongholds and territories, divested all daimyo and samurai of their feudal status, and set up the first imperial court in the city of Edo.

The Charter Oath, a five-point statement of the nature of the new Japanese government, abolished feudalism and made provisions for a democratic government. A parliament was formed, although it had no true governing power. Instead, a group of influential former daimyo assumed key positions in the new government and formed an oligarchy that determined military, political, and economic policies for the new Japan.

The nation opened its doors to the west and embraced a whole new world of cultural influences. To meet these new challenges, Japan was transformed from a primarily agrarian society with a cottage-industry economy under the oppression of a strict military regime, to a burgeoning industrial giant with a growing appetite for colonial conquest on the continent of Asia.

Bushido: The Way of the Warrior

Samurai are the famed warrior class who served the powerful shogun and daimyo of feudal Japan. Originally known simply as bushi, the Japanese word for warrior, the samurai served as guards in the courts of the powerful family clans that formed during the Heian Period (794-1185) around the 10th century. The samurai rose in status during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when the title became a hereditary one. Over the next 300 years, in their duties to protect their shogun and daimyo, the samurai followed a strict code of honor called bushido, 'the way of the warrior', based on the principles of loyalty, courage, morality, self-sacrifice, chivalry, piety, frugality, rigorous physical discipline and total allegiance to his master. This code of honor had its origins in Confucian philosophy and an earlier code called kyuba no michi, the way of the bow and the horse. The ultimate act of bushido was death in loyal service to the daimyo or shogun.

The privileges of the samurai included high-ranking social status and awards of large estates. They carried two swords, daisho and katana, and wore elaborate suits of armor, marked with cherry blossom emblems to symbolize the ephemeral nature of their lives. During the peaceful times of Edo (1603-1868), the practice of bushido was channelled into the aesthetic arts, literature, poetry and refined living, until it tapered off and vanished altogether after the fall of the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1868. At that time, the samurai were divested of all feudal power and forbidden to carry swords. Today however, the spirit of bushido is still inherent in the Japanese culture. A form of bushido is still practiced among students of the traditional martial arts, and many of Japan's prominent families are still proud descendants of the samurai class.

The Players

Emperor Meiji - Faithfully played in a debut performance by Shichinosuke Nakamura, the Emperor Meiji is one of the most influential figures in the history of Japan. He was born Sachi no Miya (Prince Sachi) on November 3, 1852, and as Japan's 122nd heir to the imperial throne, Emperor Meiji led Japan from the oppression of feudalism into the 20th century. Emperor Meiji was the eldest surviving son of the Emperor Komei by the lady-in-waiting Nakayama Yoshiko, the daughter of Lord Nakayama Tadayasu, a court minister and a member of the powerful Fujiwara clan. He was born just eight months before the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry, and his childhood was spent at the Nakayama household in Kyoto, a prominent court family appointed to care for him. At that time, Japan was an isolated, feudal society dominated by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the city of Edo, now Tokyo.

Prince Sachi was formally adopted on July 11, 1860 by Asako Nyogo, later known as the Empress Dowager Eisho, the principal consort of Emperor Komei, and was given the name Prince Mutsuhito, and the title of Crown Prince. Upon the death of his father on February 3, 1867, Prince Mutsuhito, at the young age of only fifteen, ascended the throne of Japan and declared his reign Meiji, which means "enlightened ruler". The following year, in 1868, a group of rebels acting on behalf of the imperial court united under the new emperor, and brought an end to the Tokugawa shogunate. This monumental historic event is referred to as the Meiji Restoration, and reunited Japan under a sovereign ruler for the first time in 683 years.

Athough Emperor Meiji was a powerful figurehead, he was still quite young and therefore relied on a group of influential ministers for the administration of his government. He became a symbol of national unity and sovereign authority, and the head of the Shinto religion.

Nathan Algren - This fictional character is a decorated war hero, who, after the Civil War, went on to fight under General George Custer at the historic battle of Little Big Horn, and has now become a cynical alcoholic who travels around the U.S. in a tent show promoting Winchester firearms. When offered a handsome salary to travel to Japan as a military advisor, he accepts, motivated mostly by a futile attempt to escape his tormented memories of the horrors he witnessed in the post-Civil War assaults against the Indian tribes of the American west. As unlikely as it may seem, although fictional, Nathan Algren, played by mega-movie star (and Executive Producer) Tom Cruise, represents a plausible character in that era of Japan's history. Hell-bent on modernizing Japan and becoming a player on the global stage, the young Emperor Meiji and his court ministers sent emissaries around the world to gather cultural and technical data, and invited scholars and experts of all kinds to visit Japan as imperial court advisors. Nathan Algren represents one of many such experts recruited by Emperor Meiji's Military Minister Omura.

Katsumoto: The Last Samurai - Although fictional, the character of samurai warrior Katsumoto, masterfully played by Ken Watanabe, is closely based on the life of Saigo Takamori, one of Japan's most highly honored historic heroes. Born in the Japanese province of Satsuma in 1827, Saigo later traveled to Edo to serve under the command of Daimyo Nariakira, leading an army of 5,000 in the Imperial Boshin Rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate. This battle resulted in victory for the Imperial forces and the restoration of the Emperor Meiji to the Imperial throne of Japan.

Thereafter, Saigo was appointed commander general and chief councilor to the Emperor Meiji and the Imperial court of Edo. However, much like his fictional counterpart, Saigo was strongly opposed to the opening of Japan to western commerce and cultural influences. Moreover, his suggestion that Japan invade Korea as a preemptive maneuver against western colonization was met with strong opposition by other court ministers, causing Saigo to resign and return to his native province with many faithful samurai followers. Upon his return to Kagoshima, Saigo established a facility to continue the tradition of samurai training, and in 1876, he led a rebellion against the very same government he had fought so valiantly to establish.

Saigo and his army were met by Imperial guards, armed with modern ballistic weapons, and Saigo was badly injured. Rather than risk the shame of being captured or suffer a dishonorable death, Saigo chose to end his own life in a ritual suicide decapitation at the hand of a fellow samurai.

The people of Japan were so moved by his unwavering devotion to the samurai code of honor and tradtion that Saigo Takamori soon became the subject of legends that swept the entire nation. Recognizing the indomitable admiration and affection that that the people of Japan held for this fallen hero, the Emperor Meiji acknowledged his valor and issued a posthumous pardon of Saigo on February 22, 1889.

Lady Taka - As the only female role in The Last Samurai, the Lady Taka represents one of its key characters. She is the sister of Katsumoto, the Last Samurai, and the widow of a fallen samurai, killed in battle by Nathan Algren. When Algren is captured alive, he is taken to the home of Lady Taka, who is ordered by her brother to care for his injuries. According to the film's production notes, published on The Last Samurai website, "As vividly as the Samurai code is expressed by Katsumoto and his brethren, it is also evident in Katsumoto's sister, the young war widow Taka, who finds herself pressed into close quarters with Algren through the most bitter of circumstances. Taka, played by Japanese actress Koyuki, conducts herself with such strict composure that the American stranger does not suspect the complex and powerful emotions she feels towards him until he realizes that she is just as much a Samurai as her male counterparts."

Supporting Cast - For all its stellar main characters, The Last Samurai would be nothing without its equally excellent supporting cast. Portraying the opportunistic gaijin: Veteran English actor Timothy Spall as the stranded expat photographer Simon Graham, Scotsman Billy Connolly as Union Army Sergeant Zebulon Gant, Tony Goldwyn as the antagonistic Colonel Bagley, and Scott Wilson as the pompous Ambassador Swanbeck. The Japanese supporting cast features the impressive talents of Hiroyuki Sanada as the stoic samurai Ujio, Seizo Fukumoto as Nathan Algren's silent shadow, Masato Harada as the officious and manipulative Military Minister Omura, and a debut feature performance by Shin Koyamada as Katsuhito's heroic samurai son Nobutada. Together this ensemble of rare acting talent gives The Last Samurai both depth and wings.

The Production

The creative vision of producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, in collaboration with John Logan, known for his other works, including Gladiator and Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai has a Zen-like quality all its own. Overlaid with a transcendent musical score by Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, whose impressive and seemingly endless resume includes Gladiator, The Lion King, Driving Miss Daisy, and Rain Man, The Last Samurai is imbued with all the cultural nuance of traditional Japanese instruments: the melodic and pastoral shakuhachi bamboo flute, the austere and articulate 13-stringed koto, and the deep resonance of the great taiko drum. Battle scenes are rich with the thunderous stampede of hooves, the bright clash of swords and armor, and the agony of combat. And every scene in the film is captured with superlative cinematography by John Toll, of Oscar winning fame for his work on Braveheart and Legends of the Fall.

To fully appreciate the cinematic magnitude of The Last Samurai, one must realize the degree of aesthetic quality, historical accuracy, and microcosmic detail to which the location scouts, set designers, costumers, make-up artists, and horse trainers aspired. The sets were located on three continents, including Engyoji, a 1000-year-old Japanese temple on the summit of Mt. Shosha in western Japan; a full scale working replica of a Japanese farm, recreated in faithful detail in the northern Taranaki region of New Zealand, using indigenous building materials, native Japanese agricultural crops and flowering fruit trees; and a Hollywood soundstage transformed into a bustling Edo city street. Construction of these sets commenced more than a year before filming of The Last Samurai began.

Meanwhile, the task of training the horses had begun. With all the patience, precision and creative vision of a world class choreographer, wrangler Peter White took a group of 60 carefully selected horses, chosen from among an offering of over 2,000 of New Zealand's finest, and transformed them from absolute neophytes into a cast of highly trained equine actors, capable of performing on cue, fully inured to the startle of swordplay and gunfire raging around them. Moreover, in several of the most brutal military battles ever captured on film, not one horse was injured.

When it came to the costumes, no research was spared, and no detail overlooked. Propmaster Dave Gulick fabricated 700 swords, 200 bows, and 7,000 arrows, along with untold numbers of spears, shields, scabbards and quivers, all of which were modeled after ancient Japanese military artifacts. Costume designer Nglia Dickson manufactured over 300 suits of authentic samurai armor, thousands of hand-dyed garments, and an opulent pageantry of royal robes, inspired by those on display in Japan's Institute of Culture. Munehisa Sengoku, the president of the institute and clothier to the Imperial Family, even offered to make the film's Emperor Meiji wardrobe and Last Samurai Katsuhito's traditional garments himself. It doesn't get any more authentic than that.

A Personal Aside

Being a scholar of all things Japanese, I went into the theater to see The Last Samurai with the highest hopes, and... a measure of skepticism. Truth be told, I was ready to rip it to shreds. In my experience, epic films of this ilk, with few exceptions, are notorious for playing fast and loose with the facts, and for manipulating the sentiments of the audience with shameless histrionics and predictably cued violin crescendos. Not so in the case of The Last Samurai.

Although certain critics have maligned Tom Cruise for his role as both star and producer of The Last Samurai, not to mention that the film was conspicuously passed over in Oscar nominations for the 'big four' (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, and Best Screenplay), in my estimation, The Last Samurai outshines them all.

With none but the enigmatic and esoteric works of Akira Kurosawa, and the timeworn tome of James Clavell's Shogun for comparison, The Last Samurai offers a rare and unparalleled cinematic glimpse into the ephemeral world of Edo Japan at the dawn of a new horizon. Casting, directing, acting, screenplay, cinematography, musical score, sound editing, costumes, make-up, set design, special effects: to a one...absolutely flawless.

The Last Samurai Official Movie Guide

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