The period drama The Last Samurai chronicles a real-life Japanese rebellion from the 19th century but fictionalizes several historical events and people. The Edward Zwick drama received four Oscar nominations upon its 2003 release and has sparked debates over the years about its subject matter and White Savior narrative. So how much of the story is real, and how much of the true story was changed for The Last Samurai?
The Last Samurai stars Top Gun‘s Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, a member of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment who served during the American Indian Wars, not long after fighting during the American Civil War. Across the world in Japan, the Meiji Restoration introduced a new way of life and thus sparked a rebellion among samurais. A Japanese politician, Mr. Omura (Masato Harada), visits America and recruits Algren to train the Japanese Imperial Army, hoping for a smooth transition to a new cultural era.
In The Last Samurai, the inciting incident transpires when Algren squares off against a group of samurai led by Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu (Godzilla 2‘s Ken Watanabe). He fights bravely and viciously, so much so that his life is ultimately spared by Katsumoto, who subsequently takes the American into the mountains and provides care. Day by day, Algren not only learns the ways of the samurai but learns to love the traditions and codes of conduct. The Last Samurai builds to a violent final act, in which Algren and Katsumoto battle the Japanese Imperial Army, along with the American’s former commanding officer from the 7th Cavalry Regiment, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). The samurai fight to the death, using only traditional weapons. Algren manages to survive, meets with the Emperor, and seemingly begins a new life with Katsumoto’s sister, Taka (Koyuki Kato). Here’s a complete breakdown of The Last Samurai‘s historical accuracy.
Was Katsumoto Moritsugu a Real Person
The Last Samurai’s Katsumoto Moritsugu is based on the iconic Japanese samurai Saigō Takamori. In real life, Saigō initially led the Imperial forces and won the four-day Battle of Toba–Fushimi in January 1868. By 1877, he sided with rebel forces and fought in what’s now known as the Satsuma Rebellion. Saigō was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shiroyama, which is the inspiration for the final extended battle sequence in The Last Samurai (and thus part of the true story).
Who Nathan Algren Is Based On
Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai isn’t based on a true story of an American soldier, but is inspired by the real history of a French Army officer named Jules Brunet. In 1866, Brunet was sent to Japan to train military forces and ultimately fought in the Boshin War after refusing orders to return home. In 1867, military dictator Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned, leading to the end of a Shogun-centric world in Japan and spurring the Meiji Restoration under the 14-year-old Emperor Meiji. Whereas The Last Samurai’s Algren previously participated in both the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars, the character’s real-life inspiration, Brunet, served during the Second Franco-Mexican War. He later achieved the rank Général de Division and served France until 1899.
What Last Samurai Gets Right About Japan’s Meiji Restoration
The Last Samurai‘s timeline is mostly accurate to the true story in history. When Algren arrives in Japan, the real-life Brunet would have also just been arriving to train Japanese soldiers. Also, according to historians, the costumes and overall productions are spot-on. In general, The Last Samurai’s premise is historically accurate. Japan was undergoing major cultural changes during the late 1860s, and the Emperor was indeed regarded as a “living God.” In the span of a decade, rebels fought to retain the old way of life but were ultimately defeated. Incidentally, samurai culture ended with the failed Satsuma Rebellion, and the right to wear a katana sword in public was abolished. And so, five percent of the Japanese population -samurais – were forced to adapt.
For practical purposes, Trial By Fire director Edward Zwick simplifies the Meiji Restoration in The Last Samurai. Katsumoto and Algren represent Samurai traditions, while Mr. Omura embodies modernity. Emperor Meiji is used in the film to show how progressive Japanese culture was being influenced by Western concepts. It all builds to a battle of good vs. bad, which is essentially a stand-in for the Satsuma Rebellion. In real life, various events unfolded over the course of a decade, but for pacing purposes, The Last Samurai has an organic feel, almost like it is taking place within a short period of time. For audience clarity, Cruise’s narration identifies specific dates, with the final 1877 battle aligning with the real-life 1877 Satsuma Rebellion.
Is The Last Samurai’s Story Real?
The Last Samurai is based on real events, but the storyline involving the main characters is fabricated rather than faithful to the true story. For example, Jack Reacher‘s Ed Zwick and company Americanize the storyline, with Cruise bringing the spirit of Brunet’s story to the big screen. For another audience hook, the screenwriters link Alpern to General George Custer and repeatedly reference the famous military leader to better understand the timeline. In fact, Cruise’s character even states that Custer “fell in love with his own legend,” an ironic line given Hollywood’s narrative twist on the Japanese-French source material.
For one more layer of thematic accessibility, Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai explains Greek history to Katsumoto by citing the Battle of Thermopylae (the premise for Zack Snyder’s 300), and thus essentially explains the concept of protecting one’s homeland at all costs to the audience. In the final act, Katsumoto asks Alpern what happened to the Greek soldiers, a thematic transition to the samurais’ last stand. The real-life Satsuma Rebellion did indeed mark the end of samurai culture, along with the death of Saigō Takamori, the inspiration for Katsumoto. But an American Civil War veteran named Nathan Algren didn’t help Saigō commit “seppuku,” and the real-life Brunet didn’t stay in Japan with Saigō’s adoring sister. Still, Brunet did play a role in the Japanese wars of the time, and Saigō did indeed sacrifice his life in the name of Japanese traditions.
Everything The Last Samurai Gets Wrong
The Meiji Restoration rebellions weren’t simply about right vs. wrong, as it’s suggested in The Last Samurai. Historians have explained that many samurais rebelled not because of moral righteousness but rather to sustain a “privileged” way of life. In fact, most samurais reportedly lived in urban areas and ultimately took on important local jobs to strengthen Japanese society. In The Last Samurai, the screenwriters conveniently have Katsumoto and company live in the mountains, which allows for a mid-movie sequence that at once spotlights Alpern’s change of heart while reminding viewers that he can’t escape.
The Last Samurai also simplifies samurai culture for the sake of storytelling. According to historian Jonathan Dresner, “the movie clearly can’t differentiate between the individual samurai clan and the samurai class.” He notes that most samurais didn’t actually rebel in real life. He also has smaller issues with the true story in The Last Samurai, specifically the idea that Japanese men of the time didn’t help with housework and that the U.S. wouldn’t have negotiated with Japan using military technology, as seen at the beginning of Zwick’s film.
Last, even original samurai warriors reportedly used modern weapons during the Satsuma Rebellion, though it’s true that they sometimes fought with traditional swords during this specific time in history. The Last Samurai essentially dramatizes the climactic battle by stripping everything down to good vs. bad, tradition vs. progress. It’s worth noting that the Satsuma Rebellion transpired over several months and that the samurai rebels weren’t exactly heavily outnumbered like the Greeks in the Battle of Thermopylae. Also, it was a Frenchman – not an American – who took his talents to Japan to instruct soldiers and then stayed for a while to help before returning to his native country for regular military duties. So The Last Samurai was Americanized with a White Savior narrative.
When Did The Last Samurai Die
While innumerable descendants of former samurai live on in Japan to this day, there are essentially three primary schools of thought on when the last “true” samurai died. The first belongs to samurai purists, who believe, as depicted in The Last Samurai, that the last true samurai was Saigō Takamori, with his death ending the Satsuma rebellion and samurai culture’s resistance to the new Meiji government. The second group chooses to trace pure samurai lineage, highlighting Tōyama Mitsuru as the last samurai due to his birth into the Fukuoka City samurai clan in 1855, with Tōyama living until 1944.
Although Tōyama did participate in several samurai battles through his early 20s, Tōyama’s status as the true last samurai is debated due to his pivot away from samurai culture in 1881, adopting a Western hairstyle and rubbing shoulders with prominent political Japanese figures. As a result, the third group counter Tōyama’s claim as the last samurai with another named Hayashi Tadataka. Hayashi is widely regarded as the last Daimyo (a feudal samurai leader) of Jouzai, who fought in the Boshin war until 1868. Finding peace within the Meiji government as an older man while retaining many of his samurai traditions, Tadataka lived until 1941, making him the last true samurai for many.
Zwick’s The Last Samurai certainly takes the stance that Saigō was the last true samurai, but this question remains one that elicits fervent historical debate to this day. While the true story of when the last samurai died differs depending on historical semantics and will likely never be definitively answered, The Last Samurai has undoubtedly led to a rejuvenated discussion of samurai culture over the past two decades.
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