“The Last Samurai”: Shortchanging Japanese history

The Last Samurai

Released: 2003

Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe

Period of history in focus: the Meiji Restoration in Japan (specifically the Satsuma Rebellion 1877)

I chose The Last Samurai because it is a look in Asian history, which Hollywood doesn’t do very often, and because I thought I could clear up one point.  When the movie was set to be released I remember everyone complaining about Tom Cruise’s role in the film.  How could he be the last samurai?  He’s not Japanese.  Was Hollywood going to pull some horrible Tom Cruise is Japanese racist nonsense?

No! I exclaimed.  He’s a captured solider, surrounded by Japanese men who are the last samurai (samurai is both the singular and plural).  Surely he is just a witness to this story.

Then I watched the movie.  Tom Cruise might not technically be the titular “Last Samurai” but he does practically serve at the reason for all their honor and rebellion.  Hollywood produced a different kind of racism in this film.  By turning a story of Japanese history and struggle with western modernization into a film that audiences can only relate to if it stars a white man.

The film does not claim to be “based on a true story”, although it is based on the Meiji Restoration of Japan and the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.  That means that when the events don’t follow exactly as they did in real life, that the filmmakers can claim they shouldn’t be penalized as much as they would be otherwise.  Maybe I am being too harsh, and you might think that.  But after watching the film I was appalled by how matters were carried out, and the blatant Americanization of an event and time in history that has little to do with America.  If you’re going to dramatize history, at least pretend to have done some research.

I’ll start with a little bit of background on Japan before I get into the movie.

The Meiji Restoration of Japan

For many hundreds of years Japan remained isolated from western cultures.  Countries like Britain and Russia kept poking at the island, but they kept repelling all insistence that they become part of the world at large.  There is nothing wrong with rejecting this outside attention, particularly when they could see that China was suffering greatly at the hands of western intervention (the Opium Wars).  They were a little harsh, perhaps, sometimes killing or forcing suicide upon leaders who supported opening up their borders, and killing anybody who washed up on their shores.   This debate between remaining isolated and interacting with the west began to create conflict, and then in 1853 America showed up to ruin everything.

Seriously. We ruin everything ALL THE TIME.

Matthew Perry (not the one from the sitcom) essentially forced Japan in the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened up trade with the US.  Other countries quickly followed suit, and because Japan was not equipped in the ways of western country dickery, most of these treaties were completely unfair.  This caused more unrest in Japan (as you might imagine), and people began to fight over whether they should maintain an old system of government or whether a new one should take hold and start fixing things.

In 1868 a rebellion against the shogunate in power succeeded in taking hold, putting a 15 year old emperor on the throne.  They then began to change up how Japanese society was run.  Among some of the most important things they did (or at least relative to what happens in the movie) included changing up Japan’s strict social caste system.  Whereas lords in the country had previously owned tracts of land and had groups of samurai loyal to them for fighting purposes, land now became nationalized and the social hierarchy changed.  No longer were occupations restricted to a certain class, commoners were allowed surnames, and with the idea of an imperial army growing out of conscripts, the idea of samurai began to get outdated very quickly.

Most samurai were encouraged to take up other professions.  They received a certain amount of income from the government – this could either be taken in monthly, decreasing amounts, or in a lump sum – but this would let them maintain a lifestyle.  Some did go into business or government, and it should be noted that the Emperor’s main advisers were samurai who had helped put him on the throne.  However, many didn’t know how to do much, felt that their honor was being completely compromised, and lived off their little bit of government money, disillusioned and upset.  Keep in mind that this wasn’t some group of 200 angry guys.  The samurai could have numbered into the hundreds of thousands.  In addition to all this insult, in 1876 samurai were officially banned from wearing swords, which was like a final slap in the face.

In addition to this social change, the government also adopted a policy of adopted from the west.  The last article in their Charter Oath stated that they would learn from the west to strengthen their country.  As a result they hired men from various countries to help them in specialization of technology, military, etc.  These men were given contracts of about three years and paid at an incredibly high rate.  In addition, they were not taught the language, but would pass their knowledge on through a translator to men who would then pass the information on to a larger group.  They were not only American, and it should also be noted that their military tactics were largely gained through the French and Germans.  Immediately, the premise of this movie becomes incredibly shaky.  It should also be noted that these experts that were brought in were never intended to become part of Japanese culture, and were almost being exploited for Japanese benefit.  A clever bit on the side of the Japanese, who were interested in becoming a superpower without compromising their culture or people.  Today, Japan is one of the most homogenous nations.

"Please, tell me everything you know about western culture. Then I will laugh at you and point."

How the film gets it wrong

There are a number of things in the film that could be criticized.  If based on the Satsuma rebellion, why is it nothing like the rebellion?  I’ll leave some of these points alone and instead focus on the bits of history that are almost insulting, and then some cultural things about the movie that were poor decisions.

– The movie wanted to pit the “modern” government against “traditional” samurai, and for this reason made some artistic choices that changed history.  For example, the samurai did not decide they were too proud or honorable to use guns and instead insist on fighting the army with swords, bows and arrows.  No matter how the effect might come off in the film, you are still left with the ridiculous notion that these men could come off as equals or win in a battle against guns.  It’s almost impossible.  In the scene were Katsumoto’s son dies, fighting armed soldiers off with his sword, I laughed in the dramatic moment.  How could he run down a bridge with a sword raised and have the soldiers miss him?  It simply doesn’t work.  The samurai used more modern weapons.  Saigo Takamori – the real man who the character Katsumoto is based on – created a number of schools to train samurai, this included weapons’ training and an artillery school.  Part of his loss had to do with is forces losing their more modern weapons.

– Also in vein with the “traditional” choices: the samurai at this time would not have been wearing this old armor.  Apparently the costume designers were aware of this, but the film was trying to make a point.  The armor of traditional samurai warriors does look impressive, but they had moved on to more modern garments.  In fact, Saigo, who had been part of the Meiji government before effectively retiring in 1873, wore his uniform when he fought.

Pictured: artistic interpretation insulting the audience's intelligence.

– Why in the world would the Japanese government hire Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) to help their army?  He’s an alcoholic, and terrible.  This makes me so incredibly angry.  Not to mention that Algren mopes along in his journal trying to act sophisticated, while he in truth is just incredibly racist toward Native Americans and ruins everything.  More on this later.

– The ninjas attack Katsumoto and his men.  Ninjas.  Why did this movie use ninjas.  WHY.

Fending off ninjas. Ninjas. FUCKING NINJAS.

– The token female character this movie used, in the form of the delicate and lovely Taka, is an awful portrayal.  Why would her brother force her to take care of the man who killed her husband?  Why would the screenwriters have her fall in love with the man who killed her husband?  Most importantly, why would she ever have Algren wear her dead husband’s honored armor?  This is beyond ludicrous, and I despise every moment of it.  Making Taka soft-spoken and demure, at least to Algren, is okay as far as a Japanese woman might treat a stranger.  But to keep her like this throughout the film, denying her far more lines, thoughts, feelings, and a three dimensional character, and reducing her to a woman who falls in love is not okay.  At all.  Taka deserved more development, far more lines, and the opportunity to stand up against her brother, who she caved to earlier in the movie.  Either that, or they should have taken out the romance plotline altogether and not forced us to watch a woman fall in love with the man who killed her husband.

WHY MUST YOU RUIN EVERY GOOD THING?

– When Algren enters the samurai camp, he learns that they train with swords diligently, trying to become perfect.  I would like to know, then, how in the course of a winter he manages to become on par with the great swordmasters of the village, and how he is able to fight off ninjas.

– When the real life Saigo tried to go to Tokyo to talk with the Emperor and vie for peace, he was forced to fight along the way.  Thousands of his men got killed over a nine month expedition, from January to September 1877.  He tried to ask for peace several times over the course of this fighting, but the government continued to persist, disturbed by what this powerful samurai victory could mean, and who Saigo might become if he succeeded.  Finally, the government offered him the chance to surrender, but surrender at that point would have been dishonorable and he had to fight to the end.  Without their modern weapons, he and rest of his followers were easily killed by the larger and more equipped army.  It did not happen in the span of week.  It did not happen on snap decisions.  This rebellion and fight between different factions in Japan was the result of complicated and rich relationships.

Over-simplification and the white element of history

This is my main complaint about the film.  I don’t care that much that the Satsuma Rebellion was different than it was in actual history.  I do care that it was dumbed down to what it was, and it became about a white guy.  In the end, these samurai are completely honorable.  They fight because they have to, and when they are mowed down by automatic weapons, the Japanese conscripts are so moved that they kneel down and honor the men.  The one general/capatain/leader of the Japanese army who is not moved by the sight of these brave men is stripped of his money at the end by the Emperor, who grows some balls and rejects an alliance with America.

The samurai had a good reason to be upset and perhaps even to rebel.  Their way of life was threatened, they were afraid, their money was lessened.  Also, their honor, which was incredibly important, was being squashed.  This does not make the samurai mythical good guys, and it does not make their way of life some untouchable wondrous thing.  Some of the movements the samurai protested were attempts to democratizing the country.  Remember that the caste system was changed and peasants and commoners were given more rights.  This is part of what the samurai lashed against.  In truth, they were social conservatives, and all the “traditional” ways they supported were not what was necessarily best for the country.  This movie undoubtedly overly romanticizes these men.

All you peasants are good for is farming and not having last names. Also, getting killed by me!

Furthermore, the use of Nathan Algren is incredibly insulting to Japanese history.  I understand that in telling a story, movies like to use an outsider learning the ways of this new culture or world, so that the audience can be introduced to it too.  However, Algren rarely tells us anything of importance.  We learn that they strive to perfection, and they fight well with swords.  We don’t learn anything about their code of honor – which, by the way, was not based on right and wrong, but a set of expected things to do – or the way they raise families, or how they have reacted to social changes and the law that does not allow them to wear swords.  They remain untouched, almost mythical.

If they wanted to use an outsider, why not use a Japanese actor?  Maybe the young son of a samurai warrior, learns about the way things used to be as he is raised in this world where everything is changing.  Maybe he wants to be a samurai like his father and spends some of his childhood learning how to fight and other codes of honor.  Maybe he is old enough to accompany his father into battle, or hears accounts, or somehow witnesses the final stand.  Then, we will have the Japanese experience framed through Japanese eyes.  We can take this culture on its own ground and respect them enough to let them be the main players in their story.

Instead, we have a white man gain the respect of everyone around him.  We have a white man help save Katsumoto’s life, and then convince him to stand up in honorable rebellion.  We have a white man wear the traditional samurai armor.  We have a white man help set up traps to lend to victorious fighting.  We have a white men help lead the samurai into their final stand.  We have a white man help this great samurai commit seppuku.  Ultimately, the only man who survives is white, and he is the one who inspires the Emperor.

The faces that changed Japan.

On the battlefield, when Saigo (the real figure, remember) was dying, it is reported that his friend Shinsuke Beppu cut off his head for him as the final act of honor.  Why give this over to a white man?  Why not let the Japanese characters show us the final strength and honor of this act?

Also, why let Nathan Algren be the only one to survive this horrific slaughter, when nobody survived it in real history?  Why have him survive machine gun fire and kill all the Japanese men?

It fills me with so much anger, I can’t even describe it to you.  Ultimately, I do not recommend The Last Samurai because instead of honoring Japanese culture, I think it simplifies history and frames a story of Asian conflict in the eyes of a white American.  Come back to me when you demonstrate Japanese history with Japanese actors, Hollywood.

This is just stupid.

Sources:

Not surprisingly, my library had a dearth of books on specific areas of Japanese history, so I checked out a lot of surveys.  I liked two of them, but the other ones, I won’t bother.

HistoryNet.com. Satsuma Rebellion: Satsuma Clan Samurai Against the Imperial Japanese Army. From a published history magazine, this gave me the specifics on the rebellion, and also some of the knowledge that made this movie ridiculous.  Read it at: http://www.historynet.com/satsuma-rebellion-satsuma-clan-samurai-against-the-imperial-japanese-army.htm

Kenneth G. Henshall. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower.  I thought this book did a good job setting up the cultural background and conflict between government and samurai.

Louis G. Perez. The History of Japan.  Another survey, but overseen by a number of  history professors.  The overall book is concerned with placing Japan in the contemporary world.

FOR NEXT WEEK:

Another foray into Roman history with The Eagle, which came out recently and features Roman Briton.

The week following, I’d like to touch on the American Civil War.  Any suggestions, as always, are welcome!

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15 responses to ““The Last Samurai”: Shortchanging Japanese history

  1. Your main complaint about the movie—what I’d call historical “whitewashing”—exactly mirrors why I feel so exasperated every time my lovely significant other drools over it. Sure, it has some nice cinematographic sequences, but you’d think someone with respect for Asian culture (HELLO?!) would at least have one or two gripes. Really. Well done, as always.

    • Haha, that was one of the first things things that I thought. A respect for Asian culture, man! He probably likes the manly heroic fighting too much to worry about it.

  2. As a counterpoint to the white-washing of Asian history in “The Last Samurai,” I would recommend “Hero,” starring Jet Li. Though it did not receive to much of a mainstream release, it is a powerful film about the formation of China. I am really glad that you pointed out how TLS romanticizes what is essentially the rather oppressive feudal culture that the samurai are attempting to preserve. While the audeince only sees the idealistic village life of the feudal Japan from the samurai point of view, I would liked to have seen the film complicate the cultural tension by at least glimpsing the plight of the peasantry.

    Regarding a Civil War film to review, why not “Gettysburg” (1993), starring Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee?

    • I saw Gettysburg, oh, about six months ago. Remember really liking it. I might do it, considering my other option right now is “Glory” and I don’t want to complain about whitewashing again so soon.

  3. Your complaints is too harsh why make your own movie as epic as this movie if you have no good to say shut your mouth this movie earn millions of dollars…What are you thinking?.the one who appreciates this movie is an asshole?

    • The point of my blog is to point out historical inaccuracies. Like the movie all you want, I don’t care! Movies can be good and historically inaccurate. I’m simply trying to help teach people the real story behind Hollywood history.

    • I for one agree with this person. If you don’t like anything, don’t talk about it.

      Don’t like Nazis? BORING. Baby murder? WHY ARE YOU RUINING A PERFECTLY GOOD BABY MURDER!?!?! Racism? No complaining about racism. If you don’t have something nice to say about racism, don’t say anything at all!

  4. Wow, what a well-reasoned argument! Stop having standards and go make your own movie, apparently. Oh internet

  5. I agree with you mostly but the film wasn’t to bad. At least i was like the historical heart attack that was Gladiator.

  6. If you don’t like what he is saying about the Last Samurai, then don’t bother reading his blog. I agree with what he says. Maybe you are just caucasian people who don’t like what he says.. Doesn’t matter. He has a right to disagree with the norm if he wishes.

  7. Briana Pipkins

    I completely agree with what you are saying until it came down to the “why is there a white guy?” spill. This movie is a historical FICTION meaning that not all of it is true so dont hate the plot (however poor it is) because after all it wasn’t made to be all truths…thats what a documentary is haha but i will say thanks because you helped me see some points i missed for an essay in history

  8. You are way to caught up in literalism and the details. Focus on the character and what his struggle represents vis-a-vis the individual in society today. The regime in power represents “progress.” The Samurai represent tradition and “the old ways.” Algren can be see as alienated man caught in the middle who breaks free from the “iron cage.” Viewed that way, maybe there is more to appreciate.

  9. Dominic Yusoff

    Great review. Another thing that should be added is that the Imperial Army did adopt and idealize the samurai ethos, so the “modern” vs “traditional” premise of the movie is false. Also the reputation of the real samurai by then was already tarnished, which is why Imperial Japan adopted the romanticized view of the samurai for people to emulate rather than the actual samurai.

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