The film ‘The LastSamurai’ centers around a former US Army Captain, Nathan Algren who is hired bythe Emperor of Japan to train the country’s first army in modern warfare duringthe Meiji Restoration in 19th Century Japan. Asthe nation strives to modernize with the addition of new trade policies withthe West, the use of new weaponry and modern war tactics is also implemented.Due to these advancement, attempts are tried to be made to eradicate theancient Samurai warrior class, as well as eliminate the use of traditionalweapons, such as swords and bows.
As the film progresses, Algren comes intocontact with the world of the samurai and learns to love their ways andteachings. He learns the importance of devotion, discipline, and perfection inJapanese culture. He learns the importance of Bushido and the way of thewarrior. Earlier in the film, Algren loses a fight against the samurais becauseof the imperial soldiers’ lack of training and becomes badly wounded. Althoughhis wounds were severe, he continues to stay courageous and determined which makesthe samurai leader Katsumoto spare his life. Katsumoto decides to take Algrenas a prisoner back to his village to learn more about him. Katsumoto is thehead samurai of the region and exemplifies the codes of Bushido through his actionsin ‘The Last Samurai’.
The culture of Bushido is patriotism, loyalty and lovefor your country. Katsumoto lived by one purpose which was undying loyalty tothe emperor. The belief is revolved around the idea of honor; a samurai willgive up his life to respect the honor.
He cannot live with shame of defeat,which is why it is shown in the movie that after a battle is lost “seppuku” isperformed. “Seppuku” is a form of Japanese ritual suicide. In the way ofsamurai ‘seppuku is viewed as effectively redeeming honor’.
The film begins with a voice-over that narrates “they say Japan was madeby a sword. They say the old gods dipped a coral blade into the ocean, and whenthey pulled it out four perfect drops fell back into the sea, and those dropsbecame the islands of Japan. I say, Japan was made by a handful of brave men.Warriors, willing to give their lives for what seems to have become a forgottenword: honor.” (Simon Graham). The samurai were seen as highly trained warriors that followedcodes of discipline/conduct known as bushido. The qualities they possessed werefurther influenced and developed by Zen Buddhism, during the Muromachi period(1336 – 1568).
Zen Buddhism influenced the samurais greatly, giving themenlightenment for good judgement, personal growth, and self-awareness. Exposureinto the philosophy and arts of Zen Buddhism allowed expansion of the samurais’perspectives. As a result, the life of the Samurai had not only become one ofdiscipline and military education, but a rich cultivation of the spirit andmind through the arts of writing, painting, calligraphy, philosophy, etc.'(Matrasko). By the mid 1800’s, the Samurai’s way of life ended. The MeijiRestoration of 1868, abolished the feudal system that the Samurai enjoyedfinancially and socially due to the rise of modernization by Westerners that”The Last Samurai” tries to portray.
As Algrenis held captive by Katsumoto, he begins to see ‘the world of the warriors’. Atfirst, he views the samurais culture as unusual and has issues with somecustoms. When he first meets Katsumoto, he expresses his disagreement with thecustom of beheading defeated kneeling men in war as he saw Katsumoto do to the defeated General Hasegawa onthe battlefield. Katsumoto explains the importance of honor and incapability ofdealing with shame, “A samurai cannot stand theshame of defeat. I was honored to cut off his head.
“. Algren see’s the act assavagery and depraved but in truth Katsumoto’s actions were a gesture ofrespect for his adversary. Later through the movie Algren develops a strongrelationship with Katsumoto. They have conversations about war, experiences andteach each other about their distinct cultures. In another one of the conversations between Katsumoto and Algren,Katsumoto asks Algren about his battle against the ‘red Indians’ (native-Americans)which Algren is not proud of.
Algren explains to Katsumoto that he was acaptain and the general was lieutenant colonel Custer. From Katsumoto’sperspective, he believed Custer was a great general because he killed manywarriors. But, Algren disagrees angrily stating that Custer was arrogant andfoolhardy. And he got massacred because he took a single battalion against “twothousand angry Indians with his army consisting of only two hundred and elevenmen”.
Algren also stated “he was a murderer who fell in love with his ownlegend. And his troopers died for it.” Though Katsumoto’s point of viewwas that it was a good death because Custer died a warrior’s death.
This scenesignified the qualities of bravery and courage that samurais follow in bushidowhich is why Katsumoto respected that Custer had the bravery to fight to thedeath against impossible odds. However, Algren did not understand the meaningbehind Katsumoto’s philosophy at that time; he angrily stated, “maybe you couldhave a death like general Custer someday” which Katsumoto simply responds bysaying “maybe if it is in my destiny”. Thebelief in destiny is also a major element in Buddhism that is reflectedconstantly throughout the movie. Destiny is closely related to the doctrine ofkarma in Buddhism. According to the Buddha, karma of varying types can lead torebirth as a human, an animal, or even one of the Hindu gods.
In particular, ZenBuddhism accepts the concepts of karma, samsara and rebirth but does not giveemphasis on the afterlife only weighing heavily on the present moment.Katsumoto’s response to Algren did not reflect whether or not he feared death,however it did reflect how he cared for the way he would die. He cared aboutdying in the way of the samurai with the intentions of courage, loyalty andhonor. His respect for general Custer is also linked to the reason why he hasno anger towards Algren for killing his brother in law in battle and believesit was a good death.
It is also the very reason why he spared Algren’s lifewhen he fought against him on the battlefield because he saw Algren’s courageand endurance to continue fighting as a “respectable warrior” till death. As Algren lives among the samurais, he learns to appreciate theirculture and values. He narrates in the film: ‘everyone is polite, everyonesmiles and bows, but beneath their courtesy I detect a deep reservoir offeeling…They are an intriguing people. From the moment they wake, they devotethemselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen suchdiscipline.” Algren begins to have a deep sense of respect for the samurai way.
He learns that the meaning of samurai is ‘to serve’ and that Katsumoto’s reasonbehind the rebellion is that Katsumoto believes ‘his rebellion is in theservice of the emperor’. This demonstrates the ideals and core philosophy ofdevotion that is the way of the samurai. Algren eventually comes to lovethe samurai culture and adopts it as his own. Through the discipline of thesamurai, he conquers his alcoholism and learns to find tranquility’ (SamKyung-Gun Lim, 38).
In the end, Algren quickly masters the way of the samurai and thesword. He also becomes friends with Katsumoto and joins him in the fightagainst the Meiji government and Westernization. One of his final conversationswith Katsumoto consists of Katsumoto telling Algren “the perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life lookingfor one, and it would not be a wasted life.” This quote reflects one of thetrue meanings in Buddhism. It characterizes the value of that Buddhism holds inseeking a perfect, even though one may not achieve.
In bushido, samurais valuetheir life towards commitment and self-devotion. During their conversation,Algren expresses his guilt for taking away innocent lives as a soldier butKatsumoto reassures him by stating “like the blossoms in the garden, we are alldying and there is life in every breath”. This scene shows that in the way ofthe warrior (bushido), although some of the actions necessary as warrior can beoverwhelming, overbearing, or may even seem wrong; one should not feel guiltfor completing their duty as a samurai. At the end of the battle against the imperialsoldiers, Katsumoto fights alongside Algren regardless of the fact they becomeoutnumbered and dies similarly to colonel Custer.
Katsumoto died in honor withthe help of Algren to perform “seppuku”.Algren finally understood the importance of bushido and the values Katsumoto upholding until his finalbreath. The last scene Algren presents the emperor with Katsumoto’s sword andasks him to remember the traditions for which Katsumoto and ancestors who heldthis sword died for. Algren’s actions made the emperor realize the significanceof the history of Japan “I have dreamed of a unified Japan.
Of a country,strong and independent and modern…
Now we have railroads and cannon, Westernclothing, but we cannot forget who we are or where we come from”. Algren finds some form of peace at the end ofthe film because of the teaching of Katsumoto through the way of the samurai.’The Last Samurai’ was a beautiful depiction of how although modernization canbe great, you should never forget your history and lose your true values andmorals.