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The Last Samurai offers a Japanese History Lesson.

By Cathy Schultz

"The Last Samurai" arrives in video stores this week, with its cover art featuring the heroic figure of Tom Cruise decked out in Samurai regalia. To all appearances, Cruise's character is the "Last Samurai" in question. But is he?

I'll come back to that later.

The action takes place in the 1870s, in a Japan struggling to balance modernization with traditional values. Here's a guide to help viewers sort out the film's references to Japanese imperial politics, the samurai code of honor, and the aesthetics of cherry blossoms.

Q. Nathan Algren (Cruise's character) plays an American Civil War veteran who's hired as an adviser to the Japanese military. Why did Japan hire foreign advisers?
A. Japan's 19th century history is unique among non-Western nations. Isolated by choice for two centuries (to the point where even fishermen accidentally blown to foreign ports were barred from ever returning), Japan was forced to open its ports to foreigners in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry and his American fleet steamed into Japanese waters with cannons aimed.

The bossy presence of Westerners in Japan created a crisis among the country's leaders. Some wanted to expel the foreigners by force. Others feared that aggression might lead to a humiliating defeat for Japan, and even, potentially, colonization.

Japanese leaders ultimately chose to become students of Western ways, hoping to strengthen themselves and eventually compete economically and militarily with the West. It was a great strategy. Just a few decades after embracing modernization, Japan successfully walloped Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, forcing some respect from Europe and the U.S. This was all the more remarkable considering that most other Asian (as well as African and Middle Eastern) countries were getting colonized by the imperialistic Westerners.

Q. So, a character like Nathan Algren might have been a military advisor to the Japanese?
A. Probably not, because, frankly, the U.S. military wasn't that good. Americans today are comforted (or alarmed depending on one's politics) by the overwhelming dominance of the U.S. military. But that's very much a post-WWII phenomenon. Before 1940, America's peacetime army ranked only 18th in the world.

So who had the world's best military? The Prussians (later to be known as the Germans) were the ones barking out orders to Japanese conscripts in the 1870s.

Q. The film shows a young Japanese emperor getting ordered around by older advisors. Is that accurate?
A. It was. The Meiji Emperor was around nineteen at the time of this story. Though revered by the people as a living god, he made very few policy decisions. The political leaders who oversaw Japan's modernization during the Meiji Restoration had no intention of letting a teenager actually run the country, deity or not.

Q. Did the film present samurai culture accurately?
A. The movie presents the samurai in a mythic light (which certainly contributed to its huge success in Japanese theaters.) The film's samurai are the guardians of traditional Japanese virtues. They revolt, apparently, because of their disgust at the Western crassness threatening to contaminate Japan.

There's some truth there. Samurai did value a cultural artfulness, which meant not only sophisticated skill in weaponry, but also the ability to marvel over a cherry blossom's beauty. Many did live by bushido (the warrior's code) which emphasized loyalty, bravery, and above all, honor. And samurai were known to choose suicide over disgrace, though perhaps not as commonly as myth would have it.

But the myth's got some holes as well. For one thing, many samurai fought Meiji modernization not for altruistic reasons but because it challenged their status as the privileged warrior caste. Meiji reformers proposed the radical idea that all men essentially being equal, any commoner could be taught to fight. Not a message samurai liked hearing.

The film also misses the historical reality that lots and lots of Meiji policy advisors were former samurai, who had voluntarily given up their traditional privileges to follow a course they believed would strengthen Japan. And they were right, as later events would show.

Q. Did samurai reject modern weapons?
A. It's a romantic notion, but not really true. By the 1870s, the remaining samurai rebels had run out of ammunition for cannon and guns, so they used only their swords and arrows by default.

Q. OK, back to that cover art. Who is the "Last Samurai?"
A. I'd like to think that it's the character Katsumoto (loosely based on Saigo Takamori, who led the last great samurai rebellion in 1877.) The film's Katsumoto acts as a mentor to Nathan, teaching him Zen meditation, the joy of contemplating cherry blossoms (cherry blossoms are a big deal in Japan, if you haven't guessed yet) and of course, some pretty nifty swordplay.

But I'm afraid the movie's message is that Nathan himself is the Last Samurai. In one key scene, the American, sporting a kimono and a samurai sword, arrives in Tokyo and proceeds to teach the Japanese emperor how to live like a "true" Japanese.

Brings a tear to the eye, it does.

Q. What's a good book for more information?
A. Try Mark Ravina's The Last Samurai, on the life of Saigo Takamori.

Joliet Herald News, May 2, 2004.

So, who IS the Last Samurai, anyway?

Cruise, kids, and cherry blossoms.

© 2004 History in the Movies