Evil Modernity and the Redemption of the Anglo-Saxon Warrior

By Jochen S. Arndt

In The Last Samurai, writer, producer, and director Edward Zwick reveals his concern with the conflict between tradition and modernity. Using Meiji Japan as the historical backdrop, Zwick illustrates the destructive effects of modernity, characterized as western and evil, on traditional ways of life, portrayed as oriental and noble. Despite these binaries, however, the movie's primary message is one of redemption. In fact, The Last Samurai's principal focus is on the Anglo-Saxon warrior, whose values and conduct have been corrupted by modernity, but who can achieve redemption and regain his position of moral and physical integrity if he is willing to reconnect with traditional values, wisdom, and spirituality.

In 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate and its all-powerful government, the Bakufu, collapsed due to economic turmoil, foreign interference, and the scheming of the Japanese feudal elite that yearned for the restoration of imperial rule. After the demise of the Tokugawa regime, power nominally reverted to the Japanese boy emperor Mutsuhito, who initiated the period of Meiji (Enlightened) rule. However, actual political power ended up in the hands of a group of nobles, the Meiji oligarchs, who, aware of the decline of Imperial China in the face of European interference, were determined to reform Japan and achieve economic and military parity with foreign powers. In order to live up to their motto "rich country, strong army," the oligarchs looked abroad, especially to the United States and Europe, in order to obtain the necessary expertise for these reforms. Inspired by the modern military systems of the United States and Prussia, the oligarchs raised a conscript army, imported modern armament, and adopted western military doctrines. Ironically, these reforms threatened and undermined the status of the feudal nobility-the daimyos and samurai-who had been instrumental in the downfall of the Tokugawa government in the first place. The resulting conflict of interest became especially apparent when, in an attempt to further strengthen the power of the state, the Meiji oligarchs abolished the traditional feudal order and deprived the daimyos and the samurai of most of their privileges, including the wearing of their hair in a distinctive topknot and the right to bear their swords in public. Frustrated by attacks on their status, some samurai rebelled against the rule of the oligarchs and initiated armed resistance.

It is in this historical context that the movie's story begins and its main character, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), makes his appearance. Algren is a former US Army Captain who served during the frontier wars against the Plains Indians. Rather unexpectedly, he is hired by Omura (Masato Harada), one of the Meiji oligarchs, and his former commander, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) to help modernize and prepare the newly created imperial army of Japan for its confrontation with a group of rebellious samurai warriors under the command of Katsumoto (Ben Watanabe). However, in the first armed confrontation with the samurai rebels, the imperial conscript army, led by Algren and his Irish-born sergeant, is routed. Katsumoto's samurai take Algren prisoner and remove him to their mountain village. During his stay there Algren overcomes his addiction to alcohol and learns to appreciate the ancient, noble culture of Japan. He learns to speak Japanese, becomes proficient in sword fighting techniques, and gradually warms up to his Japanese hosts, especially Katsumoto and his widowed sister Taka (Koyuki) and her two sons. In fact, Algren is on the verge of crossing the cultural boundary and assuming an "Oriental" identity when the emperor requires Katsumoto to appear at court which allows for Algren's return to "civilization." However, Algren is a changed man who no longer fully identifies with the western way of life. Rather than becoming complicit in the destruction of the samurai, he foils an attempt to kill Katsumoto and joins the latter’s resistance movement. In the final, climactic confrontation, Algren and Katsumoto lead an army of samurai, equipped with traditional weapons, such as swords, bows and arrows, and lances, against Omura’s imperial forces, furnished with bolt-action rifles, howitzers, and rapid-fire Gatling guns. In the climactic battle that ensues, Algren’s knowledge of the tactics used by 300 Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae achieves a temporary tactical victory for the rebellious samurai. However, the final outcome is never in doubt. The modern arms crush the samurai warriors, mortally wounding Katsumoto, and putting an end to the traditional way of life of the Japanese samurai. Algren, however, survives the slaughter and returns to the mountain village where he rejoins Taka and her two sons in an uncertain future.

Although the film is broadly based on historical facts and characters, a closer analysis of The Last Samurai reveals the movie’s concern with contemporary issues, especially the corrupting influence of modernity on traditional ways of life. For example, the movie illustrates the negative effects that modern modes of destruction, such as American-built rifles and artillery, can have on traditional warrior cultures by enabling peasant and conscript soldiers to slaughter the “noble” savage of the Americas and the samurai warriors of Japan.

The corrupting effects of modernity on traditional values are also explored through the deviant character traits of Bagley, Omura, and Algren. While Bagley is portrayed as a cold, profit-oriented career soldier, who kills Indians and Japanese rebels in return for a handsome salary, Omura is presented as a man obsessed with the modernization of Japan to the extent that he destroys Japanese cultural values, manipulates the boy emperor, and assassinates his adversaries. Even Algren has been led astray by modernity. As Colonel Bagley’s subordinate officer, he participated in the massacres of Indian women and children. Haunted by these misdeeds he finds solace in alcohol and makes a living by promoting Winchester repeater rifles in trade fairs on the West coast.

In contrast, the movie presents the traditional Japanese way of life as pure, harmonious, and infused with oriental wisdom and martial honor. Not coincidentally, therefore, the scenery that surrounds the rural life in Katsumoto’s village consists of pristine landscapes, snow-capped mountains, and blossoming cherry trees. The only noise and activities that interrupt this idealized atmosphere are the martial pursuits of the noble warriors. Yet even these pursuits occur in close contact and harmony with nature: the men engage in mock battles on the fields surrounding the village exposed only to rain, snow, or sunshine. These scenarios contrast sharply with the chaos and disorder that reigns in Japanese port cities, where Western commerce, technologies, and goods penetrate traditional Japan, and where the juxtaposition of traditional Japanese architecture and Western telegraph lines, as well as the contrast between Japanese dress and western fashion, produce a noticeable degree of visual disharmony. No such disharmony disrupts the rural lifestyle of the Japanese samurai and their peasants. Indeed, the social interactions between the villagers are decidedly harmonious thanks to the benevolent leadership of Katsumoto. A skillful swordfighter, a master of Buddhist philosophy and etiquette, and fluent in the English language, he embodies all that is noble about ancient Japan and ensures that neither his samurai warriors nor his peasant subjects live under the hardships of evil modernity.

The main purpose of this contrast between an idealized and romanticized representation of ancient Japan and the flaws of Western modernity is to alert and sensitize viewers to the adverse effects of globalization, unregulated capitalism, and unbridled free trade on traditional societies and cultures. In addition to this political message, however, Zwick's movie also addresses social issues by reaffirming traditional concepts of femininity and masculinity. For example, Katsumoto's sister, Taka, is the only woman who is featured in the movie, and she is idealized as timid, exotic, and beautiful. Moreover, the movie portrays her exclusively in the role of a good mother to her children, a friendly host to her American guest, a woman in control of her household (but nothing else), and an obedient sister to her elder brother. Taka's idealized femininity serves to emphasize the equally idealized masculinity of the movie's male characters. Unlike Taka, the men are represented as strong, determined, and brave warriors. They lead armies into the battle, talk about politics, protect women from Ninja assassins, and fight, kill, and die in the process.

In addition to promoting these gender roles, The Last Samurai demonstrates how Anglo-Saxon warriors can redeem themselves. Indeed, although the movie idealizes and romanticizes the ancient Japanese culture and portrays Katsumoto and his samurai as important actors in the struggle between Asian tradition and Western modernity, its central plot is the transformation of Algren from anti-hero to superhero. At the beginning of the movie, Algren is portrayed as an alcoholic and a murderer of innocent women and children. From the movie's perspective these misdeeds make Algren an anti-hero who needs to be redeemed. The first phase of this redemptive process occurs over the course of his imprisonment in the Japanese village where he reconnects with traditional cultural virtues and sheds the vices of evil modernity. Thus, Algren evolves from a cultural outsider and prisoner, who neither speaks Japanese nor knows how to fight with a sword, to an ally of the samurai, who masters the Japanese language, handles the sword with proficiency, and protects their leader from Ninja assassins. In the second phase, Algren becomes the co-leader and co-hero by freeing Katsumoto from imprisonment and teaching him about the Spartan battle tactics at Thermopylae that ensure a temporary stalemate against the imperial forces. The process of redemption comes to its conclusion in the aftermath of Katsumoto's death when Algren assumes the leadership of Taka's family as well as the role of the movie's sole surviving superhero.

Thus, in addition to portraying the struggle between the modern and evil West and the traditional and noble Orient, the movie is profoundly concerned with the redemption and transformation of Algren. Here the key message is that the Anglo-Saxon male, although led astray by western modernity, can redeem himself as long as he is willing to reconnect with ancient traditions, rediscover nature, and live by earlier codes of honor and conduct. In this sense, Zwick's movie is less about the last samurai than about the first redeemed Anglo-Saxon warrior.

Arndt : Endnotes

1. Zwick, who also wrote the screenplay for The Last Samurai, is also known for his other works, most notably Defiance (2008), Blood Diamonds (2006), Traffic (2000), The Siege (1998), Courage Under Fire (1996), Legends of the Fall (1994), and Glory (1989).

2. For the background on this period, see Albert M. Craig Choshu (Ch’Sh’) in the Meiji Restoration (New York: Lexington Books, 2000 {1961}).