It is the summer of 1876 – this incredible story begins in San Francisco. Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a disenchanted ex-United States Army captain and an alcoholic. He is traumatized by nightmares of blood-sodden dead bodies on the battlefield from his many experiences of fighting and killing in the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Several years after his army service, Algren starts to make a paltry means of livelihood by relating war stories to gun-show audiences in San Francisco – these tales of the brutality of war and the untold slaughter of innocent men do not help in the improvement of Algren’s deteriorating mental state.
Captain Algren’s American employer soon gets fed up of his chronic drunkenness and fires him from the job. Algren is forced to accept an invitation by his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) to meet a ruthless, Japanese businessman, Mr. Omura (Masato Harada) with the prospect of getting a new job. Algren despises Bagley with all his heart and soul – he blames Bagley for his continuing and terrifying nightmares after his role in massacring many Indians in the Indian Wars.
Bagley offers Algren a job of training fresh, army conscripts of the new Meiji government of Japan to suppress a samurai rebellion that is led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). The samurai – traditional Japanese warriors – were widely opposing Western influences in Japan and unwanted, western infiltrations into their traditional way of life. The samurai begin to conduct an armed revolt against the modernization campaign of the Western Forces in Japan. Despite the painful ironies of crushing yet another tribal rebellion, Algren accepts this job solely for payment of cash – in this way, Algren becomes an unscrupulous mercenary himself. Algren’s old army colleague, Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) and Simon Graham (Timothy Spall) assist him in this new and awesome venture. Simon Graham is a British translator; he intends to write an account of the Japanese culture, centering on the samurai.
Under the command of Bagley, Algren and his companions travel to Tokyo. Japan is in the middle of turmoil and drastic civil change. The new Western-style additions to society are much in opposition to the traditional & conventional Japanese way of Life. Algren is shocked to see that the newly-formed Japanese Army consists of peasants who lack in any kind of combat experience – besides this large failing, the army is poorly-equipped and poorly-trained. Algren tries his best to train the troops for warfare but before the men are trained to his satisfaction, the leader of the insurrection, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), attacks a railroad outside his province. Bagley orders Algren to lead the inexperienced army conscripts (peasants) to battle against Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai forces, in a full-scale war. Algren protests and even publicly demonstrates the army’s inexperience and lack of sufficient army training – but to no avail.
When the regiment arrives at the battlefield, Bagley moves to the rear and orders Algren to do the same, since the Americans are technically non-combatants. Algren refuses to betray his men by moving to the rear of the fray and takes personal command of the regiment. Algren then orders Sergeant Gant to report to the rear as well. However, Gant refuses to so so, out of personal loyalty to Algren.
The fearsome Samurai swarm the wholly unprepared, panic-stricken army and the peasant soldiers flee for their lives – breaking up their secure army formations. Algren and Gant stand their ground and manage to kill several samurai warriors but Gant is soon killed and Algren is thrown from his horse. On foot, he desperately fends off several samurai with a broken spear embroidered with a flag depicting a white tiger. The flag on the spear reminds Katsumoto of a vision he had once experienced, during meditation. Algren kills leading samurai warrior Hirotaro – the brother-in-law of Katsumoto. The red-masked Hirotaro was Gant’s killer. Hirotaro prepares to kill Algren as well but before he can do so, Algren seizes a spear from the ground and stabs Hirotaro through the throat and kills him.
Taken to the samurai village as a prisoner-of-war, Algren’s wounds are treated by Hirotaro’s unwilling and grief-stricken widow, Taka. Katsumoto’s son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) is made responsible, by his father, to see to Algren’s welfare. Over a period of time, Algren manages to recover from his horrifying nightmares of his traumatic past, Algren begins to assimilate himself to life in the peaceful, yet highly disciplined way of life in the Japanese village, although he does not adopt many Japanese customs. This village is located so far up in the treacherous mountains that Algren cannot be expected to escape till the bitter cold of winter passes by and spring arrives.
On the whole, in the village, Algren felt that he was treated with a mild neglect – similar to the treatment given to a stray dog. As time passes by, Algren and Katsumoto become friendly toward each other and each one gains a healthy respect for the other. Algren is made to study swordsmanship under warrior Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada). Later, Algren apologizes to Taka for Hirotaro’s death which she accepts because of the honor of death in battle. Growing closer to her and her children, he later helps defend the village from a night attack by ninja. Algren raises the alarm and then takes up a sword to help the defense. The samurai succeed in defeating the ninjas, but with many needless losses of lives. Though Katsumoto does not confirm it, Algren deduces that the attack was ordered by Omura, in an attempt to assassinate Katsumoto, the samurai leader and hence weaken the samurai position.General
In the spring, Algren is taken back to Tokyo, by Katsumoto, as he had been promised. The Imperial Japanese army has now become better organized with sophisticated American war equipment, including howitzers and Gatling guns. Omura offers Algren command if he reveals information on the rebels. Algren refuses to betray Katsumoto and his samurai tribe. In secret, Omura conspires to have Algren killed if he dares to visit Katsumoto and fore-warn him of Omura’s devious plans.
Katsumoto has always been held in high respect by the young, vulnerable Japanese Emperor but the latter’s control over his people is weak, in the face of the traitorous advice of devious and manipulative ministers, like Omura in the Japanese Court. When Katsumoto refuses to obey the new law to not display swords, he is arrested by the Emperor’s forces, on the instigation of Omura. Algren frees Katsumoto, from captivity, with the assistance of Ujio, Nobutada and Graham. Nobutada, Katsumoto’s son, is severely wounded as they escape, sacrificing himself to slow down the imperial guards. Katsumoto mourns the loss of his young son but receives word that a large Imperial Army led by Omura and Bagley will soon engage them in battle again.
Algren compares their dire predicament to the Battle of Thermopylae in which a small army of 300 Greeks, fought against a much larger, powerful opposing force of 1 million Persians, by using the terrain and the enemy’s overconfidence to their advantage. Algren hopes that a similar tactic would reduce the effectiveness of their enemy’s artillery too. Algren rallies together an army of 500 samurai warriors. On the eve of battle, Algren is presented with a katana (a samurai battle-cloak) – he kisses his true love, Taka and he is made to wear Hirotaro’s red armor, as a symbol of respect to Taka – Hirotara’s widow.
On the battle-field, the samurai fall back, preventing the Imperial army from using its full firepower. As they expect, Omura orders the infantry to advance, straight into their fire trap. The samurai then unleash a rain of arrows as a wave of swordsmen, including Katsumoto and Algren, attack. As a second Imperial infantry wave advances, they are countered by Ujio’s samurai cavalry and this tactic results in many soldiers being killed on both sides, before the Imperial forces retreat.
Realizing that fresh Imperial forces are coming to wage war, the samurai resolve to fight to the death in a final charge. Algren hurls his sword at Bagley, fatally wounding his nemesis, but the samurai are finally cut down by the powerful and deadly Gatling guns. Moved by the sight of the dying samurai, who charged fearlessly despite the Imperial soldiers’ superior firepower, the captain of the Imperial troops (who was originally trained by Algren) orders the Gatling guns to cease fire, even while Omura’s protests to the contrary continued unabated.
Katsumoto, observing Bushido, asks Algren to assist him in performing seppuku. This is seppuku – Algren is requested by his fatally wounded friend to help in killing him in the face of defeat, dishonor and the possible betrayal of his tribe at the hands of the enemy. Algren obeys his friend grudgingly and stabs Katsumoto in the stomach, killing him instantly. In this way, Katsumoto – the last samurai is granted his wish of an honorable death in the face of a crushing defeat. Led by their captain, the Imperial soldiers show their still-lingering respect for the old order and the code of honor of the samurai warriors by kneeling and bowing before the fallen Katsumoto.
Later, the American ambassador prepares to have the Japanese Emperor sign a treaty, but an injured Algren enters and interrupts the proceedings. He offers Katsumoto’s sword to the Emperor – as a dying wish of a truly honorable, honest and courageous man – a man of integrity and compassion named Katsumoto. The Emperor realizes that Japan will need to modernize eventually but that it is vital that the Japanese people never forget their roots, their own history, their distinct cultural identity and their long-held traditions, values and principles.
The grief-stricken Emperor tells the American ambassador that his treaty is not in the best interests of Japan and that he is not prepared to sign it. The American ambassador feels publicly humiliated and outraged at such a show of disrespect to an ambassador of a Western nation. When Omura starts objecting, the Emperor confiscates Omura’s estate and all his fortunes in a fit of rage. When Omura tries to protest against such a tough punishment, the Emperor offers him Katsumoto’s sword, retorting that if the dishonor is too great for Omura to bear, he should commit seppuku (suicide) too. The cowardly Omura merely lowers his head, as a mark of forced respect for the Emperor and walks away- defeated.
Graham was given Algren’s journal to help write a reference book on the samurai culture and their distinct way of life. Graham feels that Algren may have finally found peace in his troubled life after his encounter and stay with the samurai – the samurai warriors who were technically his sworn enemies. The film ends, as Algren returns to the Japanese village and to Taka – the woman who Algren truly loves; Taka is also the woman who has grown to love him, despite many odds against the blossoming of such love. But we all know that love is blind and that true love has the capacity to see perfection beyond many imperfections!
Whoever was responsible for coining the evergreen expression, “Old is Gold,” certainly knew what they were talking about. This wise expression implies an unparalleled and universal truth – our lives are filled with all sorts of changes – whether we choose to accept them or not. Change is an inevitable part of our lives and it is forever variable – things and people may change over a period of time and while some changes are for the best, it is unfortunately not always the case.
With the modernization of the world and in the face of spectacular, contemporary scientific advances, certain people in the world have found all sorts of ways and means to amass a huge fortune for themselves and hence have managed to gain immense power that goes with the acquisition of wealth, fame and prestige. Many such ruthless people have no care about how unscrupulous they’ve been in being able to step into the spotlight and a celebrity status that goes with it. They don’t seem to care about how devious, deceitful, manipulative and traitorous they might have been – abominable vices that have gone into the making of their position of power and status. Jealousy and envy colour their existence – it is widely known, however, that wealth cannot buy you either good health, happiness or peace of mind. A shaky empire that has been constructed, in the shaky foundations of the sands of time – no less! An empire acquired by ill-gotten means is doomed for imminent failure and an immense fall from grace – sooner rather than later. You honestly don’t need to be a ‘rocket scientist’ to know how right this irrevocable fact and truth is!
So, when we say, “Old is Gold,” it implies that Change, in our lives, is unavoidable – change is variable and constantly in flux and on the move. You ought not to fight change EXCEPT if it compromises on your character, values and principles. Despite many changes, one thing is certain – our values, morals and principles ought NEVER to change – no matter what the situation and grave provocation, at hand, might be. Universal Values such as – honor, integrity, honesty, loyalty, basic benevolence, kindness, compassion, empathy and discipline ought NEVER to change. STOP fooling yourself that these virtues are bound to change over a period of time – what a ridiculous line of reasoning! Such an irresponsible attitude displays, nothing less than weak-mindedness and a lack of general discipline, courage and will-power on your part. These virtues are of immense importance in Life and are amply and beautifully-portrayed in the film, “The Last Samurai.”
If you care to think carefully of the philosophy behind this sad, yet immensely touching epic film, you’ll soon realize that ‘the Last Samurai’ is the Japanese Katsumoto of course; but it is also, the American Captain Nathan Algren, to a very large extent.’ The latter responds poistively to the code of honor and integrity of the samurai warlord, Katsumoto – who is technically his sworn enemy. Katsumoto is a kind, honorable, respectful and compassionate man – he admires the courage and integrity displayed by his prisoner-of-war, Algren. Both men are intellectual souls and they share many a delightful, intelligent conversation together. Algren is, at long last, able to find a measure of true peace, love and happiness in the disciplined life of the beautiful samurai village, located high up in the mountains.
Katsumoto teaches Algren how an enemy CAN be treated with kindness and compassion – such is the code of his honor and the nature of his intense integrity. Algren, in turn, never forgets this kindness and compassion – though born and bred as an american soldier of war and technically a mercenary, Algren prefers, in the end, to be loyal and faithful to his one, true friend, Katsumoto and his brave clan of samurai warriors. Algren decides inevitably to side with the samurai warriors against Omura’s Imperial Army led by the ruthless Bagley.
The evergreen message of this film is simply this – your ‘enemy’ is still a human being; he/she has feelings and emotions just like you do; he/she laughs and cries just like you. The moment that you STOP thinking of and treating a person as your enemy, you’ll see how magically all the hidden virtues, in your character, evolve – virtues such as honor, honesty, respect, faithfulness, kindness, consideration, selflessness and compassion Once you CONSCIOUSLY DECIDE to give birth to these immortal virtues, you can be absolutely sure that they will be there to stay with you forever.
William Shakespeare has shared, with us all, a famous quote, on the qualities of mercy and forgiveness, as being “twice blessed”. It is a well-known quote of great value and significance in our daily lives. Similarly, ALL THESE VIRTUES BLESS THE HAND THAT GIVES THEM AND BLESSES THE HAND THAT RECEIVES THEM – you honestly ought NOT to hesitate in sharing them. Live and die like the honorable samurai. THAT, MY DEAR READERS, IS THE ULTIMATE ROAD TO SALVATION!
- THE LAST SAMURAI (2003) You believe a man can change his destiny? (readaboutmovies.com)
- The Last Samurai (kenwinton.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: Samurai: The Last Warrior by John Man (socyberty.com)
- Front Page News: Maybe It’s Time To Cool Off On The Last Samurai Sequels (somethingawful.com)
- For Hundreds of Years, Cherry Blossoms Are Matter of Life and Death (pbs.org)