Think of The Last Samurai as Braveheart in Japan, and you'll be close to grasping what brand of war epic this movie is. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Nathan Algren isn't the same man he was before donning his first uniform what seems to him to be centuries ago. It's 1876, and ever since the civil war ended, he's been fighting Indians in the wild west. Now, he's been reduced to hawking Winchester firearms for $25 a week, and he's just about wrung dry. Whiskey is his only comfort, the only thing that can keep him from reliving all the horrific things he's done in the name of war.
On this brink of giving up and dropping out, he's presented with an offer to help train Japan's burgeoning army in the art of modern weaponry. With nothing better to do, he takes the job.
Fighting down the visions of carnage that keep flashing through his tortured mind, he throws himself into his work, teaching Japanese conscripts and peasants how to fight like Americans. Then, thrown too early into a battle with rebel samurai warriors, he's captured and brought to a small village high in the mountains as a prisoner of war. Impressed by his fighting skills, the samurai leader, Katsumoto, spares his life hoping to better "know his enemy."
In Bob Smithouser's review of Braveheart, he wrote, "Fighting for one’s noble convictions—indeed, a willingness to die for them—is central to this 3-hour saga." Change "3-hour saga" to "2 1/2-hour saga" and it's a statement that works equally well for The Last Samurai. Not enough back story is presented in the film to fully discern whether or not the samurai way of life is one worth dying for (history would seem to indicate otherwise; read my "Conclusion" for more on that), but within this film's context it is one of honor, respect, humility and servant-leadership.
When Nathan is captured by Katsumoto's men, he's nursed back to health by a village family, even though it is known that during the course of the battle, he killed his hostess' husband. Faithfully doing her duty within the confines of her culture, she obeys her brother (Katsumoto) when he tells her to care for "The American." Her humble, self-sacrificial behavior is not lost on Nathan, who finds himself inspired to become a better man because of it. He overcomes alcoholism and despair, settles on a new cause commit to and a new people to protect. (I should note that it could be argued, if the plot were turned 12 degrees to the right, that Nathan would be construed a traitor and deserter, not a hero.) He ultimately apologizes for having taken Taka's husband from her; an apology graciously accepted ("He did his duty. You did your duty. I accept your apology").
The samurai warriors value honor above all, even life itself. That code of Bushido behavior is rooted in Japanese military tradition ... and religious belief. And those beliefs are preached loud and clear in The Last Samurai. Issues of karma, destiny and faith are all raised (and isolated scenes show the Japanese participating in religious rituals), but it's the idea that perfection is only found in death (especially: death without Christ) that proves most troubling here. [Spoiler Warning] Katsumoto commits hara-kiri, and with his dying breath, speaks of finally achieving and experiencing the perfection he's longed for his entire life. Nathan, who is present at the time, doesn't stop him (in fact he assists), and it's implied that because it's a cultural institution, it is Nathan's obligation not to interfere.
It's said that a samurai's sword is his soul. And the Emperor is referred to as a "living god." As for the other spiritual elements in the movie, I'll let Nathan's words speak for themselves: "What I have seen on the field of battle has led me to question God's purpose, but there is indeed something spiritual in this place [the samurai village]. And though it may forever be obscure to me, I cannot but be aware of its power."
While Nathan lives with the samurai, he slowly comes to admire and possibly even love a woman there. But instead of showing the two falling into bed for a 21st century-style unwed romp, the script treats their growing affection with the decorum the culture surrounding them requires. The two briefly kiss, and a tender scene shows her lovingly dressing him for battle. Elsewhere, in Toyko at the Emperor's palace, a partially nude statue is seen.
One hardly expects a movie titled The Last Samurai to be violence-free. And, indeed, the fighting is fierce and prolonged. But the depictions of it are more restrained than I expected. Many sequences are virtually bloodless, while in others the blood and gore are seen either quickly, from distances or in low light. In other words, physical choreography many times trumps the inevitable gore it produces.
Don't think that means this movie is low-intensity, though. While the camera sometimes ducks away from the actual impact, watching men's heads being lopped from their bodies is no small thing. Nor is absorbing the brutality of men being run through with swords, or getting stabbed with knives, riddled with bullets or stuck full of arrows. Heavy gunfire mows down scores of soldiers, and splatters of blood accompany the bullets' force. A man's neck is broken. Another takes a bullet to the face. Hand-to-hand swordplay leaves countless dead and dying.
Frequent flashback images show Nathan's participation in a massacre of an Indian village in America. In those scenes (and in Japan), bodies are seen burning, and blood spurts from arrow wounds and bullet holes. (Women and children are killed along with those we would today call "legal combatants.") In Japan, Nathan orders a young soldier to load his rifle and shoot at him. While the trembling and flustered man attempts to follow his order, Nathan empties his pistol in his general vicinity to further rattle him. (He does this to prove the men aren't ready for battle yet, but the seconds that tick by during the "experiment" are intense.)
Men are seen committing hara-kiri. Nathan gives a graphic description of how Indians scalp their enemies.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Cigars and cigarettes makes infrequent appearances. Nathan is an alcoholic who uses liquor to quiet inner demons. Several times he is seen drunk. While recovering from his battle wounds in the samurai village, he begs for sake to soothe his mind and body. Later, finding strength and inner peace with the samurai, he abstains. The filmmakers intentionally use his relationship with alcohol as a gauge for how his soul is doing. The less conflicted he is, the less he drinks.
Inasmuch as The Last Samurai elevates courage and selflessness, it is a grand, well-conceived and well-executed movie. "Tell me how he died," the Emperor says to Nathan. "I will tell you how he lived," Nathan replies. Fighting for what one believes in is indeed a noble venture. "For God and country!" makes great cinema and comes from a good place. But Nathan is in a predicament. He's disappointed in God, and he's disgusted by his country. So he's got to find something else he deems worthy of his skills and passions. That something is the samurai. In "Positive Elements" I dealt with Nathan's "nobility" within the framework of the film he's presented in. And in that context, he's mostly justified in his actions. But there's a bigger, real-world picture that's not taken into consideration in the movie. Put simply, The Last Samurai slices and dices history to suit its own story needs.
Onscreen, the samurai are "strong and courageous warriors, schooled with swords." In real life (says National Geographic's Stefan Lovgren), they were an "elitist and (for two centuries) idle class that spent more time drinking and gambling than cutting down enemies on the battlefield." That doesn't faze director Edward Zwick. "It's as important to celebrate what's poetic and idealized as it is to understand the reality," he said. "We're inspired by the mythologizing of the samurai as heroes." It wouldn't faze me much either, if I wasn't so afraid most Americans won't bother to double-check. Knowing something is revisionist history is half the battle in my mind; innocently swallowing it hook, line and sinker just makes us suckers for Hollywood half-truths.
So, once families understand that this is a violent war movie unsuitable for all children and most teens, there are still two rather large points to be made. The first is to "trust no one" when it comes to big screen depictions of historical events. The second is that one cannot randomly select a compelling cause, campaign or religion because it seems exciting or satisfying, and then call the support or pursuit of that thing "positive" just because one is fervent and sincere. The Last Samurai teaches that that is exactly what one is to do.