You are in Japan around the year 1870. You are living in the early years of the Meiji Restoration, sometimes referred to as the Honorable Restoration. And if you ever thought of an unprecedented era, this was truly such an example, for most, if not all Japanese. Japan rapidly modernized and industrialized and, in the process, was ‘forced’ to adopt, among the new production methods, Western ideas and values.
For a proud nation as Japan is, leaving the indigenous Japanese ‘spirit’ or cultural values behind seemed too high of a price to pay. When the whole political and social fabric of Japanese society went to an overhaul after the introduction of the new way of life, a rebellion should have surprised no one. Thus, if you were Saigō Takamori or one of the other 15,000 samurai that joined him, the Satsuma rebellion was the only choice.
This is the spirit of the time where The Last Samurai is set, with Saigō Takamori (Moritsugu Katsumoto in the movie) and the Satsuma rebellion being the inspiration. Japan needs the West to transform the military into a capable force. Not only to fight the rebelling samurai but the same colonial western powers that wreaked havoc in East and Southeast Asia. What better way, then, than simply importing not just Western technology but Western military experts as well. For that reason, they employ Nathan Algren, an American Civil War captain and an Indian Wars veteran. Having seen so much unnecessary, unjustified bloodshed, whiskey is Algren’s best friend. His worst enemy – the constant nightmares that haunt him. We see here just one of the many unseen costs of wars and foreign interventions, with a life-long burden placed on one’s own soldiers.
Nonetheless, Algren trains the imperial army, and soon enough is forced to lead them into battle. But training takes time and leading an army into battle composed of until recently used-to-be peasants who cannot reload a gun properly means leading an army to the slaughter. And when the battle comes and slaughter unfolds, Algren stays and fights. For a man whose dreams are haunted by his past, living or dying makes no difference. Defeated, he continues to fight until there is no strength left in his body to stand up. His bravery shown on the battlefield earns him Katsumoto’s respect, and in turn, earns him his life in captivity.
Forced to live with the samurai he has to learn the Samurai way. Here we are introduced to the samurai in a romantic fashion, very much akin to Europe’s medieval knight or the American cowboy of the Wild West; a warrior class imbued in the bushido code of honor, virtue, and character. For a foreigner living today, with all the information at hand, it is still hard to grasp the samurai way, let alone live it. For a Civil War and an Indian War veteran, this seems like an impossible task.
Yet, Algren learns. Samurai means to serve and Katsumoto “believes the rebellion to be in the service of the emperor.” He learns that “the ancient and the modern are at war for the soul of Јapan.” He sees unusual and intriguing people who “devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue,” dedicated to a set of moral principles. At the same time, in his own words, “there is so much here that I will never understand.” For Katsumoto did, “If the Emperor wishes my death, he has but to ask.” How can one be so disciplined? How can one live like him a “life in every breath?”
The time spent with the Samurai changes Algren. He assimilates into the culture, finding peace in the process. Furthermore, he proves himself fighting alongside his new brethren when the village is attacked by ninjas. When the time comes for the samurai to leave the village, Algren receives back his freedom and his possessions out of respect for his service.
Once again, Algren is a free man. But when he understands that the emperor wants to get rid of Katsumoto and rid Japan of the Samurai rebellion in the name of progress, he chooses to “throw his freedom away” and liberate Katsumoto. Thus, he joins the samurai in the unwinnable battle, for the honor of Japan.
There is a certain romanticism in the movie which can’t escape the audience. It is a romanticism that still dominates so much political thinking of our own day, one in which we fondly look back on the ‘good ol’ days,’ and are reacting somewhat allergically to new changes, not even giving progress a chance. This reaction by many of us, and of the Samurai, is in many ways understandable, even partly praiseworthy. It is great if we feel attached to our past, to our ancestors, and to our ways of life and traditions and customs. Cherishing these is one in which we probably all find ourselves at many points in our life. And, as The Last Samurai shows, it often makes us stand up for greater principles than our own individual life: for one’s country and fellow people, for example.
Indeed, the older you are, chances are, the more sense Saigo’s rebellion will make to you. However, we need to be careful lest we ignore the good things that change and progress bring – and that the status quo is often problematic in its own right. The Samurai, for example, would find in Japan a military dictatorship if they were to take a more sober look – and they would find many opportunities for betterment in modernization and industrialization. We as well should not only look at the costs of change but even more so of the massive advancement.
Like the samurai, we should not ”forget who we are or where we come from.” But that does not mean that we need to be stuck in time and dare not to move forward. In an open field, the better swordsman will prevail. When ideas, as radical as modernity is to the old, battle in an open field of inquiry, the better one will prevail. But that doesn’t necessarily have to mean the ‘death’ to the defeated idea. The old and the new can move together.
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