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The concept of writing and designing a cinematic production that is even loosely based on a real-life period in history can be an extremely difficult task. This kind of production comes with the expectations and responsibility that history should be retold in a respectful manner, taking into account the various cultural and ethnic groups involved as well, especially if the account is being interpreted and retold by an outsider to this history or culture. This essay will be arguing that through the portrayal of the Samurai, distortion of the real Satsuma rebellion, and the hyper-Americanized focus, The Last Samurai (2003) simplifies a very influential and significant period in Japanese history and frames a misleading story of this East-Asian conflict in the viewpoint of a westernized American. The film overall misportrayed and over-romanticized the Samurai warriors and their true motivations as highly traditional warriors, rarely using modern technologies, whereas in reality they too utilized modern weaponry including firearms and their true motivations to rebel against the Meiji government were actually driven by their desire for power in the social hierarchy once again like before.
The film under review; The Last Samurai was produced by Director Edward Zwick and aired in 2003 in Canada. It was shot and filmed in many locations around the world, some including Japan, New Zealand, California. The movie is set in the 1870s and the audience is first introduced to Captain Nathan Algren, a veteran of the American Civil War, who is desperate for work after being traumatized by his experiences in the war. He is eventually hired by Americans who wish to make money off of the Emperor of Japan by training peasants for the official Imperial Army in modern warfare using foreign firearms. The Imperial representative Omura cabinet’s first priority is to subdue a Samurai rebellion, who remain faithful to the ancient and sacred dynasty, but renounce the Westernizing policy, and even supposedly even refuse modern methods of weaponry like firearms. Yet, as Captian Algren leads his ill-prepared modernized force into their first battle, panic ensues and the Samurai warriors easily crush their army. However, Algren’s courageous attitude convinces the samurai leader Katsumoto to spare his life. Once brought back to health, he gradually understands and respects the Samurai way and joins Katsumoto in his attempt to save the Bushido tradition within Japan. Ultimately, within the final battle, Captain Algren chooses to honour his loyalty to his Samurai companions and watches Katsumoto die by his side with true Samurai honour. Eventually, the timid Meiji Emporer dismisses Omura and any help from the Americans in order to restore the way of the Samurai and help Japan understand and embrace its roots.
Firstly, throughout the film, the portrayal of the Samurai, their weapons and clothing were highly inaccurate. The Samurai were completely miss represented as backwards agriculturalists with deep-rooted traditional values. However, in reality, they were quite the opposite as they were the people that put the Meiji emperor on his throne originally and filled a great majority of senior government positions after that. Additionally, most samurai lived in large urban areas, though extremely low-ranking Satsuma samurai were some of the few who lived in the countryside and also farmed. Even then, almost nobody lived in the mountains if they had the choice. Another major difference within the movie regarding the portrayal of the Samurai was through their clothing and amour. The armour which they wore during battles in the movie is quite impressive and showy; as it creates an impressive sight that contributes to the later battle against the unprepared Imperial army and a later scene between Algren and Taka putting armour on. In actuality, the Samurai armour had been discarded simply because it failed to protect against industrial bullets. Saigo Takamori; the real-life leader Katsumoto’s character is based on, actually wore his Imperial officer’s uniform for a number of the combats of the rebellion.
Secondly, there was a great distortion of the real-life Satsuma rebellion that happened within history, the true motivations of the Samurai and the overall Meiji restoration movement in the film. For starters, in reality, during the Meiji reform movement, the Japanese army mimicked its own army not from the Americans but actually from the French and Prussian armies as they were number one at the time. Additionally, the film simplified both the Satsuma rebellion and the Meiji restoration as in historical actuality, many Meiji policy advisors were former samurai, who had willingly given up their ancestral privileges to follow a direction they believed would strengthen Japan as a nation. Conclusively, many samurai fought Meiji modernization, not for altruistic reasons like portrayed in the film, but because it challenged their standing as the privileged warrior class. An extremely important detail the film failed to mention was the samurai’s belief in their moral superiority as a group, their unwillingness to abandon the privilege of offering service to their nation, and their attachment to the past exceeded participation in the political and technological development of Meiji Japan. Lastly, the movie failed to clearly differentiate between the individual samurai clan and the actual samurai class. This was a very significant detail as the majority of Japan ‘s ruling elites- the modern Japanese who were portrayed as the villains and antagonists in the film, were also originally samurai, who made the decision to reject their own aristocratic privileges. A great number of samurai did not resist or rebel and were actually relieved to be discharged from the many samurai restrictions.
Finally, overall the film was greatly influenced by the American perspective and there seemed to be a biased version of the story being told from the Westerner’s point of view. The first distinction is that the main antagonist of the film; Representative Omura’s villainy is revealed in terms of his Americanization: He smokes a cigar, wears a waistcoat, acts like a capitalist and the viewers are expected to respond to him as representing the intrinsically wrong path for Japan, while the old, traditional ways are sentimentalized as superior. Additionally, at the time the movie was set in, and during the real-life Satsuma rebellion, the United States was not considered a strong world power. The US spent a great amount of time after it’s emergence harvesting and exploiting resources like cotton around the globe. This film took place during a period where America would not even be able to land troops in Japan or even wage any sort of armed conflict. As Tomomi Katsuta of Mainichi Shinbun Newspaper commented, “Overall, the film may not be a story of the samurai based on complete historical truth; it is rather a story of an ‘Americanized’ or idealized version of the samurai, a story of a utopia to Americans.’
In conclusion, this essay has proven that through the depiction of the Samurai warriors, misrepresentation of the original Satsuma rebellion, and the hyper-Americanized theme throughout, The Last Samurai interprets a very notable and prominent time in Japanese history and tells a misleading account of this struggle in the biased viewpoint of a westernized American. This distortion of history can be an issue even if it was portrayed in a feature film and not specifically meant to be a direct retelling of the events because there should be the proper respect paid towards this part of history, to the people who were affected and for future generations, movies and other forms of accessible media will be their primary source of information, therefore it is important to maintain accuracy at least regarding historically based films for the future.
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