First, a bit of history.
In feudalist Japan, Emperor was just a figurehead. Real political power was held by a powerful Samurai titled “Shogun”. In 1868 the Shogun was Tokugawa Yoshinobu of the Tokugawa clan. But due to half a century of foreign influence, Shogun’s power was on the decline and Japanese economy was in ruins. Other samurai, notably Satsuma, Tosa and Choshu clans, correctly recognized that it was necessary to resist the foreign influence and Shogun was clearly too weak to do so. So they rose up in rebellion against the Shogun to put the emperor in power. Their slogan was “Sonno Joi” (Revere the Emperor; Expel the Barbarians). This is called the “Boshin War”.
Boshin War ended in 1869 with the Shogun’s defeat and Meiji Emperor was put in power. The emperor and his advisors made sweeping reforms in political system, economy and military. A new ruling class emerged in Tokyo, and the traditional power of the Samurai was reduced.
In 1877, a key ally of the Emperor during the Boshin War, Satsuma Clan, rose up in rebellion against the reforms, which they saw as too fast. Also the leader of the Satsuma Clan, Saigo Takamori was worried about the corruption in the new government. This is called the “Satsuma Rebellion”.
The rebellion was crushed, and Saigo Takamori was killed in battle. The movie Last Samurai is loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion and the character Katsumoto Moritsugu is loosely based on Saigo Takamori.
1. Creation myth of Japan
First lines of the movie. Literally the first lines of the movie are “They say Japan was made by a sword. They say the old gods dipped a coral blade into the ocean and when they pulled it out, four perfect drops fell back into the sea and those drops became the islands of Japan.”
Except it was not a sword. It was a spear. A God named Izanagi churned the sea with his spear - named “Amenonuhoko” (literally means “Heavenly Jeweled Spear “) - and the drops of salty water which fell from the tip became the Japanese Islands.
In Japanese art, the spear in question is traditionally depicted as a Naginata, a traditional Japanese weapon. Which is a spear with a huge-ass blade at the end.
2. Captain Algren’s performance on stage
We see Captain Nathen Algren, a veteran of the Indian Wars, performing for the Winchester Company. He is clearly depressed and very drunk. Then his boss, Mr. McCabe, gives him a rifle and puts him in front of a large crowd. After telling him that he is fired. Because when you are going to do a stupid thing why half-ass it?
Yet, when he starts to say shit that is not in the script and load his rifle, Mr. McCabe seems to be very surprised. What the hell he thought that was going happen? The fact that nobody gets hurt can only be called a miracle.
3. Meeting with Mr. Omura
Then we see a meeting in a fancy restaurant with Captain Algren’s former commander, Colonel Bagley, and two Japanese gentlemen. One of which is Mr. Omura, who as we see later, is the Chief Advisor to the Emperor and for all practical purposes runs the country for him. They are to discuss the terms of a military mission.
No matter how fancy the restaurant is, it is insane to think that anyone would discuss such important matters within the earshot of the general public. And it is utterly insane to think that Mr. Omura, the most powerful man in Japan, would take a break from running the country in the middle of a fucking rebellion, to come to America to hold a job interview. Doesn’t Japan have any diplomats?
Somehow Algren gets the job, despite clearly acting like a fucking lunatic in front of the Japanese delegation and making a death threat on his superior officer.
4. Japan 101 by Mr. Simon Graham
When Captain Algren and his buddy Sergeant Grant arrive in Yokohoma, an Engishman, Mr. Simon Graham, who is living in Japan as a translator, greets him and as they proceed through the streets of Yokohama, he gives them an introduction about Japan.
Apparently he is no stranger to Japan, since he speaks Japanese fluently, yet some of the things he say are grossly inaccurate.
“The Emperor is mad for all things Western”
Meiji Emperor was not “mad for all things Western”. The reforms he made were strictly out of necessity. Japan was clearly lagging behind the West in technology; therefore the reforms were aimed at absorbing Western technology to preserve their independence. It was not an “everything Western is cool” kind of a thing. Japanese at this time considered (they still do, for the record) they were morally superior to the West.
“Lawyers from France, engineers from Germany, architects from Holland and warriors from America”
In 1876, America was not the place you would go to find military advisors. German army and British navy were considered the best in the world. Accordingly Japan bought advisors from Germany and France to train their army and advisors from Britain and Holland to train their navy. No American military advisors ever came to Japan.
Also, it was not the Emperor who first bought military advisors from West. Shogun did that long before him. The first Western military mission in Japan was from Holland in 1855.
5. Meeting with the Emperor
Then Captain Algren and Colonel Bagley with Mr. Graham go to the imperial palace to meet the emperor in person.
It was very difficult for anyone to meet the emperor in person expect for his closest advisors. Emperor was considered a living God and he was not to be bothered by common people. Even Mr. Graham states this as they climb up the steps of the palace. Yet two foreign army officers are able to do so within days of their arrival. With their weapons. And one of them is clearly mentally unstable. Mr. Omura, you are a terrible, terrible advisor.
Also, it is not clear why Captian Algren is not wearing his Medal of Honor at this highly prestigious occasion.
6. Training the Japanese army
We see Captain Algren training the Japanese army. Bafflingly he is training the privates, and “most of them haven’t even seen a gun”. There is so many things wrong with this. Firstly, military advisors do not train privates. They are expected to train the officers, and training the privates was the officer’s duty.
Secondly, at this point of time, Japanese military was very much familiar with fire arms. Japanese armies started using firearms around 1543, more than 200 years ago at the time of the events of the movie is taking place. There were enough Japanese officers who were capable of handling a gun, so Captain Algren could concentrate on teaching military tactics and leave the shooting range training to the locals.
7. Katsumoto’s weapons and armor
It is stated that the rebel leader Katsumoto “no longer dishonor himself by using firearms”.
Unless Katsumoto is a fucking idiot, he would use firearms. His real life counterpart Saigo Takamori surely did in his rebellion. Some of the Satsuma troops were armed with Enfield rifles. They even had artillery. True, imperial troops had more firearms than the rebels, but that was because they could afford it. Not because Takamori didn’t want to “dishonor himself”.
No Samurai at that time was opposed to using firearms, because firearms are very effective weapons. And of course Samurai were not a bunch of lunatics who rejected technology. They were practical warriors who armed themselves with the best weapons they could get. And they were using firearms for more than 200 years at that point. Samurai rebelled against the Emperor because his reforms were hurting their power, and because the new government was corrupted. Not because the Emperor introduced new technology to Japan.
|Painting of a battle during the Satsuma Rebellion|
Here we see Takamori’s forces (right) fighting the imperial troops (left) with guns. The figure in black uniform of a Western officer in the upper right corner is Takamori. Also note the lack of armor on the rebel soldiers.
8. Marching against the rebels
Then we learn that fortunately for Katsumoto, Colonel Bagley is also a fucking idiot. Shocking, since he was hired as a military advisor for his tactical knowledge.
He is ordering the regiment that Captain Algren was training, into battle when clearly they can’t shoot for shit. Not a single one of them. Colonel Bagley says that “you have superior firepower and a larger force”. What firepower Colonel, your soldiers can not shoot.
Also it begs the questions, is this the only regiment in the imperial army? Are there no other troops who can use a rifle? Are there no troops who can use traditional weapons? Why do they have to use this regiment who are still in the boot camp? Why Colonel Bagley, why?
Not surprisingly they get massacred by Katsumoto’s rebels.
9. The battle
Then we are in the battle. As the troops lines up in battle formation, General Hasegawa, like some kind of an asshole, suddenly decides he will not fight against Katumoto, totally abandoning the entire army to the mercy of the rebels.
The only other Japanese officer we see is a young Lieutenant. The whole regiment has a General and a Lieutenant and that’s it. Perhaps the reason Captain Algren has to train the privates himself is that there are no officers to train in the imperial Japanese army. What the fuck Japan?
10. Samurai’s hair
We meet the rebel leader Katsumoto for the first time. And his head is shaved!
For such a high ranking samurai, a one who is fighting for traditional value, not to have a top knot is unthinkable. The top knot is an essential part of a samurai’s identity. This is depicted correctly later in the film when the soldiers cut off the top knot of his son, Nobutada.
Many of Katsumoto’s men also does not wear a top knot.
|Samurai of the Satsuma Clan during the Boshin War|
Here we see a photograph of samurai during the era. Note how everyone is wearing a top knot. Also note that the samurai are not as glamorous as the ones in the movie.
11. Algren wounded
Captain Algren is wounded in battle, and Katsumoto knows just the person to nurse him back to health. His sister, Taka, who is also the wife of a guy Algren killed in the battle, Hirotaro. Because Katsumoto is a psychopath.
When we see her sewing up his wounds, Katsumoto is still in his battle armor. She is forced to take care of her husband’s killer literally within hours of the news of her husband’s death. Even after Algren recovers, he keeps living in Taka’s house. She is clearly depressed by the fact that the killer of her husband is living in her house. She even asks permission from Katsumoto to commit suicide. Katsumoto’s answer is to sternly tell her that “you will so as you are told”. Because it’s just some kind of a sick social experiment for Katsumoto and he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about his sister’s metal health.
Are there no professional doctors who can treat wounded soldiers in your army Katsumoto, you sick son of a bitch?
12. Committing suicide
While Algren is being treated, Ujio, Katsumoto’s second in command, suggests that “since Algren is shamed in battle, he should commit suicide”. Despite what Ujio tells you, Samurai did not commit suicide every time they lost a battle. If that was true, there would be no samurai left after a while. A Samurai committed suicide if he was disgraced, and samurai did not consider losing a battle as a disgrace. Because, again, samurai were not a bunch of suicidal maniacs. They were practical warriors, who knew that losing a battle is very normal and acceptable as long as you fought with courage. On the other hand, General Hasegawa committing suicide earlier is accurate, because he did not fight and abandoned his troops in the battle.
13. Swordfight in the rain
Then we see Hirotaro’s son and another kid play with wooden swords in the rain, as kids do. Then we see Algren, Nobutada and the guy who is guarding Algren is taking a casual walk in the rain. Soon rain starts to pour down, and there is also thunder. Then we see Ujio and three other samurai taking a casual walk in the rain. Does everybody in this village like to take casual walks in the rain? In the winter? Are they stupid or something? Or did samurai though umbrellas are for pussies?
14. Algren in the village
Captain Algren continues to live in the village. He becomes a fucking demi-God in swordsmanship in just less than 6 months. He wins the trust of Katsumoto, and in turn impressed by Samurai and Japanese culture in general.
When he tries to help Taka carry a rice basket he is told “Japanese men do not do help with this”. Apparently because all Japanese men are assholes who are too good for simple tasks around the house. Also baffling is the fact that Taka, the sister of a high ranking samurai who was emperor’s teacher, cannot afford a servant in her home.
Soon Taka and Algren falls in love with each other. Maybe because unlike Hirotaro, Algren actually cares enough to help Taka around the house. Serves you right Hirotaro, you fucking asshole.
Then ninjas attack. Fucking ninjas. An army of fucking ninjas tries to attack the village and kill Katsumoto. And they are all dressed in “ninja uniforms”.
Ninjas did not wear back “uniforms”. If you can be identified the moment you are seen, you are not a very good stealthy assassin are you? Ninjas did not wear uniforms. They wore everyday cloths to blend in as stealthy assassins would do. The “uniform” is a stage costume used in dramas to convey the message to the audience that ninjas were invisible.
Also, ninjas did not attack in armies.
Samurai kill them all. It does not occur to anyone that if they caught one alive and maybe got a confession out of him, Mr. Omura would be shamed and, the cause of the samurai would look good in the eyes of the emperor.
16. Algren gets a new sword
Then the imperial army comes to the village to attack the rebels. As they are camping nearby, samurai prepares for battle. It is shown that they are making a brand new sword for Algren.
It takes several weeks to construct a katana. It is a very complicated process. Are we to understand that the imperial army camps near the village for weeks without attacking? Or the sword smiths in this village are wizards?
17. Algren gets a new armor
As Algren starts to dress up for the battle, Taka gives him the armor of her dead husband to wear. A high ranking samurai’s armor is a sacred item. Some are kept in display even today. It is highly insulting for the dead samurai if another one wears his armor. It is unthinkable that the “another one” in this occasion is a foreigner. It is insane that the foreigner in question is the guy who killed him.
If Taka did this, that would be a huge scandal.
18. Final battle
Commanders from each side meet before the battle.
Katsumoto and Algren come from the rebel side. No Ujio. No other high ranking samurai from the Katsumoto’s military council. Just the foreign guy who joined them 6 months ago.
Colonel Bagley, Mr. Omura and that young Lieutenant we saw earlier come from the imperial side. Apparently Mr. Omura is a general now. And the only other Japanese officer is a young lieutenant. Japanese imperial army has howitzers and Gatling guns now. But they only have one officer. What the fuck Japan?
Then Mr. Omura let his army walk right into the trap set by the rebels. Twice. Even when Colonel Bagley warns him. This is understandable because Mr. Omura is not a general. But is there no other commander to lead the imperial army? A samurai who is not completely unfamiliar with military tactics?
Battle tactics of the imperial army is baffling. First they march until the samurai are within the range of their rifles. Then they fire two volleys. Then instead of reloading and resume fire, they just walk towards the samurai lines, like a horde of zombies, and get promptly massacred.
Then the samurai attack the remainder of the imperial army on horseback. They charge through a barrage of artillery fire and a line of infantry only to be massacred by the Gatling guns. The question remains what would have happened if they tried a flanking attack instead of a frontal attack. I guess we will never know.
Everyone dies except of course Captain Algren and Katsumoto. How they manage to perform this miracle is unclear. Katsumoto performs Seppuku in the middle of the field.
19. Final meeting with the Emperor
Then as the Emperor is about to sign a treaty with the government of America, Captain Algren shows up at his chambers. How he managed to do this without alarming Mr. Omura’s men is unclear. Also unclear is the fact that why Mr. Omura didn’t kill him after the battle. Maybe because Mr. Omura is also a fucking idiot like everyone else.
If he came on the invitation of the emperor, why the Emporer received him in the middle of a diplomatic negotiation? If he came unannounced, why did the guards let him proceed this far?
20. The end
“As for the American Captain, no one knows what became of him. Some say that he died of his wounds. Others that he returned to his own country”
Of course he went back to the village and banged the hot chick. He is the hero of the movie. What were you thinking Mr. Graham?