The Last Samurai Essay

Speaking of modern world, one should be very well aware of the fact the terms ‘morale’ and ‘ethics’ do not apply to it. At the same time, under the historical, political, economic, and social circumstances individualism and conscience have become a measure of all things. Thus, it is possible to assume that the principle claiming that a man is a measure of all things is one of the very few that come true. All things considered that mankind has lost a sense of harmony, presumably, in the course of its alienation from nature. As a result, deep philosophical and ethical-aesthetical crisis is a background of our time, in which, though, a plenty of masterpieces are created. 


On the other hand, speaking of modern art, one should be very well aware of the fact that the terms ‘ethical’/’unethical’ don’t apply to it either. China, Japan, India, and the Arabic World were always viewed as something unique. European, American, and Asian worlds met when the need of reconsidering the basic moral principles started to assert itself more and more vividly. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, directed by Jim Jarmusch, and The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick, can be viewed as the examples of the works of art exploring the virtues and cultural diversity, the latter being put into specific (part real, part fictional) historical context. The Last Samurai addresses the sense of duty, honor, dignity, and wisdom as the defining virtues prior to significant historical events and their driving forces. Thus, as the work of art, it is interesting in terms in terms of socio-cultural, ethnological, and philosophical analysis.  

The Last Samurai is a 2003 film directed by Edward Zwick. The movie stars, among the others, Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, Billy Connolly as Zebulon Gant, Tony Goldwyn as Colonel Bagley, Masato Harada as Omura, Timothy Spall as Simon Graham, and Shichinosuke Nakamura as the Emperor Meiji (“The Last Samurai (2003)”). The movie is based on the novel of the same name by John Logan. The script of the movie was written by John Logan, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz (“The Last Samurai (2003)”). John Toll is acknowledged as the director of photography. The film is accompanied by the fascinating music by Hans Zimmer. The film begins with a beautiful legend about the foundation of Japan. The legend, according to the film, goes as follows:

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” (The Last Samurai). 

The narrator voice, though, continues: “I say, Japan was made by a handful of brave men. Warriors, willing to give their lives for what seems to have become a forgotten word: honor” (The Last Samurai). The film tells the story of the American soldier, Nathan Algren, who is hired to suppress a rebellion in Japan in the years 1876-1877. Main themes and motives of the film accord with Bushido, a samurai code of conduct. That is to say, the work of art under analysis contemplates honor, dignity, duty, loyalty, compassion, and courtesy as the key moral principles of a samurai warrior.

Literally, the word ‘samurai’ originally meant ‘the one who serves’. Specifically, the term referred to the men of a noble birth assigned to guard the members of the Japanese Imperial Court (Clark). With the coming of the Age of War the meaning of the term ‘samurai’ has shifted considerably. At that time, the term was used to signify government officials, officers, whose duty was to keep peace, and professional soldiers (Clark). Loyalty towards a person a warrior serves is one of the main characteristic features of being a samurai. Loyalty, in this regard, is claimed one of the main concepts of Bushido, “the unwritten code of chivalrous behavior” (Clark). The term ‘Bushido’ literally means “precepts of knighthood” or “way of the warrior” (Clark). Nitobe Inazo in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan is reflecting upon the eight main principles, up to which a samurai must lead his own life, among which justice/rectitude is one of the most important (Clark).

“Rectitude is one’s power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right” (as quoted in Clark). On the other hand, metaphorically, rectitude can be termed as “the bone that gives firmness and stature” (as quoted in Clark). Strict moral principles are the attributes of a samurai warrior. The principles of justice/rectitude are the defining behavioral imperatives of Katsumoto, a fictional samurai leader in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai. 

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Nathan Algren, one of the main characters of Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, a professional and experienced soldier, is haunted by the visions from his past, when he fought against the Indian tribes. Katsumoto is impressed by the courage Algren showed in the battle against the samurai troopers. When Nathan Algren, the enemy of the rebelling samurai, is taken prisoner, Katsumoto commands to spare the life of the outlander and treats him with proper dignity and respect. Nathan Algren is taken to the village ruled by Nobutada, the son of Katsumoto. Katsumoto’s sister assigned to take care of him, and few samurai warriors assigned to protect and train him. It is particularly remarkable that in one of his conversations with Nathan Algren Katsumoto himself is referring to Bushido code.  The film goes as follows: -“There is life in every breath…” – “That is, Bushido” (The Last Samurai). Understanding life as a sacred gift is one of the possible ways to explain this quotation.

There are few episodes in The Last Samurai film dealing with the concept of rectitude and the samurai perception of human life and death with dignity. First of all, it is when Katsumoto explains Algren the motives of executional of General Hasegava, who was a samurai once, but made a choice to be recruited to the Emperor’s regular army. Katsumoto claims: “General Hasegawa asked me to help him end his life. A samurai cannot stand the shame of defeat” (The Last Samurai). 

Next, Natahan Algren learns that a warrior in the red armor whom he killed in the battle was Katsumoto’s brother-in-law, a husband to his sister Taka. Taka, in her turn, is charged with the responsibility to heal and take care of Algren. Commenting on the death of his relative, Katsumoto asserts: “It was a good death” (The Last Samurai). 

One evening the village where samurai warriors led by Katsumoto reside is under attack. When Algren inquires about who might wish Katsumoto’s death, an Emperor or his guileful counselor Omura, Katsumoto replies: “If The Emperor wishes my death, he has but to ask” (The Last Samurai). Katsumoto believes that rebellion is the only possible way he can serve the Emperor. On the other hand, when it is made clear that the Emperor Meiji is seeking Katsumoto’s counsel, the young sovereign is deceived by the members of his Court and Minister Omura in particular. 

Having learned the samurai traditions, as well as the insidiousness of human nature, it occurred to Algren, that Katsumoto will be urged to take his own life. Thus, Algren decides to repay Katsumoto by saving him. It happened so that Nobutada was badly wounded. Nobutada’s last will is to battle against enemies and to cover his father’s and associates’ retreat. All things considered, fighting side by side with the samurai warriors against the Okamura’s mercenaries and saving Katsumoto’s life are by all means Algren’s acts of honor and courage. 

Bushido is claimed to differentiate between courage and bravery. Courage, according to the code, is virtuous only when it goes hand in hand with Righteousness and Rectitude (The Last Samurai). Courage, in this regard, is synonymous to “doing what is right” (The Last Samurai). Respect of other people’s honor and dignity, fear of shame and defeat, abnegation, courage to take the responsibility for the lives spared and taken can be viewed as another important aspect of the life of a samurai warrior. Once Nathan Algren asks Katsumoto: “What do you want from me?”; Katsumoto inquired in response: “What do you want for yourself?” (The Last Samurai). This particular episode addresses the issue of choosing one’s own way, living and acting in terms of one’s own moral principles in a sense that each of these requires and presupposes a great deal of obedience and responsibility.

Considering the problem of courage and bravery in the work of art under summarization, it is important to pay careful attention to the following episodes. First of all, it is a conversation that took place between Katsumoto and Nathan Algren. Katsumoto expressed his admiration for lieutenant colonel Custer, who took a single battalion of two hundred and eleven people and took battle against two thousands Indians. Algren objected, stating that Custer was “arrogant and foolhardy”, “in love with his own legend”, and that his troopers died for it, which was unfair and imprudent (The Last Samurai). Katsumoto asserted that it would be a privilege for him to die on the battlefield. Algren assumed that someday death may find Katsumoto the way he himself finds most glorious, the one that suited to a warrior at its best (The Last Samurai). When the final battle of samurai warriors against the regular army of the Emperor is about to take place, Algren tells Katsumoto a legend about a battle of Thermopylae, when “three hundred brave Greeks held off a Persian army of a million men” (The Last Samurai). Few moments later Katsumoto inquired of what had happened to those brave Greek people. Algren replied: “Dead, to the last man” (The Last Samurai).     

Even though a samurai’s duty is to serve, a warrior is also invested with the power to command and to kill. Thus, samurai’s actions and choices should be dictated not just by the laws of loyalty and honor, but also accord with the concepts of benevolence and mercy (Clark). In this regard, the term ‘benevolence’ is closely linked with the idea of courtesy.

Courtesy is believed to stem from benevolence. Courtesy and good manners, according to Nitobe Inazo, are the distinctive features of Japanese people (as quoted in Clark). On the other hand, the researcher admits that “politeness should be the expression of a benevolent regard for the feelings of others; it’s a poor virtue if it’s motivated only by a fear of offending good taste. In its highest form Politeness approaches love” (as quoted in Clark).

Honesty and sincerity are, above all, the characteristic features of a generous soul. Generosity and hospitality are another two peculiar features of the Japanese culture. It is worthy of note that in the beginning of his residence in a village ruled by Nobutada, Nathan Algren presumes he is a prisoner there. However, relatively soon Algren realizes that he is being treated as neither an enemy, nor guest, but a strange guest.

Alongside with rectitude, honor is one of the key notions of the samurai code. The sense of honor, in this case, means “vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth” (as quoted in Clark). Thus, the sense of honor is a distinctive feature of a samurai warrior. Duty, privileges and, at the same time, a life of hardships, fear of disgrace, loyalty and devotion to suzerain shaped the fate of a samurai. 

Honor, dignity, wisdom, and experience help Nathan Algren to resist the horrors of his past that haunt him constantly. Moreover, Algren’s moral obligation to support Katsumoto may be regarded as a forfeit of his wrongdoings. In Katsumoto’s case, his honor and dignity are the virtues set up against villainy and wickedness of the Emperor’s associates (The Last Samurai). Specifically, there are two antagonistic collisions within the work of art under consideration, namely: Nathan Algren and Katsumoto can be viewed as the protagonists; in this regard, Colonel Bagley and Minister Omura should be counted among the antagonists, whereby the rivalry is being developed between Algren and Bagley, Katsumoto and Omura respectivel (The Last Samurai).

As far as the concept of loyalty being concerned, Nitobe Inazo admits its “paramount importance” within the framework of samurai Code of Conduct (as quoted in Clark). To put it more simply, generosity, fidelity, and devotion to his master was a distinctive feature of a Japanese warrior in a truly glorious age of samurai. One sympathizes with Katsumoto for his sense of duty and devotion to the Emperor Meiji. Nathan Algren pays homage to Katsumoto, ‘the Last Samurai’, by bringing his sword at the Emperor’s Court and presenting the Emperor with it (The Last Samurai).

According to Bushido Code, the right and the wrong represent themselves as the clearly defined entities. There is a well-defined demarcation line between what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. The good and the bad are counted among empirical notions by no means, for understanding of the vice and the virtue, the good and the evil is not acquired, but perceived, and, therefore, taken for granted. Parents’ duty is to teach a child how to lead a life of virtue through the models of their own behaviors and their own moral principles. “Building up a character”, in this regard, is one of the key objectives (as quoted in Clark). Bushido Code does not approve of being either ignorant or copious. The real virtue here lies in being a man of action (as quoted in Clark).

Katsumoto died in a glorious battle, fighting for peace, freedom, rights and liberties of samurai warriors. But above all, it was for preservation of Japanese authenticity, tradition, and uniqueness as such. The last episodes of the battle scene are artistically perfect. When spring came, Katsumoto said: “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life” (The Last Samurai). The last thing he sees are the petals flying off a tree and it occurred to him that all blossoms were perfect. In this regard, it is important to admit that even though the moments of merging with nature pictured in the film are idyllic, they reveal the main characters’ sense of harmony and contribute to awaking a sense harmony within a viewer. The term ‘sense of harmony’ implies being in piece with oneself and, therefore, the entities and phenomena of the objective reality. 

Taking all the aforementioned facts into consideration, it is possible to make the following conclusions. The Last Samurai is a film, a fictional story representing some specific historical reality. Being a work of fiction, the film cannot be addressed as a credible source in terms of historical analysis. However, the work of art under summarization gives an insight to the key socio-cultural, philosophical, ethical, and aesthetical tendencies that existed in the late nineteenth century Japan. At the same time, the film explores the main principles stated in Bushido, a samurai code of conduct. Carrying out a fundamental research on history and cultural peculiarities of the Japanese samurai age, Nitobe Inazo resumed the following. Samurai code of conduct is shaped by the eight key principles, namely: justice/rectitude, courage, benevolence/mercy, politeness/courtesy, honesty and sincerity, honor, loyalty, character and self-control. Each of the aforementioned principles contributes to better understanding of samurai culture. Therefore, it possible to resume as follows. The life of a samurai, according to the Bushido Code, revolves around the extremes of compassion and confrontation, benevolence and belligerence, abnegation and privilege, obedience and power (Clark). The life of a samurai is the life full of virtue and honor, sense of duty and dignity. At the same time, the Bushido Code in the film makes a strong philosophical background. All things considered that the code of conduct of a samurai warrior transcend the limits of martial arts. The point is that through martial arts the samurai code of conduct appeals to the warrior’s perception and vision of the world, understanding of the virtue, sense of honor, duty, and dignity. 

Katsumoto is one of the main characters of The Last Samurai film. He and his warriors can be viewed as the characters representing Japanese authenticity within a film. All the key principles of the samurai code of conduct aforementioned are characteristic of Katsumoto. He is man of action, honor, and dignity, fighting fiercely, but gloriously, for the good of his people. Nathan Algren, in his turn, is an element called to reconcile the conflicts based on historical, cultural, economic, and ethnic diversities. In this regard, it is important to admit that his fiction as the narrator contributes to making the whole story relatable and topical. Katsumoto is the preserver of tradition, uniqueness, and authenticity, and, at the same time, the observer of the progress of mankind. Nathan Algren was the observer of the progress of mankind until he became subject to it. Attempting to use its power to do good, he learns that there are things far more important, things that matter much more than earnings, comfort, technology, arms, and even time (as one can assume going by his flashbacks and his sense of time/time perception that is changing as he resides in the samurai village). They are life, honor, dignity, duty, virtue, goodwill, peace, harmony, love of nature, and manliness. In The Last Samurai film, each of these entities is embodied by Katsumoto. The life of a samurai is the path of a warrior. The path of the warrior is about honor and dignity, harmony and peace of mind, lenience and loyalty, manliness, embracing the destiny, and serving for the good of your own people. So was the story of Katsumoto, the last samurai warrior, which is fictional, but in no way pretentious or contrived, sugarcoated or distorting and contradicting the historical reality beyond any measure. The Last Samurai is the work of art paying homage to all those, who gave their lives for the better living of their people, its unity, and its memory. 

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