The Skeptical Samurai’s Guide to the Movies

Time for another instalment of…

The Skeptical Samurai’s Guide to the Movies!

This week’s movie: The Last Samurai

Crazy lead actor aside, I love this movie. 

Overall, in my humble opinion, the movie is very well done; beautiful cinematography, well directed, great performances (especially by the Japanese actors), great battle sequences, and a captivating story.  The movie claims to be based on real events.  But as we all know (or should know!) based on real events, does not mean the events are depicted as they actually happened.  So with that in mind, one may be included to ask…

“How much of the film is factual and how much is fiction”?

Well dear reader…

That is the question that I intend to answer!

Movie: For the 1st time in 200 years Japan opens its borders.  This brought an end to an era of seclusion from the rest of the world and marked the beginning of what is now referred to as the Meiji era of Japan.  The Meiji era marked the start of the military modernization of Japan which resulted in the subsequent fall of the samurai and samurai way of life.

Reality: The film is loosely based on a number of historical events.  The film takes facts and events from a number of different legitimate historical events and mashes them together in one story.  The fact of the matter is that the events portrayed in “The Last Samurai” take place over a period of decades versus want seems like a period of months in the film. 

The main historical events depicted in the film are:

The Boshin War:

(Picture is of Satsuma warriors of the Imperial Army.  Note the presence of both samurai as well as “modern” uniforms)

This was a civil war within Japan in the late 1800, in which many country men (including noblemen, government officials, and samurai) opposed the opening of Japan’s borders.  Specifically, it was felt by many (most notably the Satsuma clan) that the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate had accepted terms with other nations that were extremely insulting and put Japan at a distinct disadvantage in the global economy.  This war was fought between the Tokugawa Shogunate (the ruling body at the time) and the Imperial army.  The Tokugawa army consisted of samurai utilizing traditional samurai weapons (such as swords, bows and arrows) where as the Imperial side (most notably supported by the Satsuma clan) also consisted of samurai that used modern firearms and cannons in addition to traditional weapons such as swords and arrows.  Ultimately the Imperial army won the Boshin War, and paved the way for the instatement of what would be known as the Meiji government. 

Many samurai that supported the Meiji government would actually go on to “retire” and take on high ranking positions within the government.  Ironically, despite being backed by numerous samurai clans, the Meiji government would go on to implement many political, social and cultural changes that would eventually lead to the abolishment of the samurai way of life. 

Haitorei Edict: This was a law passed by the Meiji government that banned the carrying of swords in public.  This was one of many steps taken by the new government in an attempt to bring Japan into a new era.  Some argue that this law was passed to make communities safer (not allowing non military individuals to carry weapons) while others argue that this was a direct assault on the samurai way of life.  This law was one of many laws passed that was a direct assault on the previously enjoyed rights/privileges of the samurai class, and lead to the eventual abolishment of the samurai. 

Dampatsurei Edict: This was a law passed shortly after Haitoriei Edict, and forced the samurai class to cut off their traditional top knots (referred to as a Chonmage).  This law was passed in conjuction with the establishment of the national military.        

Satsuma Rebellion: The Satsuma Rebellion was one of several armed uprisings against the Meiji government.  This rebellion was lead by the Satsuma samurai clan, who had originally supported the Imperial army in the Boshin War.  Ironically, the same government that the Satsuma clan had helped to establish was now responsible for establishing laws in an attempt to “modernize” Japan, that consequently lead to the abolishment of the samurai way of life. 

The Satsuma clan was lead by a number of samurai, including Saigo Takamori.  Saigo had had originally been one of the biggest advocates for the Imperial Army, and subsequent Meiji government.  However, he, and other leaders of the Satusma clan, had grown increasingly troubled with the direction of the new Meiji government.  The Satusma clan, with an army of 20,000 to 30,000 strong (the majority being samurai), led a rebellion against the Meiji government.  The Meiji government, with an army numbering 300,000 to 350,000 and was able to cripple the Satsuma rebellion in a matter of months. 

The Battle of Shiroyama: The final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion, this battle serves as the basis for the final battle scene in the film.  After months of fighting the Satsuma forces had dwindled to approx 400, including their now leader, Saigo Takamori (as the rest of the high ranking samurai leaders had been killed in battle).  Saigo lead his 400 remaining troops against the Meiji army.  The strategy was to charge the Meiji army with the intention of engaging the army in close quarters combat, as the Meiji conscripts had not been trained in this type of combat, and thus were susceptible to this type of attack.  The Satsuma clan was successful for a period of time, but were unable to overcome the great imbalance in man power.  The Satusma clan quickly dwindled to a mere 40 samurai.  These remaining samurai, in a last ditch effort charged the Meiji army line and where cut down in a hail of gun fire (which included the newly acquired Gatling guns), thus ending the Battle of Shiroyama, and the Satsuma Rebellion. 

Movie: Nathan Algren, an American military captain, was recruited by the Meiji government to train an army of Japanese conscripts. 

Reality: 1st of all, Algren is a fictional character.  Depending on what source you read, he is either loosely based on a number of different military figures (none of which are American) or he is entirely fictional.  2ndly, the Japanese government did hire outside experts to train their new army, however most of these experts hailed from France, Germany, and Italy.  Japanese battle strategies also borrowed heavily from French and Prussian methods, as opposed to American methods, as at the time these nations had had the greatest success in battle.  It should also be noted that a large segment of the Japanese army where not conscripts (as depicted in the movie), but instead where volunteers. 

Movie: The Japanese government actively worked to abolish the samurai and the samurai way of life. 

Reality: This theme in the film actually has some validity to it, however it should be noted that the film is a rather romanticized version of what actually took place.  As noted above, many of the samurai clans (the most famous being the Satsuma clan) supported the Imperial army (which would later become the Meiji government).  Many members of the Imperial army (including members of the Satsuma clan) went on to hold high ranking positions within the Meiji government, the same government that would later pass laws that would essentially abolish the samurai way of life.  Japan had opened its borders to the outside world for the 1st time in 200 years.  The leaders of Japan wanted to modernize the country.  Unfortunately, this meant the eliminating the feudal cast system (which placed the samurai in a high status) and passing laws the essentially eradicate the samurai and their way of life. 

Movie: The “Last Samurai” was not Japanese.  The “Last Samurai” was an American who had been captured by the remaining samurai clan, learned their ways, became a member of their clan, and eventually, fought alongside the samurai during the Battle of Shiroyama. 

Reality: This one was pure fiction.  As noted above, Nathan Algren is a fictional character.  Although there are accounts of foreign soldiers fighting alongside the samurai, none of them where known to be Americans, and the most reliable sources tell us that there were no foreigners fighting alongside the samurai in the Satsuma rebellion. 

Saigo Takamori, is often called one of the last true samurai, and in some circles even referred to as “The Last Samurai”. 

Saigo was a high ranking member of the Satsuma clan and helped to establish the Meiji government.  In fact, he served as a Meiji bureaucrat for a number of years.  However, after growing increasingly disenfranchised with the Meiji government he helped to lead an army of samurai in an attempt to overthrow the Meiji government (the Satsuma Rebellion) and led what remained of the Satsuma clan into what would later be referred to as the Battle of Shiroyama.

(who the lead samurai Katsumoto is loosely based on) is often referred to as the last samurai and died in the Battle of Shiroyama, which took place during the Satsuma Rebellion

This has been the Skeptical Samurai

Working to serve…

Through the process of inquiry…

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One Response to “The Skeptical Samurai’s Guide to the Movies”

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