The 2003 film The Last Samurai certainly raised a few eyebrows with the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role. However, there was a surprising amount of truth to the story, and a real-life inspiration behind the character Cruise played. The movie gets a few other details mostly correct, but simplifies the complex story behind the fall of the samurai, and either omits or invents certain other details for the sake of the tale.
A truly historically accurate version of The Last Samurai could actually retain many of the elements that made the movie work, and add a few other details that were left out. This list details what could stay in, what should be added, and other small details that would make for a historically accurate movie - or movies - about sreal-life samurai.
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Full Story Would Probably Need To Be Told Across Two Films
There’s a lot going on historically in The Last Samurai, and the film touches upon many key events that really did take place. The movie’s two leads are based upon real people, but they never actually interacted. Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, was based on the real instance of foreign military advisers coming to Japan to instruct the Japanese conscripts in modern weaponry.
After Japan was forcibly opened - after years of isolation - by an American expedition led by Commodore Matthew Perry, the Japanese moved quickly to modernize their armed forces. At the time true power lay in the hands of the shogun rather than the emperor, but the old regime would soon unravel in the wake of the new reality. Many saw the emperor as a unifying figure who could lead Japan into the new era. The Boshin War took place from 1868-69 as pro-emperor forces defeated the shogunate.
The story of a foreign adviser overseeing the collapse of the old order firsthand would actually be pretty similar to the film, but it would cover the collapse of the shogunate rather than the samurai. Moritsugu Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, would still have a role in this story. Katsumoto was based upon Saigo Takamori, one of the principal leaders of the imperial forces in the Boshin War. Saigo commanded the imperial forces in the battle of Toba-Fushimi and oversaw the capture of Edo (now Tokyo). If this part of the story is to be covered, it could work as the first part, to be retitled as The Last Shogun.
The rebellion on which The Last Samurai is based took place a few years later, in 1877. Saigo was disillusioned by the direction of the new order under the Meiji emperor and departed the government under a cloud in 1873. He returned to his native Kagoshima, in the south of Japan, and opened a series of schools. As reforms swept away the lofty position of the samurai, small-scale rebellions broke out in the west of Japan. When Saigo's students seized a government weapons depot, he took responsibility and led a doomed insurrection against the government he’d once served.
There are a few key differences we'll get into, but the second part of the story would be a bit closer to the original film. However, the real-life person Nathan Algren is based on wouldn't have a role in this story. He departed Japan in 1869.
Part Of The Film Could Still Star Tom Cruise
The idea of foreign samurai isn't actually as ludicrous as it might seem, even one of Western origin. A handful of non-Japanese were elevated to the position of samurai over the years. One earlier example was an Englishman named William Adams who served as an adviser to the shogun in the early 1600s. Adams aided in the design and construction of a merchant fleet and was rewarded for his services with an estate and samurai status, although he was forbidden from ever returning home.
The real person on whom Nathan Algren is based was a French officer named Jules Brunet (pictured), one of several French and German veterans invited to Japan to oversee training in modern warfare. Algren and Brunet had some striking similarities - both were strangers in a foreign land caught up in a series of events bigger than themselves. For Brunet, it was seeing the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate firsthand.
Rather than flee the country as ordered by the French government, he resigned from the army and stayed behind with the men he'd trained. He remained with the shogunate army until the very end, like Algren overseeing a doomed campaign to preserve a way of life out of sync with a changing world.
The Japanese Main Character Wouldn't Be All That Different From The Film Version
Ken Watanabe’s character, Moritsugu Katsumoto, was based upon the real-life Saigo Takamori (pictured), a retainer of the Shimazu clan who played a prominent role in the Meiji Restoration. He assumed a position in the new Meiji government but eventually resigned over differences in opinion regarding Korea. He planned to sacrifice his own life by insulting the Koreans to the point they would execute him, in order to provide a casus belli for Japan. The plan was canceled, and an outraged Saigo resigned, along with several retainers loyal to him.
He returned to his native Kagoshima and established a school. When his students seized an imperial arsenal, Saigo took responsibility, and the Satsuma Rebellion - the main inspiration for the events of The Last Samurai - began. Katsumoto offers a more idealized portrayal of a samurai than his real-life inspiration. Saigo was drawn into the rebellion over feelings of responsibility for his students rather than causing the uprising himself. He had previously refused to back another rebellion and never spoke out against the Meiji government publicly. His earlier departure from the government was more to do with his stubborn outlook and resentment over being sidelined rather than a principled stand against modernization.
Saigo was truly a larger-than-life character; he was more than 6 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, making him a veritable giant in 19th-century Japan. Although not wholly opposed to technological advances, he much preferred the simplicity of the countryside. He loved dogs; his favorite was a foreign but undefined breed named Tsun. Interestingly, the famous depiction of Saigo at Ueno Park changed the breed of his faithful companion to a Shiba Inu, a breed native to Japan.
Standing at 6 feet himself, Watanabe would still be a viable choice for the part, although he might need to put on a few pounds.
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Real Saigo Would Have A Much Larger Family
In The Last Samurai, we only see Moritsugu Katsumoto’s widowed sister, but the real Saigo Takamori had a much larger family. He was the eldest of seven children; one of his brothers became a high-ranking official in the Meiji government. He married three times; the second marriage was during a period of exile in Osumi and resulted in two children in three years.
After he was pardoned by the daimyo of Satsuma, he left his exile family behind and returned to Kyushu. His third and final marriage came in 1865, although he continued to find love outside of his vows. His most interesting mistress was a famously large geisha in Kyoto with the rather cruel nickname of butahime, or “princess pig.”
In all, Saigo had five children. His son Kikujirō, by his exile wife, would fight alongside him in the rebellion. Kikujirō would ultimately lose a leg, but would survive and later serve as mayor of Kyoto. Another son rose to the rank of colonel in the Japanese army, receiving his military education in Germany. His younger brother Kohei also took part in the rebellion, but perished in action.
A historically accurate portrayal of Saigo would show him as the head of a large family and would cover all the drama and complications that come with it. With all the tumult of the period - more than enough from a film-making perspective - the decision to simplify the family life of one of the leads is understandable, though a bit of a missed opportunity.