Japan on Film: Swords, Samurai and Conversations
By James Darnbrook
On April 13, 2015
I love movies about Japan and Japanese culture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a single scene in a Japanese airport or a whole movie about a tea ceremony, if it features Japan I will happily watch it. Unfortunately, not all movies’ representation of Japan are accurate, especially those made in Hollywood.
This series is dedicated to sorting the fact from the fiction when it comes to Japan on film.
The Last Samurai may actually be the most important movie I’ve ever seen. I studied history at university and during my second year everyone in the history department was offered the chance to study abroad. There were many countries on the list of possible places for me to study, but I had no strong feelings towards any of them. The deadline for submission was fast approaching and I needed to make a choice. I chose to put it off until the last minute and decided to watch a movie instead. I watched The Last Samurai.
Tom Cruise, his beautiful hair swishing for two hours whilst he practiced the ways of the Samurai, learning Japanese with ease and adopting the culture as his own was all it took to convince me to study abroad in Japan. And here I am four years later.
I still really like The Last Samurai as a movie. I like Tom Cruise’s redemption story, I like his bromance with Ken Watanabe, and I like that Billy Connolly is in the first 25 minutes of the movie for no apparent reason and steals every scene he is in. It’s a great movie that always makes me emotional in the end, no matter how many times I watch it.
What I don’t like about The Last Samurai though, is the inaccuracies and untruths that it implies about the period of Japanese history that it is portraying. Worst of all, some people will watch the movie, think that what they have seen is what actually happened, and will go on with their lives really thinking that (spoiler alert) the last samurai in Japan were massacred by Gatling Guns in a blaze of glory.
It’s important to know the truth whilst appreciating the fiction, so let’s break down The Last Samurai’s mistakes into two categories; factual inaccuracies (events shown that are simply not true), and misleading inaccuracies (ideas shown that can mislead the viewer).
Starting with factual inaccuracies first then, the rebellion led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) in the movie is focused on preserving a traditional way of life, most notably in the use of traditional Japanese weaponry. The Satsuma Rebellion, which the movie’s rebellion is based on, was not fought for these reasons.
The Satsuma Rebellion was fought by Samurai who were disgruntled about laws created in the 1870s that resulted in the loss of prestige and wealth for them. It was not because of some loyalty to traditional Japanese culture. Most notably both sides in the Satsuma Rebellion fought with guns and used western military tactics, going completely against what is seen by Katsumoto and his men in The Last Samurai.
Katsumoto’s relationship with the Meiji Emperor is also factually inaccurate. Saigo Takamori, the man Katsumoto’s character is based around was not the Meiji Emperor’s personal teacher, and almost definitely did not feel the kind of devout loyalty Ken Watanabe shows in the movie. Takamori was one of a group of men that helped install the Meiji Emperor into a position of power after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and as such knew that the Meiji Emperor only as strong as those that supported him and not some god-like figure worthy of blind devotion.
This brings us on to misleading inaccuracies in the movie.
The presentation of Samurai as blindly loyal has been questioned repeatedly by historians, who argue that whilst there may have been the some Samurai loyal to one master without wavering, most were more than happy to shift loyalties when the situation called for it, and that in general Samurai had a relatively questionable grip on loyalty.
The movie also portrays Samurai as warriors living in mountains, practicing fighting all day. Again whilst there may have been one or two Samurai that practiced sword fighting daily, the vast majority spent most of their time overseeing their land and people, because the peace of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) had transformed Samurai from warriors into administrators.
Moreover, few lived in the hills because there was little profit in living in an area unsuitable for farming. Instead, almost all Samurai lived in Japan’s few big cities at the time, or in the countryside supervising the cultivation of their land. In reality, the term Samurai included many different types of people, behaving in many different ways and in not showing this, The Last Samurai misleads the viewer by omission.
This is not to say that the movie is horrible in all of its representation of the period. The Last Samurai shows a realistic view of Japan in 1877 when looking more widely. Japan was a country changing rapidly under the weight of modernisation. The Meiji Emperor was a puppet, controlled by a group of key reformers, as is shown in the movie.
Westerners were paid well for their expertise in lots of different fields (though notably the Japanese army actually sought the help of European military experts, not American ones) and the Samurai class did disappear incredibly quickly after law changes in the early Meiji period that denied them financial support, demolished their social class from the system and stopped them from carrying their swords.
The idea that the end of the Samurai was a sad event may be the biggest inaccuracy of the whole movie though. The Samurai class structure was, in essence, a feudal class system with 5 percent of Japan’s people, the Samurai, controlling the other 95 percent of the people for their own wealth. As such the end of this system was, for most people, nothing to be sad about but an opportunity to move forward in the new Japan.
The Last Samurai is a great movie, but it’s not a great representation of Japan in the 1870s and you probably shouldn’t base your entire idea of Samurai and Meiji Era Japan around it. That being said, its lack of realism won’t stop me from watching it for the twenty-fifth time…
If you have any feedback about the Last Samurai or what I wrote I welcome your comments. In my next article for this series I will take a look at the film Memoirs of a Geisha.