Culture

Japan on Film: Swords, Samurai and Conversations

This series is dedicated to sorting the fact from the fiction when it comes to Japan on film.

By 5 min read

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.

satsuma-rebellion

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.

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  • Grigoris Konstas says:

    The same happened to me, but instead of the last samurai which is a great film, my life changed with lost in translation. Now here i am moving from Greece to Japan at my late thirties and after seeing lost in translation for a dozen times.
    For relaxing time make it suntory time…

  • gigi4747 says:

    Chinmoku (“Silence”) would be an interesting movie to discuss, I suppose, although it’s incredibly disturbing. It’s an important movie that I’m glad I saw once, but I don’t think I would want to watch it again.

  • Ain says:

    Another movie I saw in Japan (that I absolutely loathed) was Kill Bill. You should dissect that one. Hack it to pieces, pretty please!

  • Ain says:

    I saw lots of movies while living in Japan; this was one of them. I always liked talking about them with my Japanese students. I guess one obvious flaw is that Katsumoto didn’t speak English and had no interest in learning it, nor could have Tom Cruise picked up as much Japanese as he did in that short a time. When I watched it, I was wondering, “Where in Japan is this, with these big open fields??” It was filmed in New Zealand — the landscape doesn’t look like Japan (though there are scenes filmed in Kyoto, at
    Chion-in, for example).
    My students also told me that at that time, villagers did not keep chickens. Also, there’s a scene where everyone rides on horseback under a Toori…like the Toori is an archway that marks the entrance to a village. Wrong.

    There’s one scene that is so anachronistic, it just makes the shudder–the part where that old guy is silently following Tom Cruise around, and Tom says something like, “What’s your name? Huh, I guess I’ll just call you Bob.” It just sounds sooo 20th century American…ish.

  • Taash says:

    I give kudos to Cruise for making a big budget movie about Japan, however if you want the real deal find Kenji Misumi’s The Last Samurai (Okami yo Rakujitsu o kire,) made in 1974 it pretty much blows the lid off the Samurai genre with a realistic portrayal of the end of the Tokugawa shogunate into the Meiji restoration.

  • John Kang says:

    Spot on! The movie was a fun romanticism of the Samurai, much like Westerns are of Cowboys.

  • amaru kazanaki says:

    actually, I’m one of the biggest fans of this movie but i always wondered it was really based on true events and realistic to represent that era because i used to watch Japanese stuff which portray that period of time and i found that the movie missed a few things but anyway thank you for sharing such valuable information and waiting to see next article about Memories of Geisha

  • Maria Alexander says:

    The sword work is outstanding. I study Shinkendo, which reunites all of the separate sword arts that were created after the Samurai class was broken down, to recreate the Samurai training. I’m also experienced in stage combat. They did a truly excellent job of theatrical sword training and fighting while preserving the mechanics and style of Samurai swordsmanship. It was really thrilling to see that. It’s so rare. Thanks greatly for your article!

  • Alex says:

    NHK’s Taiga drama ‘Ryomaden’ would be a more accurate depiction of the Satsuma Rebellion and of the Bakumatsu.

  • Terje Grønning says:

    It seems indeed like the movie operates with same or similar techniques as the 1970s novel by James Clavell and the TV series “Shogun”, in other words, rather than attempting at an accurate rendition of the cultures in question the technique is to move some historical facts into the movie’s time period from other periods, accentuate differentness, and downplay some sides of the cultures, in order to make it into a story which the Western audience can appreciate. There is an academic article about “Shogun”, which is available here: https://www.academia.edu/7982015/On_Shogun_An_Anthropological_Examination

  • kiyomizu says:

    Thank you for writing this fantastic article. It was very informative to read. I love watching this movie as well but I knew there were inaccurate details. I love to keep learning about Japanese history and culture.

  • Wim says:

    Really agree with your take. Love the movie for it’s movieness and it does indeed spark interest .. what REALLY happened, who REALLY excisted … . Good article!

  • Tec9 says:

    I think we all know that Hollywood movies will use creative license on historical facts. That’s to be expected. As the producers and actors kept mentioning during their press tours, the movie was meant to inspire interest in Japan and the samurai, hopefully opening curious minds to learn about the actual history of the samurai. For an actual dose of history to go with entertainment, I would recommend something like Total War: Shogun 2 and its expansions, The Rise of the Samurai and The Fall of the Samurai. Great historical detail.

  • KoD says:

    Thank you for this article. I’m love Japanese culture for a long time, especially “Sengoku jidai”, can you suggest me some movie about it?

  • Terangeree says:

    Interesting piece. A rather bizarre version of Japan appears in 1960s 1970s spy movies / TV series. Maybe you could feast your eyes upon the 007 movie “You Only Live Twice” (where Himeji Castle becomes a ‘secret Ninja training camp’)?

  • Alexandre Abs says:

    Good night, I am in Brazil and already lived in Japan, I feel the same attraction about their culture and history. Power and politics corrupt the men and the daymio weren’t the good guys as they show of course. But they played an important role in the formation of the people’s character, so there’s a lot to be said about them. Many have followed the bushido ways and many have held a sword as a tool of submission.

    Okay, the point is you have cleared some issues and it was nice. Mainly because I realized never had thought about this film as a source of knowledge but only as entertainment and poetry. I bought the dvd to my collection. Although the fantasy and some unlikely events, if it’s about history, a good reading is the book Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa.

    I understand you mean well. But if someone takes only a hollywood picture to make conclusions about long years of a complex country’s history this person isn’t worthy teaching. My friend, don’t bother trying to elucidate the facts. I guess nobody cares if the capitain had an affair with the gorgeous Taka, we just want to have fun.

    Wish you all the best. Cheers from Brazil.

    菊地, Alexandre

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    Thank you for this article. I love the movie because of the acting, cinematography, pace and because it is Japanese. But I know when it’s Hollywood there will be accuracies. It made me interested on Samurai (the code of the warrior) though. Again, thank you for writing this article. ありがとうございます。

  • unkichikun says:

    Another inaccuracie is that the character played by Tom Cruise was in fact a French soldier. His name was Jules Brunet.
    http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Jules_Brunet

  • Stanford Kekauoha says:

    Great write up! That movie changed my life as well, for years that movie provided any knowledge I had of Japan. I was blown away when I watched a history channel special on the movie that basically said everything you have just said. Yes there are gross inaccuracies and the idealistic, poetic notion of honor, in reality, was not as perfectly practiced, but I still consider this movie one of my favorites. Contrast The Last Samurai and The Sword of Doom and you have yourself and interesting juxtaposition.

  • George OBrien says:

    Actually, even though the samurai in the movie lived in the mountains, I never believd that all samurai lived there. (nor should even someone watching the movie who knew Nothing of Japan during the end of the Tokugawa Period) this is because when Tom cruise’s character finally meets Katsumoto, Katsumoto tells him that the village belongs to his son and that they are only there until the next season passes. The movie never suggests that ALL samurai live in mountains.

  • zachary T says:

    You are totally right about Billy Connolly. I am not a Tom Cruise fan but I was reading about Meiji era Japan when I saw this on video one day. They did an amazing job with the sets, costumes, etc. this movie was worth it for that alone.

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