Let me point out a few historical facts right off the bat: none of the characters depicted in The Last Samurai (2003) actually existed. This means main samurai rebel Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), prime protagonist Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), racist foil Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), and greedy Japanese industrialist Omura (Masato Harada) were all inventions of the film. To be fair, the setting and Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura) were all quite real. Further, the movie is loosely based on an actual samurai rebellion in 1877. These dedicated warriors were uncomfortable with the rapid modernization going on in the late nineteenth century, and voiced their displeasure by drawing their swords in hopes of keeping alive their centuries old traditions. But for some reason the producers decided they needed to basically retell Dances with Wolves (1990), complete with white Civil War veteran (Algren) going native.
So why would a group of disgruntled samurai take in an American officer (again, Algren) attempting to drown the pain of his service in whiskey? Before that can happen, though, Algren is approached by representatives of the Japanese government to help train a modern army for them, and the pay is too good to pass up. He arrives in Japan and sets to work, but he is forced to take out his untested troops against Katsumoto before they are ready. After the inevitable defeat, Algren is surrounded but still fighting, and in this act Katsumoto sees a vision he had previously and decides to take the American prisoner. While held in Katsumoto’s village, Algren lives with Taka (Koyuki) and her family, who is also Katsumoto’s sister. This situation is made somewhat awkward because Algren had killed her husband in combat. While there, he begins to learn from samurai culture and become enamored of it. He befriends Katsumoto, saves the rebel leader’s life from assassination (twice), and makes amends and falls in love with Taka. Thus when Omura returns the following year with a much better trained and equipped army, thanks to Colonel Bagley, Algren naturally sides with Katsumoto. Katsumoto’s forced are bedecked in traditional samurai armor and weaponry, and Omura’s force has modern rifles, cannons, and Gatling guns. While the rebels make a good showing of themselves, in the end technology triumphs and all but Algren are killed. His survival is key because he is able to go before the Emperor and remind the divine ruler that, while modernization is inevitable, the past should not be forgotten. Having done his duty by his friend, he then returns to Taka and presumably lives the rest of his life in the peace of the Japanese mountains.
There is a philosophy that is discussed at length in The Last Samurai, and that is stillness. In the film, it is presented from a Buddhist perspective, and there are many scenes of Katsumoto praying in a monastery for that religion. It provides a further contrast to the tension between the rebels wishing to keep alive the old ways and the modern forces of the government. Life then was beginning to pick up a pace that would begin to become recognizable today. The suggestion here is that you miss out on so much of the detail of life by living so hurriedly. There is a Christian analog to this philosophy. If nothing else, Psalm 46:11 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Earlier today I read from John about Jesus being the shepherd whose voice the sheep know. Only by being still can one hear such a voice. Then again, warfare mars following this call. Yet one can see this concept in the daily activities of the rebel village in this film. One of the things we are called to do as Christians is to see God in our labor. In this way, Katsumoto’s people are some of the most Godly people around.
The Last Samurai is a solid piece of cinema. The history is a little complicated, though. The Meiji Restoration began in 1868, and by 1876 when this film starts the Japanese army was well on its way to modernization. Thus there would have been little reason for Algren to be there in the first place. It is a bit derivative in terms of its plot, but entertaining nonetheless. And there is something to be genuinely learned as to how to see God in all we do. It is violent, though, so I would be careful with showing it to young ones. It is roughly on par with Braveheart, particularly in its large scenes of hand-to-hand combat, and befitting a rating of R.