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The Last Samurai is a 2003 drama film/war film directed and co-produced by Edward Zwick, who also co-wrote the screenplay based on a story by John Logan.

This film was inspired by a project developed by writer and director Vincent Ward. Ward became executive producer on the film – working in development on it for nearly four years and after approaching several directors (Coppola, Weir), he interested Edward Zwick. The film went ahead with Zwick and was shot in Ward’s native New Zealandmarker.

The film stars Tom Cruise (who also co-produced) in the role of American soldier Nathan Algren whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in the Empire of Japanmarker in 1876 and 1877. Other actors include Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn and Shin Koyamada.

The film's plot is based on the 1876 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and also on the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War. The historical roles of the United Kingdommarker, the Netherlandsmarker and France in Japanese westernization are largely attributed to the United States in the film. These details, characters in the film and the real story are simplified for plot purposes; the film does not seek to duplicate history.

The Last Samurai was well received upon release, with a worldwide box office of $456 million. In addition it was nominated for several awards, including the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review.


1876. Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a disenchanted ex-United States Army captain and an alcoholic, traumatized by his past transgressions against Native American during the Indian Wars. In the years following his army service, Algren makes his living by relating war stories to gun show audiences, an experience which further hampers his mental state. Fed up with Algren's perpetual drunkenness, his employer fires him, forcing Algren to accept an invitation by his former commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), whom Algren hates and blames for his waking nightmares. Bagley approaches him with an offer on behalf of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Omura (Masato Harada), to help the new Meiji Restoration government train the new Western-style Imperial Japanese Army. Assisting them are Algren's old army colleague Zeb Gant (Billy Connolly) and Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), a cynical British translator with a deep-seated interest in the samurai.

Under the command of Bagley, Algren trains a conscripted army of peasants in handling a rifle. Before they can be adequately trained, Algren is ordered to take them into battle against a group of samurai rebels led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) to protect Omura's investment in a new railway. During the battle, the samurai swarm the wholly-unprepared army, killing Gant and forcing Bagley to withdraw from the field. Algren is able to cut down several samurai using his experience as a cavalry trooper with the sabre and revolver until he is knocked off his horse. But he refuses to give in and manages to fend off several samurai with a broken spear embroidered with a flag depicting a white tiger. The flag on the spear reminds Katsumoto of a vision he experienced during meditation, of a white tiger fighting off his attackers. Katsumoto's brother-in-law, the red-masked samurai Hirotaro, prepares to deliver a killing blow to the fallen Algren; however, Algren refuses to yield and picks up a spear, fatally stabbing Hirotaro through the neck. Believing what he has witnessed to be an omen, Katsumoto prevents his warriors finishing off the wounded Algren and takes him prisoner. Algren is taken to an isolated village, where he gradually recovers in a house belonging to Hirotaro's family, including his widow Taka, her two sons, and Katsumoto's son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada).

Over time, Algren overcomes his alcoholism and sharpens his mind through practice of bushido, the way of the samurai. He confides to his journal that he has never felt so entirely at peace than he has among Katsumoto and his people. Despite lingering fidelity to Hirotaro, Taka develops romantic feelings for Algren, particularly when she notices his budding fatherly relationship toward her children. Algren studies swordsmanship under skilled swordmaster Ujio and becomes fluent in Japanese by conversing with the local residents; in doing so, he earns their respect. One night, as the people watch a comic play, a group of ninja assassins attack the village. Algren wins the respect and admiration of the samurai by coming to Katsumoto's aid, and the samurai succeeding in defeating the ninjas, but at the cost of many losses. Though Katsumoto does not confirm it, Algren deduces that the attack was ordered by Omura.

In spring, Algren is taken back to Tokyo. There he learns that the army, under Bagley's command, is now better organized and outfitted with howitzers and Gatling guns from the United States. Omura offers to place Algren in command of the army if he agrees to crush the samurai rebellion, but Algren declines. In private, Omura orders his men to kill Algren if he attempts to warn Katsumoto of their intentions. At the same time, Katsumoto offers his counsel to the young Emperor, to whom he was once a teacher. He learns that the Emperor's hold upon the throne is much weaker than he thought, and that he is essentially a puppet of Omura. When Katsumoto refuses to observe new laws that forbid samurai to publicly carry swords, he is arrested and confined to his quarters in Tokyo. Anticipating an assassination attempt on Katsumoto, Algren heads directly for his quarters but is ambushed by Omura's men; Algren narrowly escapes death through judicious use of martial arts he learned in Katsumoto's camp. With the assistance of Ujio, Nobutada,and Graham.Algren frees Katsumoto from custody. During their flight, Nobutada is mortally wounded and stays behind to aid his father's escape; Algren looks on as Nobutada is gunned down by his pursuers.

Katsumoto is still mourning the loss of his son when he receives word that a large Imperial Army unit, commanded by Omura and Bagley, is marching out to engage the samurai. A counter-force of samurai, numbering only 500, is rallied. Algren makes a reference to the Battle of Thermopylaemarker in which a small army fought against a much larger opposing force by using the terrain and the enemy's overconfidence to their advantage; Algren surmises that a similar tactic would reduce the effectiveness of their enemy's artillery. On the eve of battle, Algren is presented with a katana of his own. Taka also gives him her dead husband's armor, and they kiss just before Algren leaves.

When the Imperial Army confronts the samurai's rebel forces, the samurai fall back to higher ground, preventing the Imperials from using their superior firepower. As expected, Omura immediately orders the infantry to pursue the samurai into a trap. Setting fires to cut the enemy's immediate fighting strength in half, the samurai then unleash volleys of arrows on the infantrymen. Drawing their swords, the samurai, Algren and Katsumoto amongst them, charge the confused and wounded infantrymen. A second wave of Imperial infantry follows behind, as does the samurai cavalry, and a savage melee ensues that leaves many dead on both sides before the Imperial soldiers finally retreat.

Realizing that fresh Imperial forces are coming and that defeat is inevitable should a second battle occur, the surviving samurai resolve to make a final mounted charge. They attack but are cut to pieces by Japanese cannons and another unit of infantrymen. During the battle, Bagley shoots Katsumoto, but before he can finish off the samurai, Algren throws his sword at Bagley, killing him. On approaching the Imperial rear line and progressing far enough to scare Omura, the samurai are finally cut down by Gatling gun fire. Overcome by the sight of the dying samurai, an Imperial lieutenant originally trained by Algren orders the Gatling guns to cease fire against Omura's wishes. Katsumoto, observing bushido, asks Algren to assist him in performing seppuku; Algren obeys, ending Katsumoto's life. The Imperial troops show their respect by bowing before the fallen samurai.

Later, as American ambassadors prepare to have the Emperor sign a treaty that would give the US exclusive rights to sell firearms to the Japanese government, Algren offers Katsumoto's sword as a present to the Emperor. The Emperor understands the message and tells the American ambassador that his treaty deal is not in the best interests of Japan. Omura objects, and the Emperor — realizing that he need not be ruled by Omura — confiscates his estates and fortunes. The Emperor then offers him Katsumoto's sword to commit seppuku if the dishonor is too great to bear. Omura merely lowers his head and walks away.

The movie ends with Algren - under a narrative provided by Simon Graham - returning to the samurai village and to Taka. Graham philosophically concludes Algren has found a measure of peace "that we all seek, and few of us ever find."


  • Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran haunted by the massacremarker of Native American civilians at the Washita River. Algren was born in the United Kingdommarker but is a naturalized American. Following a dismissal from his job, he agrees to help the new Meiji Restoration government train its first Western-style conscript army for a hefty sum. During the army's first battle he is captured by the samurai Katsumoto and taken to the village of Katsumoto's son, where he soon becomes intrigued with the way of the samurai and decides to join them in their cause. His journal entries reveal his impressions about traditional Japanese culture, which almost immediately evolves to admiration.
  • Ken Watanabe as samurai Lord Katsumoto, a warrior-poet who was once Emperor Meiji's most trusted teacher. He is displeased with Mr. Omura's bureaucratic reform policies which leads him into organizing a revolt against the Imperial Army. Katsumoto is based on real life samurai Saigō Takamori.
  • Shin Koyamada as Nobutada, Katsumoto's son who is lord of the village that the Samurai are encamped in and befriends Algren. Katsumoto, the leader samurai, advises Nobutada to teach Algren in the Japanese way – Japanese culture and Japanese language.
  • Tony Goldwyn as Lieutenant Colonel Bagley, Capt. Algren's commanding officer in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, who was to train the Imperial Army. Algren dislikes Bagley for his role in the Washita River massacremarker of the Native Americans that Algren cannot get over. His facial hair is very similar to the way Custer wore his and is intended to evoke that image. Bagley is killed by Algren in the climactic battle When Algren throws his sword into his chest.
  • Masato Harada as Omura, an industrialist and pro-reform politician who dislikes the old samurai and shogun related lifestyle and the main antagonist of the film. He quickly imports westernization and modernization while making money for himself through his railroads. Coming from a merchant family that was like many repressed during the days of Samurai rule and cause for his extreme dislike for their nobility, he assumes a great deal of power during the Meiji Restoration and takes advantages of Meiji's youth to become his chief advisor (wielding power similar to those of the Shoguns). His image is designed to evoke the image of Okubo Toshimichi, a leading reformer during the Meiji Restoration. Masato Harada noted that he was deeply interested in joining the film after witnessing the construction of Emperor Meiji's conference room on sound stage 19 (where Humphrey Bogart had once acted) at Warner Brothers studios.
  • Shichinosuke Nakamura as Emperor Meiji. Credited with the implementation of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the Emperor is eager to import Western ideas and practices to modernize and empower Japan to become a strong nation. His appearance bears a strong resemblance to Emperor Meiji during that 1860's rather than during the 1870s, when The Last Samurai takes place.
  • Hiroyuki Sanada as Ujio, one of the most dedicated, loyal and fierce samurai under Katsumoto. He teaches Algren the art of Samurai sword fighting, none too gently but eventually grows to respect him. He is one of the remaining samurai to die in the final charge in the last battle.
  • Timothy Spall as Simon Graham, a British interpreter for Captain Algren and his non-English speaking soldiers. Initially portrayed as a typical practical-minded Englishman, he later comes to understand the Samurai cause. This character is shown to have some resemblances also to the real-world Corfiote photographer Felice Beato.
  • Seizo Fukumoto as the Silent Samurai, an elderly man assigned to follow Algren (who later calls the samurai "Bob") as he travels through the village. Ultimately, the Samurai saves Algren's life (and speaking for the first and only time, "Algren-san!") by taking a fatal bullet for him. He bears a marked resemblance to Kyuzo from Seven Samurai.
  • Koyuki Kato as Taka, Katsumoto's sister and the wife of the red-masked Samurai Hirotaro, whom Nathan Algren kills earlier.
  • Billy Connolly as Sergeant Zebulon Gant, an ex-soldier who served with and is loyal to Algren, talked him into coming to Japan. He, along with Algren, train the imperial army before confronting the samurais. He is later killed in the opening battle by Hirotaro (Taka's husband).
  • Shun Sugata as Nakao, a tall jujutsu and naginata-skilled samurai, who takes part in Katsumoto's rescue, and is later killed in the final battle.


Filming took place in New Zealand, with Japanese cast members and an American Production crew. Views of Mount Fujimarker were superimposed using CGI of Mount Fuji as seen from Yokohama. Several of the village scenes were shot on the Warner Brothers Studios backlot in Burbank, California.


All music by Hans Zimmer. Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony, conducted by Blake Neely.

  1. "A Way of Life" 8:03
  2. "Spectres in the Fog" 4:07
  3. "Taken" 3:36
  4. "A Hard Teacher" 5:44
  5. "To Know My Enemy" 4:49
  6. "Idyll's End" 6:41
  7. "Safe Passage" 4:57
  8. "Ronin" 1:53
  9. "Red Warrior" 3:56
  10. "The Way of the Sword" 7:59
  11. A Small Measure of Peace" 7:59


The film received an enthusiastic reception among the moviegoing public in Japan, with box office receipts higher in that country than in the USA. Critical reception in Japan was generally positive. Tomomi Katsuta of The Mainichi Shinbun thought that the film was "a vast improvement over previous American attempts to portray Japan", noting that director Zwick "had researched Japanese history, cast well-known Japanese actors and consulted dialogue coaches to make sure he didn't confuse the casual and formal categories of Japanese speech." However, Katsuta still found fault with the film's idealistic, "storybook" portrayal of the samurai, stating that "Our image of samurai are that they were more corrupt." As such, he said, the noble samurai leader Katsumoto "set (his) teeth on edge." The Japanese premiere was held at Roppongi Hillsmarker multiplex in Tokyo on November 1, 2003. The entire cast was present; they signed autographs, provided interviews and appeared on stage to speak to fans. Many of the cast members expressed the desire for audiences to learn and respect the important values of the samurai, and to have a greater appreciation of Japanese culture and custom.

Reviews were also positive in the United States, though less so than in Japan, with numerous unflattering comparisons to Kevin Costner's film Dances with Wolves. Motoko Rich of The New York Times observed that the film has opened up a debate, "particularly among Asian-Americans and Japanese," about whether the film and others like it were "racist, naïve, well-intentioned, accurate – or all of the above."

The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Ken Watanabe, and three Golden Globes, Best Supporting Actor for Watanabe, Best Actor - Drama for Tom Cruise and Best Score for Hans Zimmer. Awards won by the film include Best Director by the National Board of Review, Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects at the Visual Effects Society Awards, Outstanding Foreign Language Film at the Japan Academy Prize, four Golden Satellite Awards, and Best Fire Stunt at the Taurus World Stunt Awards.

Historical background

The Last Samurai combines real but disconnected historical situations, rather distant in time, into a single narrative. It also replaces the key Western actors of the period (especially the French) by American ones. Finally, it portrays a radical conflict between ancient and modern fighting methods, but in reality all sides of the conflict (the Satsuma Rebellion, and before it the Boshin War) adopted modern equipment to various degrees. Indeed, firearms had been in use centuries earlier in Japan and played an important part in the civil wars that created the Tokugawa Shogunate, but were later rejected as dishonorable and by the early 19th century the gunsmith's art had fallen into disuse. Many thematic, and visual elements of the film parallel the films of Akira Kurosawa, specifically Seven Samurai.

Military modernization and Western involvement

Training of the Shogunate troops by the French Military Mission to Japan.
1867 photograph.
The kind of military modernization described in The Last Samurai was already largely achieved by the time of the Boshin War ten years before, in 1868. At that time, forces favorable to the Shogun were modernized and trained by the French Military Mission to Japan , and a modern fleet of steam warships had already been constituted (Eight steam warships, Kaiten, Banryū, Chiyodagata, Chōgei, Kaiyō Maru, Kanrin Maru, Mikaho and Shinsoku formed the core of the Bakufu Navy in 1868). The Western fiefs of Satsuma and Chōshū were also already highly modernized, supported by Britishmarker interests and expertise. Even the appearance of Gatling guns in Japan goes back to that time (the Gatling guns were invented in 1861, and deployed during the 1868-1869 Boshin War by both sides, at the Battle of Hokuetsu and the Naval Battle of Miyako). Modernization had already advanced at a fast pace during the Bakumatsu period, many years before the installation of the Meiji Emperor.

Although Commodore Perry is credited with opening Japan to foreign contacts in 1854, American involvement in Japan was minimal thereafter. In-depth interaction, mainly commercial in nature, only started from 1859 with the Harris Treaty, and from 1861 American influence waned due to the demands of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The main powers involved with the modernization of Japan up to the 1868 Meiji Restoration were the Netherlandsmarker (initiation of a modern navy with the Nagasaki Naval Training Center and the supply of Japan's first modern ships, the Kankō Maru and the Kanrin Maru), France (Construction of the arsenal of Yokosuka by Léonce Verny, the 1867 French Military Mission), and Great Britain (in supplying modern equipment, especially ships, to a variety of domains, and in training the Navy with the Tracey Mission).

Meiji restoration

Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, the early Imperial Japanese Army was essentially developed with the assistance of French advisors again, through the second French Military Mission to Japan . An army of conscripts, mostly peasants replacing the former samurai class, was put in place with French assistance for the first time in March 1873. These troops were further modernized and their officers trained in military academies set up by the French, and would intervene against former samurai in the Satsuma rebellion in 1877. The Haitorei edict in 1876 all but banned carrying swords and guns on streets.

The Satsuma rebellion

The Satsuma Rebellion, the historical event described in The Last Samurai, was even more one-sided than in the movie, although the military techniques employed by each side were less contrasted. It occurred in 1877, ten years after the Boshin War, and ten years after the establishment of the Imperial Japanese army. The Imperial troops sent a huge force of 300,000 soldiers under Kawamura Sumiyoshi, modern in all aspects of warfare, using howitzers and observations balloons, to the island of Kyūshū to fight Saigō Takamori.

Saigō Takamori's rebels numbered around 40,000 in total, until they dwindled to about 400 at the final stand at the Battle of Shiroyama. Although they fought for the preservation of the caste of the samurai, and officers often wore samurai cuirasses, they did not neglect Western military methods: they used guns and cannons, and all contemporary depictions of Saigō Takamori represent him wearing the uniform of a Western general. At the end of the conflict, running out of material and ammunition, they had to fall back to close-quarter tactics and the use of swords, bows and arrows. In a parallel to the movie, they also fought for a more virtuous form of government (their slogan was "新政厚徳", "New government, High morality").

In contrast to the Boshin War, no Westerners are recorded to have fought on either side of the Satsuma rebellion. Specifically, Saigō Takamori did not fight side-by-side with foreign soldiers during the Satsuma Rebellion. During the Boshin War, Saigō may have been supported by British and American military advisors, but the only documented case of foreigners actually fighting for a Japanese cause was that of the French soldiers supporting Enomoto Takeaki.

Although the Katsumoto character is based on Saigo Takamori, the last battle in the film is based not on his last stand but on another battle in which a group of disgruntled retainers attacked the new Imperial Army with no firearms or western weapons that took place at roughly the same time.

Further foreign assistance

A third French Military Mission to Japan was later sent. However, due to the Germanmarker victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the Japanese government also relied on Prussia as a model for their army, and hired two German military advisors (Major Jakob Meckel and Captain von Blankenbourg) for the training of the Japanese General Staff from 1886 to 1889. Other known foreign military consultants were the Italian Major Pompeo Grillo, who worked at the Osaka foundry from 1884 to 1888, followed by Major Quaratezi from 1889 to 1890, and the Dutchmarker Captain Schermbeckmarker, who worked on improving coastal defenses from 1883 to 1886.

Japan did not use foreign military advisors anymore between 1889 and 1918, until again a fourth French Military Mission to Japan , headed by Commandant Jacques-Paul Faure, was requested to assist in the development of the nascent Japanese airforce.

Westerners fighting alongside Japanese

Historically, the only major case of foreigners taking an active role in a Japanese civil war is that of the French military advisers under Jules Brunet (initially members of the 1867 French Military Mission), who joined the forces favourable to the Shogun under Enomoto Takeaki, during the Boshin war. They were deeply involved in the military organization of the Shogunate's forces, and fought (several of them were heavily wounded) almost to the end of the conflict. A few days before surrender, when the situation had become desperate, they left on the French frigate Coëtlogon which had been waiting at anchor in Hakodate. Some of these French officers did wear the samurai attire (such as the French Naval officer Eugène Collache), although most officers in the armies of the Bakufu, as well as of course their French colleagues, wore French military uniforms.

The Japanese in the late 19th century did hire foreign advisers to modernize their army, but they were mostly French, not American. Ken Watanabe's character was based on the real Saigō Takamori whose exact style of death is unknown. The accounts of his subordinates claim either that he uprighted himself and committed seppuku after his injury or that he requested that a comrade assist his suicide. In debate, some scholars have suggested that neither is the case, and that Saigō may have gone into shock following his wound, losing his ability to speak. Several comrades upon seeing him in this state, would have severed his head, assisting him in the warrior's suicide they knew he would have wished. Later, they would have said that he committed seppuku in order to preserve his status as a true samurai.

Additional inspiration

A historical American figure whose life story is somewhat mirrored by the Tom Cruise's character is Henry Andres Burgevine, though his involvement was in China's Taiping Rebellion.

Another possible inspiration of the movie is the life of William Adams, the first westerner given the rank of Samurai. William Adams, a ship captain who was shipwrecked in Japan in 1600, developed a unique friendship with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the military government that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868. Coming from different and unknown cultures, the exchange of information and knowledge was a key highlight to the relationship between Adams and Tokugawa. Shogun, a 1975 novel by James Clavell, is a fictionalised account of Adams' exploits.

See also


  1. The Last Samurai (2003) : News
  2. Yahoo! Groups
  3. Awards for The Last Samurai (2003), IMDb
  4. This is a claim made by Jules Brunet in a letter to Napoleon III: "I must signal to the Emperor the presence of numerous American and British officers, retired or on leave, in this party [of the southern Daimyos] which is hostile to French interests. The presence of Occidental chiefs among our enemies may jeopardize my success from a political standpoint, but nobody can stop me from bringing to Your Majesty information he will without a doubt find interesting." in "Soie et Lumière", p.81 (French)


  • Polak, Christian. (2001). Soie et lumières: L'âge d'or des échanges franco-japonais (des origines aux années 1950). Tokyo: Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie Française du Japon, Hachette Fujin Gahōsha (アシェット婦人画報社).
  • __________. (2002). 絹と光: 知られざる日仏交流100年の歴史 (江戶時代-1950年代) Kinu to hikariō: shirarezaru Nichi-Futsu kōryū 100-nen no rekishi (Edo jidai-1950-nendai). Tokyo: Ashetto Fujin Gahōsha, 2002. 10-ISBN 4-573-06210-6; 13-ISBN 978-4-573-06210-8; OCLC 50875162

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