The Last Samurai (2003)





Director:    Edward Zwick

Starring:     Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto),  Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren),  William Atherton (Winchester Rep),  Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant),  Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley),  Masato Harada (Omura),  Masashi Odate (Omura's Companion),  John Koyama (Omura's Bodyguard), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham),  Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji),  Togo Igawa (General Hasegawa).

American civil war veteran hired to teach the Emperor's troops how to defeat the last of the samurai, late 19th century



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 


Japan was made by brave men fighting for what seems to be a forgotten word:  honor. 

San Francisco, 1876.  The USA is celebrating the nation's centennial.  The Winchester company, maker of American firearms, advertises talking with a true American hero, one of the most decorated veterans, including the Congressional Medal of Honor he earned at the Battle of Gettysburg.  His name is Captain Nathan Algren.  He also fought with the 7th Cavalry and Custer. 

Nathan Algren is back stage getting drunk.  The presenter announces the presentation of the great hero, but Algren doesn't come out.  So the announcer has to go back stage and grab him.  He tells the Captain that he is fired.  He is tired of him always getting drunk. 

Algren comes on stage with a Winchester rifle.  He tells the crowd that this is the gun that is winning the west.  He starts going into the deaths of Custer's unit at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  He says the bodies were all mutilated.  He tells a young lad that a bullet from a Winchester can put a hole in his daddy six inches wide.  He then loads the rifle with bullets and starts shooting over the heads of the crowd.  He then says that Mr. McCabe will take their orders.  He ends with:  "My thanks on behalf of those who died in the name of better mechanical amusements and commercial opportunities."

Algren leaves for home and is greeted by his old friend Sergeant Zeb.  Nathan is surprised the man is still alive.  Yes, he is and he says he has a good job offer for the Captain.  He takes him over to a restaurant.  There Algren sees Col. Bagley.  Algren hates Bagley for launching an attack on a Indian village that was not involved in the raids for which they would be punished.  They descended on the village and killed men, women, children and babies.  Bagley introduces Algren to Mr. Omura from Japan.  Omura says he has a job that instead of paying $25 dollar per week, will pay him $400 per month.  Algren says make that $500 dollars for him and his sergeant.  Plus, when they finish the job give them each $500 dollars more.  The job for Algren will be to train the Japanese to be efficient soldiers.  Algren starts laughing about this and explains he laughing because the old corps is back together again.  "It's  just so . . . inspiring."  He laughs some more.  Omura says that this samurai named Katsumato Moritsugu, who used to be the Emperor's teacher, has been causing him a great deal of problems.

Col. Bagley asks Algren if he thinks he will take the job?  Algren says that he can kill anyone for $500 per month.  In fact, he would happily kill Col. Bagley for free. 

July 12, 1876.  Algren takes a ship to Japan.  His job is to suppress the rebellion of yet another tribal leader.  Nathan seems to be suffering from flashbacks to that  particular heinous attack against one of the Indian tribes.  

Yokohama Harbor, 1876.  Captain Algren arrives and is greeted by Simon Graham.  The fellow tells Algren that the Emperor is mad for all things western.  The samurai, however, are opposed to this.  It's a conflict between the modern and the ancient.  They go to see the emperor.

Emperor Meiji receives the men.  The Emperor asks Algren if Indians wear eagle feathers in their hair and paint their faces?  And are they truly not afraid in battle?  Algren says only that:  "They are very brave."

July 22, 1876.  The sergeant and Algren are like drill instructors.  Most of the soldiers are conscript peasants, who have never even seen a rifle.  They are led by General Hasegawa.  The General has known Katsumato for a long time.  They even fought together for the Emperor.  The General himself is a samurai.  And, by the way, Katsumato has no firearms.

Graham asks Algren amount scalping.  This annoys Algren so he goes into too much detail for Graham. 

The conscripts are taking firing practice.  Almost all of them are terrible shots.  Col. Bagley rides over to tell Algren that Katsumato has attacked a railroad at the border of the province.  He wants to send Algren and the conscripts to fight Katsumato and his men.  Algren, however, just says:  "They're not ready."  Bagley doesn't care.  He tells Algren:  "I order you to move against Katsumato."  Captain Algren wants to demonstrate just how bad of a shot the men are.  He steps in front of the practice target and instructs a conscript to shoot him.  Meanwhile, Algren shoots bullets from his pistol near the shooter.  The nervous fellow finally fires his rifle, but his bullet comes nowhere near the target or Algren.  He repeats:  "They're not ready!"  Bagley only says:  "The regiment leaves at 6 a.m."

Yoshino Province, 1876.  Algren tells his troops that they are to move into a battle line on him.  The order is given to load the rifles.  It is really foggy and it's hard to see very far ahead.  A man says that the "samurai come" and soon after the line of horsemen come pounding through the fog.  The command is to hold the line!  The conscripts become very frightened and they start to panic.  Sgt. Zeb stands his ground but he is hit with a lance and goes down.  The samurai gets off his horse and finishes off old Zeb. 

Captain Algren becomes surrounded by samurai.  He holds them back by constantly waving back and forth his flag staff and flag.  After awhile, Algren gets so exhausted that he plops on the ground.  One of the samurai says:  "He's mine."  He gets off his horse and chops his sword at Algren, but the captain stops it by holding the flagstaff between him and the sword blade.  The flagstaff is broken in two.  The samurai goes for a second blow, but Algren sticks the long part of the flagstaff into the throat of the samurai.  The man falls down dead.

Gen. Hasegawa commits seppuku (ceremonial suicide) by pushing the blade of his short sword into his gut and then moving it across his body to the right.  A little after this Katsumato, following the tradition of seppuku, lops off his head with his long sword.  Katsumato decides to take Algren prisoner.  He thinks he can learn something from the foreigner.  When they are back in the samurai village, Katsumato asks Algren his name, but Algren won't tell him.  Ujio whips out his long sword and rushes it over to Algren's face in an attempt to scare the foreigner.  Algren is too exhausted to care.  Katsumato tells Algren that this is his son's village and that he cannot escape. 

Algren is taken to the son's house.  A woman there named Taka sews up his deep wounds.  Katsumato looks through some of Algren's belongings and finds his journal.

Ujio wants to kill Algren, since the American is not going to commit seppuku.  Katsumato says no.  He emphasizes that they shall learn from their enemy.  "Keep him alive." 

Algren is a big alcoholic and starts having withdrawal symptoms.  He cries out for sake (rice wine).  They get some sake for him, but he soon grabs the whole bottle of sake and downs it.  The next day Algren calls for more sake.  Katsumato's son Nobotada tells his aunt Taka to give the man some more sake, but Taka refuses.  She wants him to break his alcohol addiction.  At night Algren screams, bothered by withdrawal and nasty flashbacks to killing innocent Indians. 

Algren wakes up the next day clear-headed and sober.  He puts on his uniform and starts walking.  An old samurai is assigned to watch him at all times.  Everyone in the village stares at him, especially the children.  Algren watches the men train for battle.  He watches their swordsmanship, wrestling and shooting arrows at a target while riding their horses.

Algren is taken to see Katsumato, who asks him his name.  Again, Algren won't tell him.  He says that he doesn't like the fact that Katsumato cut off the head of Gen. Hasegawa.  Katsumato says that the general asked him to help him commit seppuku and he participated in the traditional ceremony.  Katsumato tells Algren that not introducing one's self is considered very rude in Japan, even if one is a prisoner.  Algren tells him his name now.  He asks Katsumato a question.  Who is the red armor display of a samurai warrior supposed to portray?  Katsumato tells him that it represents Taka's husband Hirotara, the one that Algren killed with the flagstaff.  Algren is shocked and asks:  "I killed her husband?"  Yes, says Katsumato, but "it was a good death". 

Algren eats dinner with the son, the aunt and her two small boys.  Taka tells Nobotada that the foreigner smell likes the pigs and that she cannot stand it.  She asks Nobotada to give the man a bath.  Nobotada has a good laugh about this. 

The two small brothers play at swords (made of bamboo) with each other.  Then Algren is asked to play swords with the older boy.  So he does so and wins.  Ujio is passing by and he doesn't like what he sees.  He stops the sword playing and has Algren fight with him.  Ujio is a super swordsman and he easily takes Algren down with a hit right to his stomach.  Algren gets up and is quickly knocked down again.  The foreigner gets up again and gets knocked down again.  He gets up again and this time gets slapped in the face with the bamboo sword.  Taka looks sad as she watches the easy defeats of Algren.  He stays on the ground in the rain until he recovers and then gets up. 

Katsumato asks what rank was Algren?  Algren says he was just a captain, a man of middle rank.  Who was Algren's general.  Custer, says Algren.  Katsumato says he has heard of this man.  Algren tells him that Custer was arrogant and foolhardy.  He took 211 men to fight some 2,000 Indians.  Custer was a murderer, he adds.  Algren tires of answering questions and shouts:  "What the hell am I doing here?"  Katsumato tells him that until the spring he is stuck here. 

Algren wonders what month and day it is?  He has no real idea.  He says in the village he is treated with a mild neglect like how the villagers treat a stray dog or an un-welcomed guest.  Everyone bows and smiles at Algren, but he knows they have a deer reservoir of feeling about him that they are not verbalizing.  He goes on to say that the Japanese are an intriguing people and that he has never before seen such discipline among a people. 

Katsumato tells Algren that he believes that he serves in the interest of the emperor.

Ujio teaches Algren swordsmanship. 

Algren looks at the display of the man in red armor. He puts on Japanese clothes and practices some samurai poses in sword fighting.  The small boy Higen watches as he goes through the different poses. 

Taka asks Katsumato to send this foreigner away  -- that her shame is unbearable.  If he cannot, then she wants permission to take her own life.  Katsumato asks her:  Would you kill him to avenge your husband?  She says yes.  Katsumato tells her it was karma. Algren comes out to speak with Katsumato.  He says that Taka has been very kind to him.  Katsumato tells him that Taka is honored to have Algren as a guest in her house. 

Winter 1877.  Taka's boys teach Algren Japanese words. She watches the boys having fun with Algren.  Later Algren helps Taka carry something heavy.  She says that Japanese men don't do such things.  Algren answers that he is not Japanese.  He tells her that he is sorry about her husband, Hirotaro.  With tears in her eyes, she says:  "He did his duty.  You did your duty.  I accept your apology."

Spring 1877.  Algren comments that there is something spiritual in this place.  And he has been having his first untroubled sleep in years.  He practices his swordsmanship with Ujio.  Nobotada watches him and tells him "No mind."  In other words, Nobotada is telling him to clear his mind of all thoughts other than just concentrating on his swordsmanship. When Algren does this he see his enemy's mistake and determines to catch him at it.  This time Algren defeats Ujio. 

The village is having a little theatre production.  Ninjas come into the village.  They kill a guard.  Then they climb to the top of a structure from where they can fire at the actors and the audience.  Algren sees them up on the roof and the fight is on.  The American takes the family back to their house to keep them safe. Katsumato rushes back to the house to make sure the family is okay and sees that Algren is already there.  Just then the Ninjas start bursting through the thin walls of the house.  Taka kills one of the Ninjas with a short sword.  Katsumato kills another.  Algren save the live of Higen by stabbing his attacker in the back with a knife.  Then more Ninja burst into the house and the fight continues.  Algren and Katsumato end up fighting side by side against the Ninjas and they are able to vanquish their attackers.  After it's over, Algren asks Katsumato who sent those men to kill him?  Katsumato won't say.  Algren thinks it was probably Omura.

Katsumato says that Taka has told him that Algren has many nightmares.  And sometimes Algren wishes for death.  Yes, says Algren.  Katsumato says that the Emperor has granted them a safe passage to Tokyo. 

Algren is in uniform.  He says to Taka:  "I must go away."  Taka says yes.  He adds:  "You have been kind to me.  I won't forget."  She leaves.

Before Algren leaves to go to Tokyo, Higen comes out and gives his father's samurai sword to him.  The warriors move out for Tokyo. 

In Tokyo the people become afraid because the samurai are entering the city.  Graham is shocked to see that Algren rides with Katsumato. Algren is dropped off, while the warriors continue on. 

Algren goes to the army camp.  Now the Japanese have a well-trained army.  In addition to good soldiers, they have howitzers and Gatlin guns.

Katsumato speaks with the Emperor.  The emperor tells him that he needs the samurai's voice on his Council.  Katsumato asks the Emperor if he has forgotten his people? 

Omura speaks with Algren about Katsumato and his men.  Algren minimizes their abilities by saying:  "They're savages with bows and arrows."  Omura says now they are ready to fight Katsumato.  With their new weapons Algren will be able to crush Katsumato.  He demands that Algren lead the troops against Katsumato.  After Algren leaves, Omura turns to his assistant and tells him:  "If he goes anywhere near Katsumato  --  kill him."

New laws have been passed to make the samurai less powerful.  Algren sees the soldiers harassing Nobotada.  He tries to stop the soldiers, but is knocked down.  Nobotada has his pony tail cut off  and his samurai sword taken from him. 

Katsumato comes to the Council.  Omura asks him to remove his sword.  Katsumato says that only the Emperor can tell him to give up his sword.  But the Emperor says nothing.  Katsumato leaves rather than give up his sword.  Omura puts Katsumato under arrest.  And he will surely have the man killed.

Bagley wants to know from Algren why does he hate his own people so much?  Algren doesn't say anything. 

Omura's assistant brings a short sword to Katsumato so he can commit seppuku.  Algren decides to go see Katsumato and get him out from under Omura.  Three of Omura's men try to stop Algren.  Algren, however, is able to kill the three men and then others who come to kill him, including Omura's assistant. 

Graham approaches the Japanese guards around Katsumato.  He tells the commander that Algren is the President of the United States and he is able to bully his way into see Katsumato.  Algren tells Katsumato that they have come to help him escape.  Ujio helps by killing one of the guards.  Samurai archers kill many other guards.  Nobotada is one of the archers.  The young man runs over a bridge but is hit and goes down.  Algren saves the fellow by rushing to him and helping him get off the bridge.  But Nobotada's wound is too severe.  He tells his father to let him stay.  "It is my time."  Nobotada kills soldiers on the bridge with his arrows.  He then attacks the soldiers.  They shoot him many times and he goes down for good. 

Katumato tells Algren that the Emperor cannot hear his words and he will surely send his army against them.  He says:  "The way of the samurai is not necessary anymore."  Algren says that together they will make the Emperor hear them. 

Taka sees Algren and the men coming back to the village.  Higen asks Algren if he will fight against the white men?  Algren says yes because they want to destroy what he has come to love.  Taka tells Algren that Higen is angry, not because he killed the boy's father, but that he may be killed in the upcoming fight.  A messenger arrives to tell Algren that "they" are coming.  Algren gives Higin a big hug and leaves. 

Algren talks to Katsumato and tells him about the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans stood off a Persian army of a million men. 

May 25, 1877.  Algren writes that this will be the last entry in his journal.  Taka asks Algren to wear her husband's red armor.  As she undresses and dresses him for battle, she hugs his back with tears in her eyes.  Katsumato is taken aback when he sees the American in red armor.  The men get ready and head off for battle. 

On the battlefield, Bagley and Omura meet Katsumato and Algren in the area between the two armies.  When Baglely sees Algren in the red armor, he comments:  "Good God!"  The two groups of men go back to their respective lines.  Katsumato tells his men:  "Well, they won't surrender."  His men have a good laugh. 

The howitzers open up on the enemy, but the shells land too far in front of or too far behind the lines of the enemy.  But with adjustments the shells start falling on the samurai, who now light the hay around their positions.  This creates so much smoke that it covers the samurai troop movements backwards.  Against the advice of Bagley, Omura orders a full attack.  The samurai have set up an ambush for the troops.  Archers wait behind the fences for the soldiers to come within their range.  The samurai wait for the firing of two volleys of fire and then the archers launch their arrows into the air.  The soldiers, unlike the ancients, have no shields with which to protect themselves from the arrows raining down on them.  Many soldiers are killed or wounded.  Now the samurai charge the army and many additional soldiers are killed.

Katsumato asks Algren what happened at Thermopylae?  Algren responds:  "Dead to the last man."  They smile at each other.  They join the fight.  Algren's old man escort takes a bullet for Algren and still is able to kill the man who killed him.  Algren gets wounded in the leg, but still continues to fight.  More soldiers are sent into the fight.  Algren and Katsumato send in the cavalry.  Then the infantry attacks behind the cavalry.  There is a great deal of close-up fighting, which favors the samurai.  The bugle of the soldiers is blown to announce a retreat.  Ujio is shot in the back, but still gets up and fights on.  Katsumato and Algren are still alive.  Algren tells his friend that Omura will bring two regiments up soon.  The fighting is not over. 

The samurai horsemen line up along a battle line.  Omura sees this and says:  "This is madness."  Bagley leaves his side to lead the troops from the front.  The samurai charge their enemy.  The howitzers kill many of the men.  Ujio gets hit several times.  Bagley aims his pistol at the charging Algren, but Algren is able to throw his sword into the Colonel before he can fire his pistol.  Bagley goes down.

The final defense line for Omura's defense consists of a bunch of Gatlin guns.  When these weapons open up, they decimate the oncoming enemy.  Katsuma and Algren are hit several times and they both go down.  Some of the downed men get up again, but are just shot down again.  Omura yells for the gunners to kill Katsumato and the American.  The two men are next to each other.  Katsumato tells Algren:  "You have your honor again.  Let me die with mine.  Help me up."  Standing up Katsumato commits seppuku with Algren helping him drive the sword into his gut.  Algren tells him:  "I will miss our conservations." 

When the battlefield is all quiet, Omura's soldiers bow to the enemy's heroism.  Many kneel and bow their heads down on the ground. 

The Americans successfully conclude a negotiation on an agreement.  Then Algren comes into the room.  He carries Katsumato's sword with him and gives it to the Emperor.  Omura is upset by this and tries to discourage the Emperor form taking the sword.  He says:  "Emperor, this man fought against you."  The Emperor says he has dreamed of a unified and modernized Japan and now they have it.  He adds:  "But we cannot forget who we are or where we came from."

The Emperor then says that he will not sign the treaty.  The American ambassador says:  "This is an outrage!"  The Emperor says he will seize Omura's assets and give them as a gift to the Japanese people.  Omura objects:  "You disgrace me."   So the Emperor tells him that if the shame is too unbearable for him, he can always use the sword.  He offers Omura Katsumato's sword.  Omura declines to take it and leaves.  The Emperor now asks Algren how Katsumato died?  Algren says he will tell the Emperor how Katsumato lived. 

Graham says:  "And so the days of the samurai had ended."  He says no one knows what happened to Algren after this.  Graham says he likes to think that Algren went back to that Japanese village he loved so much and finally found some peace in his live.  The last scene shows Algren coming back to Taka and stopping right in front of her. 



The Japanese hire Civil War veteran Captain Nathan Algren to train the Emperor's troops to use modern weapons so they can more easily defeat the last of the country's samurai. But when Algren is captured by the samurai he gets to see the other side of the war.  As he learns to become an expert swordsman, he comes to admire the traditions and code of honor of the samurai.  In addition, he is able to catch the eye of an attractive Japanese woman.

It's not a great movie, but it is entertaining enough.  And one does learn a bit about the lifestyle of the samurai.  

In the extra disc they had an interesting discussion of the politics of the movie.  For liberals, the bad guys are actually the old samurai.  They were reactionaries trying to force Japan not to change.  But Japan, seemingly almost over night, became a modern society and one of the great powers of the world.  The movie, however, wants to make the samurai the good guys because they are so powerless in the modernizing Japan.  The samurai were trying to stop a whirlwind of modernity, but, of course, couldn't.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

The Opening of Japan and End of the Tokugawa Regime


c. 1638  --  Japan had closed itself to outsiders.  The nation would not open again for some 200 years. 

1852  --  birth of the future Japanese Emperor Meiji.

1853 (July 2)  --  reports from the coast indicated that ships at sea were on fire.  But as the ships came closer, it became apparent that these were foreign ships powered by steam engines.

The ships were American under Commander Matthew C. Perry.  5,000 samurai gathered at the shore demanding that the foreigners leave.  But Perry soon made his attitude clear.  The United States had come of age, was more powerful than Japan and would not be denied. 

Perry came ashore making it clear that he was prepared to take Japan by force.  He would return in the spring for the Japanese answer.  This set off near hysteria among portions of Japanese society.  (But at the same time, there was considerable fascination with these foreigners.) 

1854 (February 4)  -- returning a little earlier than said, Perry had doubled the number of ships and crews.  Japan had to negotiate with the foreigners.  The talks lasted about 24 days. The resulting treaty was a compromise, but Japan had finally opened.

Japan would soon sign trade agreements with Russia, England, France and Holland. 

With the new influences, it became clear that the days of the Tokugawa Regime were numbered. Within ten years, the samurai were officially disbanded. 

1861-1865  --  American Civil War. 

1866-1869  --  the Meiji Restoration, which was the change from the old Shogunate form of government to a more modern (Western) form of government, in the Meiji Period.  Also known as the Boshin War ("War of the Year of the Dragon").  It was a civil war fought between the forces of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and the forces supporting the return to political power of the imperial court. 

1867  --  at age 14, Emperor Meiji comes to the throne. 1867 is also the year the last shogun resigns. 

Late 1860s1881 -- period of rebellion and assassination.

1868-1912  --  THE MEIJI PERIOD

The nobles and young samurai were unhappy with the Tokugawa shogunate.  Also unhappy was an alliance of southern samurai and court officials. 

Emperor Meji declared the abolition of the two-hundred-year-old shogunate. His imperial forces were more modernized and thus had the advantage.  After a number of battles, Shogun Yoshinobu personally surrendered.

About 3,500 men were killed during the civil war.

1877  -- the Satsuma Rebellion of Satsuma ex-samurai was the last and most serious of a series of armed uprisings against the Meiji government. 

1912  --  the death of  Emperor Mejii;  by the time of his death Japan had emerged as one of the great powers of the world.



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