Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Discovering a Way of Life

Perhaps because Japan is so much in the news these days, or maybe because I have a Japanese visitor, last night I pulled out a movie we had both seen previously, both liked very much and wanted to watch again. The movie is The Last Samurai made in 2003 and starring Tom Cruise. As is usual with the movies of superstar Cruise, this one too got lots of publicity. It was nominated for and won a dozen or more awards and a look at box office reports on IMBd indicate that it must have made money after recouping its 140 million price tag. It was extremely popular in Japan, where I first saw it. There is a great deal of good work in The Last Samurai, and though I did not read any of the reviews that followed its opening, my opinion of the movie is high.

For the most part, aspects of the Japanese story and its production are well done and give a good sense of the authentic. Certainly things were dirtier and not always so ‘pretty’ in nineteenth century Japan, but when has Hollywood with a hundred and forty million to spend ever made anything visually unappealing? More to the point, the story is not bad at all despite a few holes, and the producers did well with the language and especially Tom Cruise’s use of Japanese. But for me it is the values that make up the story I found so appealing. Apart from it’s purpose of entertaining, of being a movie that offers grand escape with handsome actors and beautiful exotic Japanese beauties, apart from all the drifting cherry blossoms and mist shrouded mountains, there is a solid story at the movie’s heart.

The time is 1876. Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) of the US Army is haunted by nightmares of massacring Indian women and children under orders from General Custer and another of his superior officers. No longer an officer in the field, Algren has become a drunk willing to do almost any kind of work to buy the next bottle of whiskey. He reluctantly accepts an offer to train new conscripts to Japan’s Imperial Army and prepare them for battle against a rebelling samurai (Ken Watanabe). Things don’t happen as expected, and in a strange and alien country Algren discovers the balm to soothe his nightmares and soften the self disgust over past actions. Forced into battle before his raw troops are prepared, the Imperial forces are badly defeated by Katsumoto, the rebelling samurai leader. Algren is captured by Katsumoto and taken to live in the enemy’s mountain village. Here he discovers a way of life that he had never imagined and over the course of months with his Japanese captors Algren finds an ethic and a man he is willing to give his life for.

When Japan entered what they call the Meiji Period of their history (1868-1912) leaders of that time were eager to push Japan into the modern world and to import ideas as well as goods from western countries. The Last Samurai is a very exciting story about the new ideas of Meiji pushing against the older ideas and values of Japan. At the heart of the story is the concept of bushido. Dictionaries as well as many Japanese will tell you that bushido means “the way of the warrior,” but what does that say to the modern westerner? What exactly is this “way” of the warrior? In it shortest definition it means that people who live by the code of bushido believe that a simple unadorned life of honor is best. The old texts teach that fear of death does not deter one from the pathway of loyalty and unselfish honor. Defeat without death in battle, or daily life without honor are both shameful.

The question comes to mind, does this time honored bushido still exist in Japanese society of the twenty-first century? Can we see the same qualities of honor, unselfishness and simplicity in the daily life of Japanese today? Unfortunately there is another word sometimes heard in connection with the younger generation of Japan. The word is “me-ism,” meaning living and doing only for ‘me’ with little or no consideration of others. It is a self-centered way of living and thinking seen in many societies today. Modern problems in Japanese society include a lack of interest in moral values. The old bushido values we see in The Last Samurai taught children to use manners always, to always think of other community members. Many might say that those older qualities are hard to find in societies everywhere now, that the same ‘living for myself’ idea knows few borders.

The Last Samurai was directed by Edward Zwick, has a lush score by Hans Zimmer, beautiful costumes, dazzling battle scenes and wonderful performances by Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada, the gorgeous Koyuki, and yes, Tom Cruise.

The last words of Captain Algren in the movie are spoken to the Meiji Emperor. Asking about his teacher and lifelong retainer Katsumoto, the young Emperor says, “Tell me how he died.” Algren replies, “I will tell you how he lived.” A beautiful answer that sums it all up.


  1. Very thoughtful and informative post. Yes, sometimes Hollywood does get things right (or most of them anyway). A good review of a well-done film; old friend Rex Reed has nothing on you.

  2. Wonderful post and definitely a "nudge" for me to rent that movie and watch it again.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America