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Tom Cruise is Nathan Algren, a veteran of the American Civil War and the campaigns against the American Indians, in the course of which he served under General Custer. The wars are well and truly over, but Algren is still haunted by what he has seen, and done, and scrounges out drinking money to sustain his chronic alcoholism by endorsing rifles. He's given an opportunity to go back to what he's best at -- fighting -- when his former boss recruits him to aid the Japanese Empire. The Emperor Meiji has been rapidly modernizing the country with the 'aid' of men like Omura, the most powerful man among the oligarchy which controls the emperor and the country from behind the scenes. Nathan is asked to train a force of the nation's conscripts in the art of modern warfare. His assignment comes with the knowledge that a group of Samurai, low-ranking nobles similar in rank and role to the Knights of medieval Europe, have risen up in rebellion against the oligarchy in the name of the Emperor, claiming that the radical westernisation programme endorsed by Omura is in danger of destroying the traditional Japanese way of life.
In Japan, Algren has his work cut out for him. His recruits are completely raw and he must start their training from scratch. Too soon, the rebel samurai army attacks. In spite of their inferior numbers and weapons, the samurai slice through Algren's undisciplined troops. Preparing to die on his feet, Algren engages a samurai in single combat and manages to kill him. After watching Algren's Last Stand, the samurai general Katsumoto realises he's had a vision about this same scene (depicted at the film's start, with Algren now revealed as the white tiger he saw) and decides to spare Algren's life.
Trapped in Katsumoto's camp for the winter, Algren finds himself comfortably appointed in a family's house as more of a guest than a prisoner. He grows to sympathize with his hosts and appreciate the way of the samurai. When the opportunity comes to leave, Algren chooses to switch his allegiance and help the samurai against the forces of modernization. After battling assassins and forming a subdued romance with the widow of the samurai he killed, Algren enters the final battle for the fate of the samurai and Japan.
Ken Watanabe, the fella who played Katsumoto, was nominated for an Oscar for his role.
The film is loosely inspired by the actual historical events, but for their part they do not even attempt to claim Based on a True Story. All the major characters besides the Emperor were fictionalized and the actual events depicted went quite differently. The period saw two conflicts; the revolutionary war/coup which toppled the old Tokugawa Shogunate and 're-established' the emperor Meiji as the head of the country as a puppet of the rebels, and the second and smaller conflict was a rebellion chiefly of Samurai led by a man called Katsumoto some 20 years later. All the factions involved used firearms and were rushing to adopt more modern weaponry and tactics. Algren is based off a French Captain sent by Napoleon III to train the troops of the Shogun in the first war, the Boshin War. Plenty of Artistic License was used in order to tell a compelling story and the movie is still a loving look at Japanese culture, one that does well in capturing the spirit of the Meiji era.
Not related to the novel The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.
This film contains examples of:
- Action Film Quiet Drama Scene: The early period of Algren's captivity, prior to the ninja attack, is entirely peaceful, a few short training fights notwithstanding.
- The Alcoholic: Algren, prior to his captivity. He appears to overcome it during his captivity.
- And considering he drinks so he doesn't have nightmares about the atrocities he committed, and he's completely deprived of alcohol while in captivity, he overcomes it the hard way.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: A white samurai? It's been done. Twice.
- Anachronism Stew: Not nearly as bad as it could have been, but the movie simplifies the history of the 1860s and 1870s in Japan, conflating the Boshin War and the later Satsuma Rebellion for plot purposes. Emperor Meiji is also portrayed as he was earlier in time than the movie is set.
- The Archer: Nobutada
- Ask a Stupid Question/Evil Cannot Comprehend Good:
Bagley: Algren, what is it about your own people you hate so much?
- The Atoner: Nathan Algren
- Audible Sharpness
- Badass: Ujio.
- Badass Army: The samurai army
- Badass Bookworm: Algren is extremely capable when it comes to fighting and general physical strength, but he's also a highly competent miltary strategist (implied to be a major reason behind Bagley recruiting him for the Japanese mission in the first place), an author and a linguist.
- Technically, the Samurai were supposed to be these as well, on paper. Their real-life contemporaries were overwhelmingly more bookworm than badass.
- Badass Grandpa: 'Bob'
- Bald of Awesome: Katsumoto
- Bilingual Bonus: Most of the Japanese is subtitled and Katsumoto is a student of English, but it's a nice touch that the people in the village had a hard time pronouncing Algren correctly. There is no equivalent Japanese syllable for the letter "L," the closest is either "R" or "W."
- Book Ends: The film starts and ends with a monologue from Simon Graham. Katsumoto and Algren are each shown during one of them, finding peace in their own way.
- Brutal Honesty: A tendency of Simon Graham, who tells Algren that this was why he was fired from his original job in Japan as part of the British trade mission.
- Chekhov's Gun: Literally; the gatling guns and howitzers that are used in the final battle are seen being tested when Algren reunites with Bagley after being freed.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Omura's associate when he first meets Algren, an officer whom Algren apparently befriends. He escapes the first battle, and isn't seen again - until right at the end, when he's revealed to have become the head of the gatling gun unit. He ends up stopping the guns from finishing off Algren and Katsumoto.
- Cherry Blossoms: Casually mentioned not long after Algren is captured, eventually forms a symbollically important part of the climax.
- Clean Cut: A deleted scene shows Algren witnessing Ujio walking along a street, who gets hassled by a pair of businessmen. The samurai takes their insults for a few moments, as they insult his heritage and his swords, but when one of them pokes him with a cane, Ujio slices off the head of the man in a clean, swift fashion, and sheaths his katana in one fluid movement while the other scrambles backwards.
- Conservation of Ninjutsu: Averted. In the ninja attack the assassins are able to put up a very good fight.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Omura, pretty much.
- Culture Clash: Expected, but there is one memorable scene where Algren and Katsumoto discuss Custer's Last Stand. Algren dismisses Custer as an idiot who got all his men killed due to arrogance and bad battle tactics, but Katsumoto is awed by Custer's "bravery" and remarks that he would have been a great samurai. Simon Graham also appears to have been guilty of this when he first came to Japan, not realising that the locals are far less into Brutal Honesty than the British.
- Another is in how Nathan refuses to surrender and tried to be Defiant to the End, whereas in a similar situation Samurai would accept their fate and/or commit ritual suicide. Algren's Last Stand was considered a very strange event and in his first attempt dueling another Samurai he kept coming back for more strikes to the head.
- Cultural Translation: Tom Cruise's character is based on Jules Brunet, a French army officer. While most aspects of Japan's modernisation are apparently carried out with the help of European nations, in the film all the militarisation fell to the Americans. Although in the end the film claims that American support was rejected because of Nathan's plea to the Emperor.
- Curb Stomp Battle: The battle in the forest, where the inexperienced Japanese peasant army is soundly routed by Katsumoto's samurai.
- Death Seeker: Algren. Katsumoto labels himself as one as well.
- The Determinator: Algren. And that's why Katsumoto admires him. Ujio, on the other hand, sees his refusal to accept defeat from his betters to be disrespectful. He comes around eventually.
- Doomed Moral Victor: Katsumoto does succeed posthumously in convincing the Emperor of the value of Bushido.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Gant
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Effectively Lampshaded in the epilogue; while Graham doesn't know Algren's fate for certain, he (correctly) believes that he's finally found happiness. It has, however, taken him decades and trip across the full length of the world to achieve this.
- Everything's Better with Bob: A silent samurai is nicknamed Bob by Algren, in the absence of any other name. When Algren watches him die in the final battle, that's the name he shouts out.
- Sad too in that Bob was one of the samurai that Algren liked most, and that Bob died defending Algren. See Taking the Bullet below.
- Florence Nightingale Effect
- Flynning: A notable aversion, the extensive sword play is all done very efficiently and there are no protracted fights. When Algren was training with the other Samurai two men would watch and make bets on the exact number of moves before his opponent would make a "killing" strike, ranging from 4-7. In fact, it contrasts Nathan's prior experience with a rapier and his unfamiliarity with actual sword duels.
- Gallows Humour: Mixed with Understatement when Katsumoto summarises his pre-battle exchange with Omura and Bagley to his commanders: "Well, they won't surrender."
- Gatling Good: Omura is extremely proud of the Gatling Guns he has managed to acquire by the end of the film, for good reasons.
- Gentleman and a Scholar: Simon Graham, a scholar who makes his living translating the lies of Japanese who never quite tell the full truth.
- Going Native: Pretty much the entire plot of the film.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Nobutada. The final charge also serves as an attempt to invoke the trope on the part of all the surviving samurai.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Algren's number two, Gant, is played by renowned Scottish actor/comedian Billy Connolly, who reprises his role as the quintessential (violent) Glaswegian.
- Katsumoto is also Saito from Inception, General Kuribayashi from Letters From Iwo Jima, and the first decoy Ra's Al Ghul from Batman Begins.
- Ujio is perhaps best known in North America these days as playing Dogen, the temple guardian from Lost
- Peter Pettigrew plays Simon Graham, the overly honest British gentleman.
- Hollywood Healing: Averted twice. When Alghren is captured he spends days healing (and kicking his alcoholism). Later on, after being shot in the final battle he limps and stumbles his way to the Emperor.
- Hollywood Tactics: No Bagley, superior firepower and a larger force does not guarantee victory. Later on, Omura somehow gets it into his head the he knows how to lead an army even better than Bagley...
- Honor Before Reason: Basically the entire existence of the Samurai according to the film is based on this, with their refusal to adopt any modern technology intended to look noble but actually seeming slightly pigheaded. This is especially true given the fact that real Samurai eventually put aside their pride and did acquire guns, a necessity since swords just aren't as good against them as they'd like to believe.
- I Did What I Had to Do: "I did what I was ordered to do, and I have no remorse" from Bagley, in reference to slaughtering the women and children of a village that raided his and Algren's forces. The memory of the event still haunts Algren, and by the beginning of the film he has turned to alcoholism to forget about it. He eventually comes to terms with it in his time in captivity.
- Instant Awesome, Just Add Ninja: Katsumoto's samurai camp is attacked by a squad of ninja.
- Although in a moment of Fridge Brilliance aversion of the trope, Katsumoto does not identify them as such when Algren asks him who the men were. At first glance it just looks like an attempt to avoid stating the obvious to Western audiences who've kinda seen ninja before. But it's in keeping with the theoretical bushido system Katsumoto observes, since use of ninja was considered dishonourable by the code and the ninja were almost unmentionable; they arose from the hinin, the "untouchables", of Japanese society.
- Invulnerable Horses: In the last battle, many samurai have their horses shot out from underneath them. But other horses are seen running away riderless.
- Jerkass: Omura is pompous, self-serving and will stop at nothing to advance himself and his interests. Bagley is a man of the times who believes in his own cultural and racial superiority and has no qualms about massacring lesser peoples, inclusive women and children.
- Karmic Death: Algren has spent years hoping to get an opportunity to bestow one upon Bagley. He eventually succeeds.
- Katanas Are Just Better: Katana, as well as the other trappings of the samurai warrior, are quite fetishized throughout the course of the film. Though, realistically, they are completely no match for Gatling guns.
- Kill'Em All: Algren excepted, every single Samurai at the final battle dies, along with Bagley and presumably a sizable majority of his men in the final charge.
- Knights Templar: Algren learns that Katsumoto believes himself to be a servant of the Emperor
- Last Stand: Algren makes a last stand in the opening battle, bravely fighting back countless samurai with everything at his disposal. The samurai army makes its own last stand in the end, knowing that they cannot actually defeat the enemy army. Two real life last stands serve as conceptual reference points - Custer's at the Little Big Horn, and the Spartans at Thermopylae.
- Laser-Guided Karma: The emperor making a pauper of Omura at the film's end is poetic justice for the latter's greed.
- Leave Behind a Pistol: Variation. When Katsumoto is imprisoned, a guard leaves him a tanto, and tells him to save everyone else the trouble. He doesn't.
- Manly Tears: At the end of it all, Algren with Katsumoto, Japanese Lieutenant guy, and Algren with the Emperor. Also, the audience.
- "Perfect. They are... all... perfect."
- Me Love You Long Time: Taka falls in love with Algren.
- Mighty Whitey: Sort of. While Algren does manage to ingratiate himself fairly easily into the samurai's leadership, his combat skills are merely good, rather than great. It's his tactical nous, such as successfully working out a way for "savages with bows and arrows" to defeat an army backed by howitsers and gatling guns. The new perspective such an outside as Algren is able to provide makes it rather understandable that the samurai would choose to benefit from his presence among them.
- Indeed, the contributions Algren makes are not so much having a superior tactical brain compared to the samurai as knowing western tactics, which the Imperial Army have been trained to use, to a nicety. He knows what they will do far better than Katsumoto does, and that is how he is able to engineer a victory (up until the Gatling guns, which are a new development, get deployed).
- Ninja: A group of them are sent by Omura to kill Katsumoto and attack the village at night.
- Mooks/RedShirtArmy: Since the film is primarily told from Algren's perspective, the Imperial army are the latter in the first battle, and the former in the last.
- More Dakka: The row of gatling guns in the final battle.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Katsumoto is a fictional counterpart to Saigo Takamori, who led the Satsuma Rebellion, and is generally thought of as the "last true Samurai". Of course, the real Saigo wore a Western-style military uniform into battle...
- Pride: Bagley and Omura are far too confident in their firearms and derisive of the Samurai's fighting abilities - after nearly 300 years of peace - early on in the film. The former appears to learn the err of his ways, suggesting sending in skirmishers rather than a main attack force at the start of the final battle with the samurai. The latter has definitely not not learned a thing, overriding Bagley and sending his men to the slaughter rather than listening to his paid military adviser.
- Putting the Band Back Together: When Bagley enthusiastically encourages Algren to rejoin the army and help train the Japanese, Algren (who is completely hammered) starts cracking up and lampshades this trope by saying, "The corps back together--it's just so...inspiring!" and nearly falls off his chair laughing.
- Quintessential British Gentleman: Simon Graham, though he's more lively than the stereotypical British scholar, a typical trait of whom is generally not a fascination with execution and torture.
- Rousing Speech: Nathan recounts the Battle of Thermopylae to Katsumoto before they go into their own outnumbered battle.
- This and the aforementioned Culture Clash are played with when things are looking to turn out a lot like Custer and his men...
Katsumoto: What happened to the warriors at Thermopylae?
Algren: [grinning] Dead to the last man.
- Samurai: ... no, really?
- Scenery Porn: And how.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Algren, because he saw the people he killed as people, but not Bagley, because he has no empathy for 'savages'.
- The Smart Guy: Simon Graham, obviously, but also Algren, from a military perspective at least.
- Snow Means Death : Or in this case, Cherry Blossoms.
- Stock British Phrases: "Jolly good" is said three times, once by Simon Graham upon meeting Algren, and twice by Nobutada as a basic way of mocking the Westerner.
- Tactful Translation: Simon Graham describes getting in trouble for not doing this. Ironically, he now makes a living of accurately translating other peoples' lies.
- Taking the Bullet: "Bob" in the final battle.
- Taking You with Me: The point of the final battle. It's not about winning; it's about sending a message.
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: For Algren it sure does!
- The Triple: Simon Graham suggests Algren says a word or two to him in the language of his Native American opponents. He suggests "Hello", "Goodbye" or "Cut his tongue out and boil him in oil," the latter eliciting disturbed looks from Algren and Gant.
- The Voiceless: "Bob", whose first and only line in the movie is "Algren-san!" before taking the aforementioned bullet.
- Warrior Poet: Katsumoto, literally. He writes haiku in addition to being a master swordsman.
- Truth in Television, mostly, as samurai of the bushido era were supposed to be this.
- Waterfall Shower: Nathan comes across his host (the widow of the man he killed) taking a waterfall Shower of Awkward.
- White Stallion: Katsumoto rides one.
- Word of God: Some viewers bristled with the assumption that a white American man was the eponymous "Last Samurai", but the word of god clarified that the title refers to Katsumoto and his samurai.
- The word "samurai" is an irregular noun and is the same both singular and plural.
- Yamato Nadeshiko: Taka.
- You Shall Not Pass: Nobutada.