What Is the Movie "The Last Samurai" About?

by James Rutter

"The Last Samurai" shows the passing of the traditional warrior class in Japan.

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Edward Zwick directed and co-wrote "The Last Samurai," a historical epic set in late 19th-century Japan. This movie stars Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran hired by the Japanese Emperor Meiji to train his military in modern, Western fighting methods. Ken Watanabe plays Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto, a samurai warrior leading a rebellion against the emperor in a futile attempt to keep Japan true to its feudal traditions.


A Japanese businessman working in the service of the emperor hires Algren, a retired U.S. Army captain, to help modernize the Japanese military forces and defeat the rebelling samurai warrior class. In a pitched battle with the samurai forces, Algren is wounded and the samurai Katsumoto takes him prisoner. While living with the samurai, Algren learns their code of life, falls in love with the widow of a man he slew, and begins fighting beside the samurai after they accept him as one of their own. Katsumoto dies in a final battle in which the Imperial Japanese army crushes the rebellion.

Japan and the West

This movie presents or builds on a number of historical events that occurred in Japan as it made a transition from a feudal society to a modern, industrial civilization. In the early 1850s, the U.S. Navy forced Japan's closed-off society to engage in trade with the Western world. When Japanese leaders began seeing the progress achieved by the West, they wanted to adopt Western technologies while retaining their nation's identity. They hired Westerners to teach them how to do things such as build railroads, rather than become a colony dependent on colonizers. The emperor hired Western military strategists to modernize Japan's army, and "The Last Samurai" showed this way in which Japan began to interact with the Western world.

Japan's Internal Conflict

"The Last Samurai" presents the conflict that some of Japanese felt as their emperor embraced Western-style modernization. By abolishing the samurai class, the emperor eliminated a foundational element in Japanese feudal society, and the samurai revolted. Some segments of Japanese society benefited by modernization and came to resent the samurai. In one scene, this film shows that conflict when a group of citizens accost a defiant samurai in public and hold him down while they cut off his ponytail, a symbol of samurai membership.


The narrative of this movie also tackles the universal theme of human redemption. This theme plays out in Cruise's role; at the beginning of the film, Algren languishes in an alcoholic funk. He has disgraced himself by the atrocities he witnessed and helped commit during the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and he has lost all sense of human civility. When the samurai capture him, he sees the chivalric, principled and noble philosophy of the Bushido code that undergirds the samurai's behavior in war. Through this philosophy, he learns that soldiers can hold onto, and even respect human dignity in warfare. The last line of the film sums up this theme. When the emperor asks Algren to "tell me how he (Katsumoto) died," Cruise replies, "I will tell you how he lived."

About the Author

Since 2005, James Rutter has worked as a freelance journalist for print and Internet publications, including the “News of Delaware County,” “Main Line Times” and Broad Street Review. As a former chemist, college professor and competitive weightlifter, he writes about science, education and exercise. Rutter earned a B.A. in philosophy and biology from Albright College and studied philosophy and cognitive science at Temple University.

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