Summary of "The Last Samurai"

by Rachel Murray
Actor Tom Cruise, star of

Actor Tom Cruise, star of "The Last Samurai," is shown with director Edward Zwick.

Evan Agostini/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Edward Zwick directed "The Last Samurai," an epic drama about an American soldier's role in the conflict between disenfranchised samurai warriors and the Japanese government. Inspired by samurai legend Saigo Takamori, the movie stars Ken Watanabe as samurai Moritsugu Katsumoto and Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren. Despite mixed reviews after its release in 2003, the movie received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in categories such as Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Lead Actor.

Plot Summary

Set in Japan during the 1870s, the movie focuses on Captain Nathan Algren, a veteran of the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. Algren accepts an offer to train the new Japanese Army organized to defeat Japan's last samurai warriors, who are resisting the emperor's westernized policy. After the samurai defeat Algren's ill-prepared soldiers during battle, samurai leader Katsumoto takes Algren prisoner. While held prisoner, Algren develops a respect for the samurai's traditions and code of honor, leading him to question his loyalty to the emperor.


Katsumoto goes to the emperor in an attempt to offer his advice, but since Katsumoto refuses to obey the new laws that forbid him from carrying swords, he is arrested. Algren declines to command the Japanese army, and instead helps Katsumoto escape prison and chooses to fight with the samurai. During the final battle, the samurai, outnumbered and facing an inevitable loss, refuse to surrender. Mortally wounded, Algren assists Katsumoto in committing a ritual suicide. The movie ends with Algren returning to the samurai village and living a life with Taka, a woman he fell in love with.


Movie critics gave "The Last Samurai" both positive and negative reviews. Roger Ebert praised the movie, saying it was "beautifully designed, intelligently written" and "acted with conviction." On the other hand, the "New York Post" said the film, "in which Tom Cruise teaches the 19th-century Japanese to respect their own warrior traditions, is a crock -- a pandering epic that's as phony as it is condescending." "Variety" magazine criticized the movie's originality saying, "it is deficient in fresh dramatic and thematic ideas."


The character Katsumoto is based on Saigo Takamori, who led the samurai during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. A military commander, Saigo originally supported Japan's modernization reform until the government revoked the samurai's feudal privileges. After the Meiji government stripped the samurai of rights such as carrying swords, Saigo commanded several battles against the Imperial Army. In 1877, Saigo led 40,000 rebels in a final revolt. The Imperial army, with superior numbers and modern weapons, defeated the samurai.

Photo Credits

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