Some notes on The Last Samurai: first, beware of any work of popular culture that has “Last” in the title. It is usually used to conjure up a mythic past, and it signals a strong nostalgic longing for “the good old days” or “the way things used to be.” Any such cultural production is bound to conceal a conservative view of contemporary society.
Second, The Last Samurai is essentially Dances with Wolves transplanted to Japan. Instead of the noble Native Americans fighting for their disappearing way of life, it is the noble samurai fighting for their disappearing way of life. In both cases the enemy is a disease called modernity, and Western culture (which is paradoxically validated by the end of the movie in the form of the triumphant rugged individual) is the carrier. Modernity is characterized by a disregard for the past, for tradition, for ancestors. Modernity focuses on style, not simplicity; machinery and steel, rather than nature and the body. The past in The Last Samurai is exemplified by Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai. He possesses a wisdom and insight that the rest of us can only find in Chicken Soup for the Soul. The fact that this mystical Japanese warrior-philosopher speaks perfect English only slightly undercuts his credibility.
Third, apparently the last samurai turns out to an American, which is supposed to make us feel good, I guess. You could argue that Katsumoto is the last samurai. He is, after all, the one leading the fight against the Japanese emperor’s flirtation with European and American culture. But he dies. Who is left in his place is Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), an American soldier of fortune hired by the emperor to train the royal troops. The emperor’s goal? To crush the rebellious samurai. Algren, however, is captured by the samurai in his first battle against them, and he slowly adopts their way of life (a la Dances with Wolves). He winds up becoming Katsumoto’s right-hand man. Katsumoto dies in the final battle and Algren lives. The film ends with Algren returning to Katsumoto’s village, where he is bound to fall in love with Katsumoto’s sister and become a surrogate father to her little sons. This makes Tom Cruise, with his indomitable fighting spirit, the de facto last samurai, in my eye at least.
Fourth, all throughout the film’s extended battle sequences, something that the novelist Don DeLillo wrote in White Noise, his brilliant dissection of American violence and culture, ran through my head: “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage….War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.” This made me wonder: the glorification of war in The Last Samurai — and it is glorified to a troubling degree — what nostalgia gives rise to it?
If the movie had been made for a Japanese audience, I can see how the nostalgia would be for the samurai. But this movie is intended for an American audience, and the closest thing we have in modern America to the samurai are, well, nothing we have is even close.
The answer, I think, lies in the two images of America presented in The Last Samurai: on one hand, there is the hero Tom Cruise, a nearly broken man at the start of the film, haunted by his participation in the massacre of an Indian village. One the other hand, there is his commanding officer, Colonel Bagley, who, from his very first sneer you know is the bad guy. He is the one who ordered the massacre (shown in bits and pieces in stylized overexposed flashbacks). Bagley is a humanitarian of the lowest order, one step away from General Custer himself, the foolhardy white soldier who lurks on the margins of the film as a symbol of the arrogant swaggering American. Colonel Bagley is such a disagreeable figure that the audience is forced into identifying with Tom Cruise — who is really not such a likable character either, once you think about it. Yes, he does redeem himself, but only through the stereotypically orientalized mysticism of the East.
So, there are two types of soldiers of fortune in The Last Samurai, one bad, one good. And this is the main point I want to make: even if we only identify with the good soldier of fortune, we are still identifying with a soldier of fortune — someone who kills for money. When Tom Cruise joins the cause of the samurai he learns that honor is the more important thing to fight for, but in his case this is only because he has nothing left to fight for. And it isn’t even his own honor he fights for, but someone else’s. The American is so morally impoverished that he even has to steal someone else’s honor.
This is the kind of American we’re nostalgic for at the turn of the new millennium.