3 Stars – Thought-Provoking
The social and spiritual impact upon indigenous cultures coming into contact with the western world has been a mixed bag. The introduction of mechanization with the train, automobile and plane has increased the mobility and opportunity to connect the world into a global community. But the introduction of the gun, factories and nuclear weapons has threatened not only century-old ways of life but also our very existence. This truth in specific form is seen in Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai.”
The setting is Japan during the transition of that nation in the 1870’s. The young Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura) is fascinated with European and American progress and wants to bring his people into what he calls the “modern” world. This transition is not an easy one. Considered a god by his people, Meiji is only a young man who needs guidance to know what this transition is costing him and his people. Yet the honor given him by his people isolates him into the weakened place of becoming a pawn of a greedy advisor, Omura (Masato Harada).
His venerable Samurai teacher, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), identifies the adoption of western life as destructive to their own. Banding together with other Samurai, Katsumoto feels he is ultimately fulfilling his vow to serve the Emperor when he attacks the work teams building track for the trains. This makes him an enemy of Omura.
Turning to the west for the guns and cannons with which to fight the Samurai, Omura hires an American officer, Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), to train Japan’s new army. What he doesn’t know is that Algren has far more in common with Katsumoto than with Omura. Both Algren and Katsumoto are warriors whose lives are motivated by something far different than the profit Omura hopes to make. Both are men of honor whose warrior code, though different in detail, is identical in spirit.
In the first battle, Omura’s ill-prepared army is forced to face the Samurai warriors. Defeated and taken captive, Algren exhibits a fierce warrior nature that impresses Katsumoto who keeps him alive. Isolated in their mountain village by the snows of winter, Algren is able to face some regrets about his past that he has been drowning with alcohol and becomes healed in body and soul. He is captivated not only by the Samurai way of life, adopting it as his own, but he also becomes a faithful friend of Katsumoto.
After a very violent conflict in which the Samurai show such courage and honor in their deaths that they win the hearts of their countrymen, Algren is able to influence the young emperor to decide that Japan will not follow the greed of Omura but will enter the modern world without letting go of its honorable past. Like many solutions, this admirable goal is far more difficult than the Emperor could ever imagine.
- The spirituality of Algren is awakened by the spiritual practices of Katsumoto, but it is unclear whether he accepts the ancestral worship and meditative practices of the Buddhist village or returns to the prayers of his Christian heritage. What do you think is most likely?
- The honor of the warrior way of life is very different from the compassion of a Christian way of life. Where would you place “honor” in the priority list of virtues by which you live your life? What is the difference between the “honor” Katsumoto expressed and “pride?”
- The struggle Algren had with his participation in the murder of a Native American tribe caused him to drown his memories with alcohol. What do you believe would have provided a better resolution of his pain? Did he find that solution with the Samurai?
- The impact western life has had on the east has been difficult to assess. When the first Christian missionaries went to China the Pope gave them the freedom to adopt the indigenous culture into their Christian worship. This had mixed effects. What do you think a missionary should do when bringing the Christian gospel into a non-Christian culture?