The Last Samurai

I recently saw The Last Samurai for the first time.  I have to admit that I avoided ever watching this movie because I thought it was going to be like Seven Years in Tibet.  I don’t know why, but my mind just linked the two.  At any rate, I watched this movie when I was exhausted.  I thought it would be one that I could fall asleep to, but instead I stayed up for the entire 12 hours that it played (okay, a bit of an exaggeration).  This movie, while long, was one of the greatest movies I have seen.  And this blog is dedicated to why I believe it to be so (3 reasons).

It deals with facing your past.  All of us have been affected, for good or bad, by the things we have been through.  Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise), a captain under Col. Custer’s leadership, was ordered (and so complied) to kill “savages” no matter age or sex.  It was one thing he could not handle.  He began drinking and turned to alcohol to deal with the pain.  He went to Japan, contracted to teach the Japanese army modern warfare, but was wounded in the first battle.  The samurai, who thrashed the Japanese army, took him back to their village.  The wife of the samurai he killed took care of him, dressing his wounds, and nursing him back to health.  Through this time he would demand sake, but was refused.  He would wake in the night having had nightmares and scream in agony wanting the pain of his past to go away.  He finally had to deal with its reality.

It deals with your enemy.  Most of us only can see what we want to see, which is generally our side of issues, whether they are religious, political, or what have you.  We vilify those who do not have the same worldview or understand as we do.  This again was Captain Algren’s perspective.  He knew the samurai were his enemies but only because he was told they were holding up progress.  They were enemies of the emperor.  Yet, having lived with them for months, he began to see things differently.  He saw the world from their point of view. They did not believe they were enemies of the emperor, but rather they were still commissioned to protect the emperor, and that is what they would do.  It was their duty, even if they were demonized for doing it.  Algren began to agree with those who were once his enemies.  At one point in time, one of the sons of the samurai Algren had killed earlier, asked: “Will you fight the white men, too?”

“If they come here, yes,” replied Algren.

“Why?”

“Because they come to destroy what I have come to love.”

Finally, this movie was filled with honor.  While I would completely disagree with the tradition of suicide honor, the concept of dying for honor is one that I cannot help but go back and forth mentally on.  What I appreciated in this movie was that honor permeated every part.  There was honor for self and honor for others.  There was honor for tradition and honor for completing one’s duty.  Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe), the leader of the Samurai and village, is filled with honor.  When he came to terms that the way of the Samurai was over he was willing to do the honorable thing.  “The way of the Samurai is not necessary anymore,” Katsumoto told Algren.

“Necessary?  What could be more necessary?”

“I will die by the sword.  My own, or my enemy’s.” (even great warriors and leaders come to points of despair).

“Then let it be your enemy’s,” concludes Algren.

They then escape from under guard and prepare the Samurai for battle.  They will die for what they believe in.  They will feel no shame, but fight in honor.  Katsumoto does die, having been gunned down in battle, Algren takes him his own sword that he may die honorably.  The entire Japanese army sees this happening and each man removes his had and bows in honor.

When we live in a day where people could care less about honor, seeing a movie like this burns the passions of honor within the heart.  There is rarely any honor in words, in life, in work.  As Algren wrote in his diary: “They are an intriguing people.  From the moment they wake, they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue.”  Most of us, myself included, tend to simply live closer to the haphazard lifestyle and so come forth with a life without direction, where we wonder what we accomplished when we die.  Dying with honor never crosses our minds.

I will be going back to this movie time and again.  It must become at least an annual movie for me.  It is definitely in my top five movies that I regard as must sees (no particular order): Tombstone, The Last Samurai, Braveheart, A Few Good Men, Remember the Titans.  How about yourself?  What did you think of The Last Samurai?  What are your top five movies that are must sees?  Let me know.  Leave a comment.

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