Message of The Last Samurai (spoilers)

A month or so back I got my first chance to see The Last Samurai. The movie as a whole wasn’t terribly impressive, but I was left a little confused about its message.

At the beginning, Nathan is rather disillusioned with warfare, noting the devestating effect of warfare on the losing (not to mention winning) side. However, throughout the movie we see him slowly integrating with the samurai, and eventually fighting along side them.

OK, that’s fine, the message is that he is defending tradition in the face of modern corruption.

However, in the movie the message is brought up about Custer’s stand, with Nathan calling him a fool etc etc. With the movie as it ends, however, one could get the impression that Custer’s stand, along with the samurais’, is an epic, honorable thing with the glory of a true warrior blah blah blah.

Towards the end of the movie, I looked at my friend and we said, almost together, “what about the women and children?” who are left almost totally behind to fend for themselves.

So the message I get from the movie is that the most important thing to do is avoid change and defend your traditions at all costs, disregarding family, society, and pretty much everything else. That going out guns blazing in an honorable last stand is the best way to do things. That it is better to die with honor than live with… um, well, to live?

Is that an accurate view of the message? Or am I missing something? If so, this is probably one of the few modern movies that starts with an anti-war message and moves to a pro-war message, which is interesting.

Or should the message be about people unable to cope with a changing world, holding on to an archaic past that has long since died, and unwilling to change to provide the best care for their families and societies? Living in a tribal, backwards thinking, patriarchal gathering unable to provide for itself? If so, the movie strikes me as clumsy and asinine.

I think the message is “Costner got to make a shitload of money in a samurai movie full of cool battle scenes”. :stuck_out_tongue:

I saw it, and I see your point.

I don’t think it’s so much about tradition as it is about honor. It seems to
me that Nathan was disillusioned by what he perceived to be the dishonor
of the US Army. His stay with the samurai showed him there was an
honorable way to fight and die, and that it was worth doing so if the
cause was a just one.

YMMV, of course.

I thought the message was that there’s nothing an ancient culture can learn in thousands of years of social evolution that an attractive white guy can’t do better with a couple days practice.

The ‘message’ of the movie was to turn history on its head and make the Samurai (who are admittedly more flashy and ‘cooler’) into the good guys (in reality they were the reactionaries trying to stifle Japan and keep it in the feudal age) and the government (except the poor Emperor, who in reality was pretty much the driving force for change) the ‘bad guys’.

BTW, the Samurai had firearms as well…its bullshit that they didn’t use them for ‘tradition’ reasons or whatever. They had been using them since the Portugues first gave them to them (matchlocks) and they began copying and making their own.

Also, no friggin way the Japanese would bring in an American to train their army…American military prowess was a joke until WWII. If they were going to bring in anyone, my money would be on a European (probably a German or Englishman), as they were the best at killing during that age.

So, like many modern ‘historical’ movies coming out of hollywood, the ‘message’ is to make money and screw historical accuracy. Samurai are ‘cool’, make them the hero.


The real message was obviously that one should keep an eye out for NINJAS! when attending a play.

That is an interesting point, I hadn’t considered it in quite that way. Does that translate to dishonorable action of the Americanized Japanese military?

That is always a good point, too O_o

Holy sh*t, ninjas!

Actually, I believe the consensus among historians is that in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the US had the most powerful (and more to the point the most modern) army in the world. The US Army had four years’ worth of experience of war on a very large scale conducted against an enemy of equal sophistication. The US Civil War was a giant laboratory for new tactics and new weapons.

I’m a sucker for the whole samarai ethos thing, seen more good old fashioned Japanese slice 'em ups than I can remember, but one thing ought not to be forgotten: as is common with “ruling class” type groups, but perhaps more so in the case of the samurai, the samurai were entirely parasitical, they had no other function but squeezing their livelihood out of the peasantry.

The conflicts of the Meijei Restoration don’t much lend themselves to “good guy/bad guy” roles, but it is hard to have much sympathy for such an inherently useless bunch of people.

I thought the message was that Tom Cruise wanted an oscar real bad.


Doesn’t this thread belong in Cafe Society?

This is a facts vs perception type thing. Sure, the US military was probably the most powerful for a short time in the 1860’s due to the actual combat experience of its troops, as well as the high level of mobilization. However, the perception at the time was that the US was a joke, that for warfare you went to Europe for REAL training. I might be wrong but I don’t think I am…I think in reality the Japanese went mostly to Europe for most if not all of its training in modernizing its military (as well as the other aspects of their society they were trying to modernize).

Its always hard to have much sympathy for reactionaries that are just trying to keep things the way they were at the expense of their people. It was pretty crystal clear when Perry sailed to Japan that the Samurai had stiffled Japan and made it totally vulnerable to to modern European/American powers. And you are totally correct…they WERE a bunch of useless parasites. That was by design in fact…samurai that were writing poetry and writing about the angst of battle weren’t out causing rebellions or killing people. However, when you stagnate your society eventually it comes back and bites you on the ass…big time. China to a lesser degree also suffered from this.

I agree also that neither side lends itself well to being either the ‘good guy’ or the ‘bad guy’.


It was T.C., not K.C., but I understand your mistake. I walked out of that movie saying “That was a pretty good flick-- Dances with Samurai”.

If you want to understand how Samurai and Knights and other feudal aristocrats REALLY operated try watching a few episodes of “The Sopranos”. I contend that the analogy between feudal aristocracts and modern day mafiosi is quite strong.

The led the army, they defended from bandits & pirates. No samurai? Then you have bandit-lords “squeezing their livelihood out of the peasantry”.

If I remember correctly , the Japanese picked a different country, assumed to be the best in this area, as “role model” in each domain they wanted to modernize. So, they studied the administration of country A, sent their engineers to country B, and so on. I wouldn’t remember which country was selected for what purpose, though.

[Moderator Hat ON]

I think this will do better in Cafe Society.

[Moderator Hat OFF]

Yeah, but most of the time, they led the army against each other.

If only Abraham Lincoln had learned this lesson.