Last Samurai, the most ambitious martial arts epic of 2003, was both praised and criticized by its reviewers—praised for its gorgeous cinematography and depiction of traditional Japanese life, criticized for its supposedly clichéd story structure. What many reviewers failed to notice was that Samurai’s narrative did not slavishly follow the oft-condemned Aristotelian three-act structure, but rather followed the twelve-step path of Alcoholics Anonymous. But while the protagonist, Captain Nathan Algren, does indeed fight his own battle with alcohol, another battle is being waged at the same time: the battle against Western civilization, particularly Americanism.
The film opens in 1876. Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), veteran of the Civil War and many battles besides, sits in a dressing room behind a trade show to which he is the main attraction. As his cue to appear onstage comes and goes, he remains seated, drinking away the sorrows brought on by the very guns he is helping to sell.
Like many alcoholics, Algren is soon released from employment and finds himself on the streets. There he is met by his tempter, the Irish Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly), who entices Algren back into the service of that which has made his life so miserable: America. Military personnel from the United States are being hired by the Japanese to westernize their own military. At first he tries to talk his way out of the offer, but his former commander Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) strong-arms him into the deal.
Algren is once again powerless in the face of the booze his country has driven him to.
Once in Japan, Algren meets Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), an Englishman who was at one time creating treaties but is now assigned to Algren as translator. Graham is a bumbling Westerner who comments garrulously on the oddities of Japanese culture and shows little respect for the traditions of the people. Soon Graham takes Algren and Bagley to meet the Emperor, who has, we eventually learn, been weakened in strength and resolve by the very westernizations he is so readily embracing.
The training of the Japanese armies goes slowly. Algren, hastily and unreadily, is forced into leading them to battle against an opposing Samurai force. The samurai cut swiftly into the cowardly ranks of the westernized Japanese, killing many and scattering the rest. Algren fights well—and kills a prominent Samurai warrior in red armor—but is ultimately captured by a force far more powerful than himself.
At this point, the order of the steps has been slightly rearranged in the film for dramatic tension.
Algren is taken captive and his belongings searched. Among these is a journal in which he has detailed the society and culture of the American Indians he helped to slaughter so many years ago. Katsumoto, the lord of the Samurai, reads this journal and comes to respect the Indians after speaking of them with Algren. During this time, Algren is cared for by Taka, Katsumoto’s sister. She nurses his wounds and, slowly, his alcoholism.
It is not long before Algren realizes that Taka is actually the widow of the warrior in red armor he killed in battle, which triggers an immense sorrow for his past sins. His remorse is dramatized by an intense dream where he relives the slaughter of a helpless Indian tribe. This soul-searching continues for many months.
Algren makes a connection between the Indians and the Samurai and resolves not to make the same mistakes again. He works hard to learn enough of the Japanese language to apologize to Taka for the pain he has caused her. She says that it was his duty and destiny, but thanks him for the apology, nonetheless.
Alcoholics Anonymous encourages a belief in God, but in a very tolerant and non-dogmatic way: “God as we [understand] Him.” Likewise, Algren slowly warms to the vague spiritual beliefs of the Samurai. He states in a voice-over journal entry that he has never been a particularly God-fearing man (a Western concept), but cannot deny that there is something spiritual about the Samurai way of life. His spiritual journey throughout the film is a uniquely Eastern one, and he finds more and more peace as he adjusts to their philosophies.
The largest leap Algren makes is in his opinion of General Custer, who led his troops into a battle where they were grossly outnumbered and subsequently slaughtered. Algren, with his Western mindset, believes that Custer was a fool to have lost so many lives in a battle he could not have won. Katsumoto, however, believes that Custer attained great honor by daring to oppose so great a force. According to Samurai ethics, Custer’s loss was in fact an honorable defeat.
Our good Captain was sorely wounded in his battle with the Samurai and only slowly regains his health and strength. During this period, he also learns their fighting style. In each of his spars he is roundly defeated and humbled, until one day when he opens his mind to the same spiritual awareness that gives the warriors their speed and strength. While this does not give him the ability to defeat his sparring opponent, it does allow him to end in a draw.
His ability to remain spiritually calm in the face of battle serves him well in the following months.
Not only does Algren ask for forgiveness, he goes so far as to perform acts of penance for those he has offended. Slowly he takes on the role of father to Taka’s sons, becoming the male role model he earlier had violently taken from them. Not only this, but when Katsumoto is attacked by ninja assassins in the midst of a village-wide celebration, Algren throws himself into battle to protect those who have taken him captive. By willingly placing his life in jeopardy, he shows that his remorse is honest and that he is willing to do whatever it takes to make amends.
The story here would seem to deviate from the ninth step, in that it repudiates taking any action that would injure others. Algren has no second thoughts about killing the ninja intruders, but this is because the ninja also follow a similar philosophy of death. Death is not an injury if dealt and received honorably.
Eventually, Algren is returned to his people and reinstated in his military position. He is tempted once again to go back to his old way of American life—to fall off the wagon. Indeed, as soon as the plans to destroy the Samurai are made, he nearly gives in to the bottle—and to America. But he realizes that he can never go back to his old way of life, and as a further act of penance fights to release Katsumoto from imprisonment by the weak and westernized Emperor.
He returns to the Samurai village to join them in battle against the creeping modernizations of the West, and brings along the converted Graham to keep a lasting record of these brave warriors.
Having had an immense spiritual experience, Algren preaches his new Eastern gospel by way of actions rather than words. He organizes the Samurai’s final battle and fights alongside them, wearing the armor of Taka’s dead husband. When all of the warriors save Katsumoto and Algren have been mowed down by the industrialist machine guns and superior artillery, Algren assists the Samurai leader in his final act of honor: hara-kiri. His remaining roots to the West—and to its booze—have also been severed in this last rite.
These acts of Samurai honor earn him the ear of the Emperor, much to the chagrin of the Emperor’s West-loving advisors. When he asks Algren to describe Katsumoto’s death, Algren replies with the opening to an (undepicted) sermon: “I will tell you how he lived.”
This is not the first Hollywood film to sing the praises of the East and the sins of the West, nor will it be the last. The entertainment industry has long been enamored with Eastern spirituality (though it sells spirituality that bears little more than a fleeting resemblance to the faiths actually practiced in the East), often to the point of whitewashing the faults of the East. The West has its sins, to be sure, but so does the East; by the period depicted in The Last Samurai, Samurai culture had become largely decadent. Will Hollywood’s disenchantment with the West be followed by disenchantment with the East as its elites tire of their self-fabricated philosophies? Where, then, will they turn?
Jonathan McDonald lives in St. Louis, where he creates websites for people who don’t know how. His academic interests include film, literature, and astrophysics, and he has contributed to a number of websites over the years. He thinks that Clash of the Titans deserves a modern-day remake.