The Last Samurai Section 2




Set in Meiji era Japan, Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai presents a conflict between traditional and modern Japanese culture.  The film centers around the character of Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who is hired by the Japanese government to train the Japanese national army in modern warfare. Haunted by his past experiences in repressing Native American revolts, Algren puts little value on his work or life and turns to alcohol to forget his painful memories. However, after being defeated and captured by a group of rebel samurai led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), Algren learns from the tranquility and focus of the samurai lifestyle and is finally able to confront his past.  Algren comes to respect the samurai and ultimately fights on their side against the Imperial government. Ironically, however, the samurai also claim to be acting in service of the emperor. After a climactic battle in which the samurai are defeated, Algren describes Katsumoto’s honorable suicide to the emperor. In recognition of Katsumoto’s suicide and the traditional values for which he died, the emperor decides Japanese cultural identity cannot be sacrificed for the sake of creating a modern Japan.

The Last Samurai makes a commentary on intercultural exchange by arguing that, when people of different cultures and values come together, inflexibility and refusal to move away from adherence to extremes, namely traditionalism or modernization, leads to conflict.  The film explores this idea in various ways. To begin, Cold War Orientalism’s “sentimental mode” encourages viewers to sympathize with the traditionalist aspects of Japanese society through Algren’s assimilation into Japan’s samurai community. Yet, Algren’s perpetuation of the sentimentalist narrative and experiences in both modern/traditional society averts extremism and saves Japan’s cultural identity. Second, the depiction of gender roles across cultures shows how the modernization in Western society versus the traditional Japanese values affect gender roles. Third, what allows the emperor and Algren to act on their morals rather than simply uphold the status quo is some form of intercultural exchange. Fourth, the reversal of the role of the “white knight” and the lack of a sexual liaison in the romance between Algren and Taka is presented to be an example of genuine cultural exchange.  Finally, it is important to note that, although The Last Samurai is about cultural exchange, it contains elements that are Orientalist in nature.  The film identifies “traditional” Japanese culture with negative values, undermining the notion that cultures must mix for society to flourish, and upholding the superiority of “Western” values.

The Sentimental Narrative:

Dereck Chapman

As a commentary of cross-cultural exchange, it is encouraging for Western viewers to conceive of Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai as a departure from past depictions of East Asia (in this case Japan) in film as backward and in opposition to American interests. For instance, historical Hollywood representations of East Asia as connected the threat of the “yellow peril” now seem ridiculous and out of place. Repression of “feudalistic” scenes and dialogue romanticizing the samurai and their way of living, as took place with the Civil Information and Education (CIE) section’s censorship of the film Daibosatsu Pass during America’s occupation of Japan after WWII, have seemingly all but dissipated. In some respects, the construction of a more globalized, closely connected world community has encouraged a “progressive” view within Western society in which the historical depictions of East Asia as the “other” and “foreign” are vehemently rejected. However, within The Last Samurai’s rendering of intercultural conflict in Meiji era Japan as rooted in a battle of modernist/traditionalist extremism, former themes used to distinguish American interaction with East Asia in film continue to make an appearance. Cold War Orientalism’s “sentimentalist mode” encourages viewers to sympathize with the traditionalist aspects of Japanese society through Nathan Algren’s eventual assimilation into Japan’s feudal samurai community. Yet, Algren’s perpetuation of the sentimental narrative and subsequent experiences in both modern/traditional societies averts extremism and in turn saves Japan’s cultural identity.

In her book, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961, Christina Klein explores the foundations of the sentimental narrative in its original Cold War Orientalist context by evaluating several defining features. Briefly synthesizing, the sentimentalist mode is best reflected through the idea of the individual self-in-relation to others (Klein, 14). Pursuing this course enables the formation of bonds, which are created despite potential barriers, such as race, nationality, political orientation, etc. (14). Emotions are the core of such sentimental connections and function to maintain and forge sentimental exchanges. Sentimental bonds are typically “characterized by reciprocity and exchange, often of a personal intellectual, or material nature” and any severing of bonds “represents the greatest trauma within the sentimental universe” (14).

Nathan Algren’s first interaction with the samurai leader, Katsumoto, begins the weaving of the sentimental narrative within The Last Samurai. Upon Algren’s refusal to introduce himself to Katsumoto, Katsumoto expresses to Algren that “many of our customs seem strange to you, the same is true of yours. For example, not to introduce yourself is extremely rude even among enemies” (43:41). On the one hand, this dialogue suggests the origins of the cross-cultural friendship between Katsumoto and Nathan Algren that spans most of the movie. Katsumoto’s desire to converse and interact with Algren supposes that his Western identity poses no racial obstacle. Moreover, Algren’s later reveal of his name to Katsumoto also suggests that his East Asian (Japanese) nationality and position as the traditionalist samurai leader represents no type of communicative barrier. Yet, this initial interaction further encourages viewers to start to sympathize with the traditionalist samurai society. Children of a globalized world community, modern viewers relate to Katsumoto’s implication of attempting to understand elements of different cultures, even if such customs appear mysterious.

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Algren and Katsumoto’s conversations more deeply reflect an appreciation for traditional culture with the expansion of the characters’ friendship and further development of the sentimental narrative. As Algren attempts to reconcile the atrocities of his warrior past, Katsumoto offers a solution through mentioning the samurai warrior philosophy, Bushido. Katsumoto asks Algren: “Did you know, life in every breath, every cup of tea, every life we take…the way of the warrior” (1:13:58).

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Within this scene, the appeal to sympathize with traditional samurai life and culture increases. Viewers not only experience the emotional core of the sentimental bond between Katsumoto and Algren as Katsumoto attempts to relieve Algren’s inner struggle, but also the reciprocity of the characters’ relationship that eliminates all barriers. Algren discusses his personal past with Katsumoto and Katsumoto, in turn, offers his own wisdom.

Yet, the development of the sentimental narrative within the film extends past Algren’s interaction with Katsumoto. Algren slowly establishes bonds with most of the samurai village, which strengthens viewer’s connection to the samurai and their way of life. However, a different sense of bond reciprocity also emerges in which Algren’s Western/modern conceptions reflect onto traditionalist characters. For instance, as Algren develops an attachment to Katsumoto’s sister, Taka, he ignores traditional Japanese customs. When Taka is seen carrying a heavy basin Algren quickly offers to help. However, when Taka asserts that Japanese men do not behave in such ways, Algren establishes “I am not Japanese” (1:01:50).

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In this context, those aspects of modern society considered to be positive by today’s “globalized standards” are reinforced.

The sentimental narrative reaches its climax in the last scenes of the film. Upon Katsumoto’s death, the bond shared between him and Algren is to some degree severed. Yet, Algren’s experiences forged while in in the samurai village are not forgotten. When standing before the emperor, Algren’s Western attire and possession of Katsumoto’s sword supports his representation as the fusion between modern/traditional societies. Recognizing this, the emperor realizes agreeing to complete modernization without acknowledging tradition would forsake Japan’s cultural identity. Within The Last Samurai, the mechanics of the sentimental narrative discourage extremism by enabling both Algren and viewers to see themselves in relation to both modern and traditional society.

Abigail Kelsen:

Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai features the theme of gender roles. This device most readily shows the stereotypical nature of both men and women. The film also allows the viewer to see how gender roles differ across different cultures through Westernization and modernization.

An interesting facet of this film is its featuring of only one female. Leader Katsumoto’s sister Taka is the only female perspective offered in this film. She portrays dual personalities of the passive, Asian wife and the strong-willed independent. Gina Marchetti best describes this split personality in her book “Romance and the ‘Yellow Peril’”. In it she talks about Westernization uprooting the submissive nature of Asian wives and bringing forth their own desires. In this film, Taka foremost portrays the passive Asian wife. She did not speak to Nathan for the first half of the film. When Nathan is injured and comes to the village, Taka nurses him back to health quietly in her home, emphasizing her care-taking ability. She never confronts or yells at Nathan, but rather tries to live with her problems. This is seen in the scene when Nathan tracks mud into the house, and she is seen cleaning up his tracks in the background.

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Taka is emphasized as a dutiful housewife in the scene where she tries to carry a heavy pot and Nathan tries to assist her. She says that it is her duty as a woman of the village to take on that role and may not ask men for help. From serving everyone at dinner to dressing Nathan in warrior robes, Taka ultimately portrays the typical caretaker of the household. The scene where she is bathing herself and Nathan walks in on her shows her fragility and meekness. These traits are painted to be the personality of the perfect wife, silent and obedient.

Taka also portrays a more opinionated role, not seen before in past Cold War Orientalism films. In the scene where she talks to her brother Katsumoto, she complains about her current situation with Nathan, an action not found in the quintessential subservient wife ( Taka voices her own opinions at times and tries to be an individual while maintaining her duties as a housewife. This more complex portrayal of a woman during this time has not previously been portrayed in films. Taka is not being influenced by modernization or Westernization. She was already opinionated before she was affected by Nathan’s Western role. Instead the film is portraying a complex Asian woman, because this is one of the first opportunities a film has been presented to create this kind of character. The past films about Cold War Orientalism were made around the 1950s. The progression of gender equality was still very much in progress at the time these films were being made, so the relationships between men and women were accurate at the time. Now films are able to feature women from that era without making them lose their identities.

The more featured roles of men are also quite different culturally. The Western characters portray what is thought of as modern mannerisms for that era. They prefer civil conversations where they are disarmed, proper, and circle around discussions with formalities such as whiskies and schmoozing. These passive aggressive traits are exemplified in the scene where Nathan is talking to Omura, and Omura is strongly suggesting that Nathan leads his soldiers. The samurai do not play around with each other. They prefer to be straight to the point and do not mingle or save face. To gain respect in their culture, Nathan has to prove his rank and importance. In the scene where he fights with Ujio, Nathan tries to gain this respect by beating him. In a later scene where he and Ujio fight and end up in a draw, Nathan finally gains his respect. In a way, the Western characters have adopted more feminine aspects in communication and presentation. They are well groomed and do more delegation than actual fighting as they rise in rank. This is most prevalently seen in the scene where the samurai and the soldiers are fighting.

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Katsumoto leads his army right into the thick of battle, where as the Western leaders sit atop a hill and watch their soldiers fight. Rather than have brute strength and force, the Western men are more devious and use wealth and weapons to win their battles.

The basic traits of the device of gender roles are still intact. There are no women fighting, the men focus on honor and power, the women are still subservient to the men, and the women are passive, dutiful characters. Westernization and modernization affect the differences within the gender roles and lead to discrepancies within the cities of Japan, as the movements affect more and more people.

Depictions of Western and Asian Morality in The Last Samurai: an Improvement upon Previous Discourse

By Betsy Goldemen

As a discourse, The Last Samurai (2003) reveals that the American perception of people in Japan is increasingly reflecting a genuine understanding of Japanese values which does not rely on a white character to establish a baseline for morality, but which presents Japanese and American morality side by side, leaving viewers to grapple with the positive and negative aspects of each culture. As opposed to The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Sayonara (1957), each of which justify white privilege in different ways, The Last Samurai presents a much more balanced, but not necessarily more accurate, depiction of Western and Asian society, as both Asian and Caucasian characters are presented as both good and evil. In addition, The Last Samurai underscores the positive aspects of intercultural exchange, as it contributes to both Emperor Meiji and Nathan Algren’s ability to act on their morals rather than simply uphold a status quo with which they are dissatisfied.

The message in Sayonara differs with that of The Last Samurai in that the white male characters’ different levels of assimilation into Japanese society signal their valuation of Japanese society.  Nathan Algren’s display of regret echoes that of General Gruver, as both are disturbed by the atrocities of warfare. In Sayonara, however, the morality of war is only a passing comment about Gruver’s ability to see the faces of the pilots he shoots, whereas the content of the plot is reversed in The Last Samurai. In The Last Samurai, Algren is able to form a deep relationship with the Japanese, as opposed to General Gruver, who displays little interest in Japanese society. According to Marchetti in Romance and the ‘Yellow Peril’: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, the film Sayonara “ultimately rationalizes white male privilege since all of the sub plots end unsatisfactorily for people of other genders, race, or class” (Marchetti 143). I agree with this assessment because Hana Ogi, for one, is forced to make a choice between the dance community she loves and the man she loves, a dissatisfying ending. This stands in contrast to The Last Samurai, although it may at first appear to rationalize white male privilege since only Algren remains alive at the end of the film. However, the good Asian characters also have a satisfactory ending because their death results in a favorable reversal in Emperor Meiji’s behavior, making the samurai into meaningful martyrs rather than renegades who die senselessly.

When Algren looks at himself in the mirror, he sees the images of the Native Americans fleeing the brutality he inflicted upon them.

When Algren looks at himself in the mirror, he sees the images of the Native Americans fleeing the brutality he inflicted upon them.

Furthermore, the characterization of the Asians in the film is as balanced as the depiction of the white characters in the film, and represents an improvement on previous films depicting East Asian characters. First of all, there are both good and evil white characters. Algren has a superior sense of morality in comparison to most of his peers, as he feels a deep sense of regret at having killed the Native Americans, whereas Colonel Bagley displays no remorse, referring to the Native Americans as “brutal” (14:23). Algren is depicted as being more or less a lone dissenter for thinking that Custer was wrong to march into battle (50:15-52:40). The scene also provides a valuable comparison to previous discourse on East Asian society and, more specifically, morality. For instance, the scene demonstrates that captive and captor have an equal sense of morality and ability to justify their actions. This is opposed to The Bitter Tea of General Yen, in which the White captor, Meagan is depicted as morally superior. In contrast, when Algren wonders why he is being held captive in the first place, and Katsumoto responds it is because they are fellow warriors and he hopes they will learn from one another (50:15-52:40).  Furthermore, Katsumoto and Algren disagree over the meaning of General Custer’s battle, but each has well developed moral reasons for believing so:  Algren is haunted by his personal memories, which Katsumoto empathizes with as a fellow warrior, and Katsumoto is motivated by his belief that a samurai’s duty to service continues to the very moment of his death. As opposed to a cruel and selfish captor, Katsumoto refers to himself and Algren as fellow students of war, and hopes to learn from him. Furthermore, the wealthy Asian characters are depicted as greedy and controlling, while the samurai do as their name suggests, acting as loyal servants to the Emperor. The Asian characters in the film are not dominated by Algren’s influence,  but act in consistent ways throughout the film. For instance, Katsumoto consistently shows his loyalty to the emperor by refusing to tell the emperor what to do. This is consistent with his behavior in the final battle scene, which is fought so that the Emperor can understand the importance of taking action on the basis of principle. In addition, in the final battle scene, it is not Algren who is exercising influence over Katsumoto by suggesting they go to battle in the style of the people of Thermopolis, but rather Algren establishing cognitive dissonance between the possible parallels of the final battle scene to Custer, who he sees as a murderer, and the samurai, who he sees to be defending a noble cause. Thus, it is Algren who has been influenced by the samurai to change his behavior to conform with his principles rather than the other way around.

Katsumoto shows his traditional values and his loyalty by suggesting that the Emperor find his own voice rather than look to advisers.

Katsumoto shows his traditional values and his loyalty by suggesting that the Emperor find his own voice rather than look to advisers.

Finally, the film makes a positive statement about the value of intercultural exchange, as it shows that both Algren and Katsumoto are strengthened by their interaction with characters from other cultures and backgrounds. Algren’s moral doubts about killing an enemy that is not necessarily bad are confirmed.  Although the intercultural exchange in The Last Samurai happens almost by fluke, the message that emerges from the experience is ultimately positive, as Algren is a changed man who no longer compromises his morals the way he did when he blunted himself to his true emotions using alcohol. The fact that Algren is depicted sympathetically whilst fighting against armies trained by his own countrymen shows that the focus of the film is the ability to embrace the ways of the enemy to overcome differences. Likewise, the Emperor recognizes the need not to rely on the extreme of modernism, but to incorporate traditional values into his ruler ship in the end of the movie. Recalling Katsumoto’s loyalty and constant remembrance of the fact that he is meant to serve the Emperor and not the other way around, the Emperor finally reestablishes his authority and claims that Japan will henceforth be both modern and traditional, thereby combining the contributions made by two cultures.

Works Cited

Marchetti, Gina, Romance and the ‘Yellow Peril’: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1993.

Sayonara (1957)

The Bitter Tea of General Yan (1933)

The Last Samurai (2003)


Developing a Legitimate “White Knight”

Elizabeth Jenkins


With one look at the film’s movie poster, Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, appears to take the role as the all too familiar “white knight” described in Gina Marchetti’s Romance and the ‘Yellow Peril’: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction.  However, from the opening scenes it quickly becomes apparent that Nathan Algren is the character who needs the saving and the film narrative will be atypical in this way.  The Last Samurai is presented to be an example of a more genuine cultural exchange through the role reversal of the white knight, an appreciation of the Japanese value system and the lack of a sexual liaison in the romance between Nathan Algren and Taka.


Captain Algren faces withdrawal from alcohol while in Taka’s home.

The purpose and perspective of the white knight changes in The Last Samurai.  Characterized as the white knight, Captain Nathan Algren’s first intention is to help modernize Japan by training the Japanese imperial army.  Algren does not take pride in his expertise and resents being valued only because of his skills in killing.  Algren is shown to be an alcoholic who is haunted by the atrocities he committed against the Native Americans.  Captain Nathan Algren neither respects nor finds honor in his superior, Colonel Bagley.  However, Algren’s perspective of Kotsumoto quickly becomes one of respect and reverence.  The cast of characters involved in squelching the traditional samurai rebellion only enable Algren’s alcoholism, illustrating a lack of community.  The instant Nathan’s alcoholism is revealed to the traditional Japanese characters, they refuse to enable his unhealthy behavior and show concern.  Kotsumoto, the head samurai leading the rebellion against modernization, is shown to be capable of and willing to save Algren from himself and the modern society.  Through this personal transformation, Nathan Algren’s perspective as the white knight shifts in order to help preserve the values that saved his life from continuing a downwards spiral.  Having and conquering these flaws through Japanese morals legitimizes Algren’s role as the white knight.

Captain Algren’s first impression of the samurai class is provided by books filled with biased accounts of ruthlessness and gore.  However, he doesn’t hold his own society in the highest regard either.  In his new role of the white knight Algren’s curiosity allows the audience to fall in love with the traditional samurai society.  Within his captivity, Nathan slowly attempts to adapt to these traditions by removing his shoes when entering the home, learning the Japanese language and wearing a kimono.  As the residents of the feudal village become more welcoming and accustomed to his presence, Nathan gains a community that he so desperately lacked within his own society.  He is impressed by his observations and comments, “I’m surprised to learn that the word ‘samurai’ means ‘serve” and “I have never known such discipline.”

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The only scene of blatant intimacy between Taka and Algren.

    The Last Samurai puts another twist on Gina Marchetti’s idea of the white knight by not heavily depicting a sexual liaison with a female character. Quite unlike Sayonara and The World of Suzie Wong, no significant detail is given in progressing a subplot between the two characters of Nathan Algren and Taka.  Not until near the conclusion of the film does the viewer have any confirmation of chemistry between the two characters.  Nathan falls in love not for his personal pleasure and amusement, but instead desires the wholesome community connection depicted in Kotsumoto’s village.  If the film attempted an intercultural understanding by fixating on another attractive, available oriental woman, then it would only succeed in objectifying Japan once again.  The Last Samurai fixates on developing a romance with the morals and values within Kotsumoto’s world.  Nathan is looking for a deeper tie than what lust can provide and The Last Samurai is not intended to be another depiction of America’s lust for Japan.  How can one build a long lasting, significant tie between cultures if the relationship spawned from pure sexual attraction?  When sexual liaisons were presented in previous films in this course, sincerity in the relationship were more questionable (Marchetti, p 1).  In The World of the Suzie Wong, one should consider how Robert Lomax possesses Suzie Wong and exerts power over her instead of offering mutual respect.  Suzie Wong is portrayed in a sexual manner, which objectifies her and her cultural as sexually available, whereas Taka is characterized as a pure representation of the society that she lives in.  Instead of inadvertently patronizing what the white knight sets out to save or preserve, the film raises the bar for the role of the white knight above plainly subduing the woman character.  A more genuine intercultural exchange is created by shifting the perspective of the heroic figure and romanticizing the inner values rather than exterior aesthetics.  Without a sexual liaison, The Last Samurai allows a relationship to be built upon solid values stemming long term intentions rather than a pure physical attraction with no lasting effect.

The characterization of Nathan Algren legitimizes his role of the white knight by proving his sincerity in his relationships with both Taka and Kotsumoto.  The Last Samurai‘s characterization of Taka focuses on her morals, whereas a lack of a sexual liaison emphasizes the valuable traditions of her feudal society.



The Subtle Orientalism of The Last Samurai

Max Rozycki

The Last Samurai is a film that is notable for the forcefulness with which it advocates the need for cultural exchange.  However, the film contains many Orientalist elements that undermine its message.   By portraying traditional Japanese culture as “true” Japanese culture, the film ties Japanese culture with gender inequality, an agrarian society, and feudalism.  These values are either implicitly negative (gender inequality and feudalism) or simply backwards (agrarian society), but ultimately serve to place Japanese culture in a position inferior to the West. Thus, while cultural exchange is still important, the film indicates that the West has more to offer in any bilateral exchange.

Christina Klein, referencing Edward Said in her work Cold War Orientalism, describes Orientalism as “An ideology of difference.  Orientalism constructed the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ as internally coherent and mutually exclusive entities; it insisted that ‘there is an “us” and a “them,” each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-evident.’ Orientalism worked as an instrument of Western domination… by defining the East in relation to the West through a series of oppositions, each of which located the East in a subordinate position” (Klein 10).  The Orientalism displayed in The Last Samurai is subtle.  Unlike earlier films dealing with East Asia, such as “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” and “Sayonara,” all of the Japanese characters in The Last Samurai are played by actors who are, at the very least, Asian, and prominent characters such as Katsumoto, Omura, and the Meiji Emperor are all played by Japanese.  The presence of Japanese actors and the sympathetic portrayal of traditional Japanese society give the appearance of a Japanese “voice” in the film.  In reality, the film was American, with an American director, non-Japanese writers, and an American protagonist.  It is Americans, then, who decide what is actually Japanese culture within The Last Samurai, not the Japanese.

The film itself makes clear what elements of society should be viewed as truly Japanese.  In the end of the film, the Meiji Emperor affirms that it was the rebel samurai, fighting for Japanese tradition, who represented true Japanese values.  After Algren presents the Meiji Emperor with Katsumoto’s sword, the Emepror declares “I have a dreamed of a unified Japan, of a country strong, and independent, and modern.  And now we have railroads and canal[sic], Western clothing.  But, we cannot forget who we are, or where we come from” (The Last Samurai 2:20:30).  The Emperor’s meaning is clear: modernization has been good for Japan, but it is a set of imported, foreign concepts.  In contrast, Japanese values were those championed by Katsumoto and his rebellion.

These “Japanese” values are ostensibly those that Algren falls in love with—inner peace and a simple life.  But these are not the only aspects of traditional Japanese society whose existence is either directly shown or implied by the film.  One aspect portrayed openly by the film is gender inequality.  The only female character in the film, Taka, treated cruelly by Katsumoto, who forces her to feed, house, and provide medical aid to Algren, the man who killed her husband.  She herself voices her extreme discomfort, and expresses a desire to commit suicide, but is forced by Kastumoto to continue to care for Algren.  At no point is Taka’s treatment questioned by other characters.  Even Algren, who expresses remorse for killing Taka’s husband, does not question why he must live in her house.  The film portrays her situation as natural and expected within the context of traditional Japanese society.

Taka tends to her husband's killer

Taka tends to her husband’s killer

An element of Japanese culture that is not explicitly discussed is the feudal nature of samurai society.  The lifestyle that the film portrays positively, and that Algren chooses to fight for, is not a lifestyle for everyone.  Rather, samurai way of life depicted in the movie, which appears to consist largely of practicing martial arts and meditation, is reserved for the aristocratic elite.  While the movie never directly discusses it, the life that Algren loves is made possible by the labor of serfs.  So, regardless of how attractive the samurai life is, it is also undemocratic, exclusive, and privileges the few at the expense of the many.  Because this is an integral part of traditional Japanese culture, by the movie’s definition it is also an integral part of “true” Japanese culture.  The equality promised by Westernization and modernity is a better alternative to this system.

Daily life for the 99 Percent

Daily life for the 99 Percent

The Last Samurai also chooses to tie “true” Japanese society to agriculture.  This depiction is not inherently negative, but it does portray Japan as being backward.  Absent from the samurai life are trains, cities, and commerce.  Even if one chooses to romanticize agrarian societies and forget the hardships and scarcity faced by their members, to the majority of those who live in the West, life on the farm is, at best, dated.  It may have been an attractive way of life to those who lived a hundred years ago, but few are drawn to it now.  Yet by tying “true” Japan to agrarian society, the film once again places Japan in an inferior position to the West.

Finally, Algren’s role in the plot must be considered when discussing the film’s portrayal of Japan.  Katsumoto, with all of his resources and supporters, was unable to influence the emperor to change the progression of Japan’s modernization in a way that would give more support to traditional Japanese values.  Instead, it was Algren, a lone American, who is able to show the Meiji Emperor the importance of his own culture.  This last element of the movie serves to further damage the standing of Japanese society by implying that Westerners have a better understanding of Japanese society than the Japanese themselves.

Overall, The Last Samurai expresses the need for a constructive dialogue between cultures.  However, whether intentionally or not, the film still contains Orientalist elements that portray Japanese culture as having many negative aspects, namely gender inequality, feudalism, and an agrarian society.  This depiction encourages the idea that, while cultural exchanges are important, the “better” culture belongs to the West.