Counter-intuitively, to be a worthwhile historical drama, a film can actually be significantly lacking in historical accuracy. Much like in gaming, one occasionally is reminded that we are talking about a “drama” not a “documentary.” In order to be successful, it must have a good story, good execution, etc. A successful historical drama that happens to get the details wrong often serves as a springboard to get people interested in the “real story.”
Coming of Netflix just in time for the holiday weekend is The Last Samurai (2003), staring Tom Cruise as an ancient Japanese warrior. No, that’s not right is it? But I recall reading reviews at the time the movie came out that seemed to take offense at just that – why does it have to be an American, played by Cruise, that stars in a story of Japan?
It is a familiar structure in film an story to introduce the situation via an outside who, like the reader, must learn the “lay of the land” as the story progresses. That character may be the central one of the story, the person the audience identifies with, or it may just be a minor edition to whom the main characters are forced to explain the situation that everyone but the outside (and the reader/viewer) understands. Particular in Western writings about foreign cultures, this provides an excellent means to introduce new ways of life through a work of fiction.
In The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays an American army veteran who is hired by the Japanese Emperor Meiji to aid in modernizing the Japanese military. He quickly learns that Japan is in the midst of a revolt by one of the the emperor’s advisor and prominent Samurai (the titular last one, presumably) who is resisting the rush towards modernization. After having the imperial forces rushed into battle, unprepared, Cruise is captured by said Samurai and, while captive, comes to appreciate the culture of his erstwhile enemy.
Historically, the film has a tenuous grasp on reality. Said “last Samurai” is based on the person of Saigō Takamori, who lead the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 (probably half a year or so later then events described in the movie). Cruise’s character is based, in part, on Frenchman Jules Brunet, who had similar experiences, but a decade earlier in the Boshun War which restored the Emperor to the throne. While bits and pieces of the story are drawn from history, then, the narrative takes place in what is pretty much a fantasy world. One can either see this as a butchering of history, or as an admirable way of removing the possibility of stepping on historical toes while telling a fictional story.
While the film was criticized for being America-centric, it also draws valid criticism from the other direction. Hints of capitalism replacing feudalism are held up in the movie as obvious targets of disdain. The U.S. military is shown to be interested in helping the Japanese Imperial Army because it would result in arms contracts going forward. The government official who seems to be in charge of the purse is also the owner of a new cross-country railroad and the revolution puts his investment at risk. Thus the “war” is really for his own, personal enrichment. Bringing in the modern themes of a paradise lost to technology represents a poke in the eye to history, and seemingly for the sole purpose of preaching, rather than just the telling of a good yarn. In reality, the revolts in Japan had far more to do with political power than cultural change. In particular, the attribution to the Samurai as the guardians of traditionalism (outside the fuedal power structure) is misplaced. In the Boshun War, it was the supporters of the emperor who were resisting the influence of the West. In the Satsuma Rebellion, the “Samurai” did not restrict themselves to traditional Japanese weapons as the movie portrayed, but used muskets and cannon as their budget afforded them.
At the end of it all, I can still enjoy most of the movie despite its faults. It works fairly well as a “period drama.” The costumes and scenery are well done – and not just for the traditional Japanese attire. I also enjoyed the Imperial Japanese costumes and the portrayal of the technological revolution in Japan. I do wonder about the outfitting of the Japanese with Civil War surplus rifles; 1861 Springfields and 1853 Enfields. Are we to assume that the U.S. dumped a bunch of now-obsolete muzzle-loading rifled muskets onto the Japanese? Perhaps that is implied. When Cruise returns to Tokyo, the imperial soldiers are now armed with bolt-action Mausers – another odd choice for an American contract. Sources state the imperial army was actually armed with the British-made Snider-Enfield, which was a conversion of the 1853 Enfield to fire a cartridge. The 1853 muzzle-loading Enfield was one of the more common arms of the Samurai.
Oddly enough, a contemporary incarnation of Cruise used a Snider-Enfield at the beginning of the movie Far and Away, but that’s neither here nor there.
Perhaps tellingly, the film was more popular in Japan than in the United States, with box office receipts in Japan actually exceeding the domestic take. In Japan, the film received generally positive reviews and was praised for its use of Japanese actors and the obvious research that went into the historical detail.