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The Last Samurai2010.11.08

    Though many people have seen the 2003 epic drama film The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, few are familiar with the actual history and characters on which the story was based.


    The Last Samurai is Saigō Takamori (, and the battle which is the climax of the story is the Battle of Shiroyama (, the last stand of the Satsuma Rebellion, which took place on 24 September 1877.


    The Imperial Army which crushed the rebellion was led by a former comrade of Saigō Takamori, Field Marshall Yamagata Arimoto (, at the behest of Ōkubo Toshimichi (, also a Satsuma Samurai and one of the co-founders of the Meiji government which Saigō Takamori had helped to create.


    Yamagata’s army of 30,000 troops, armed with howitzers and Gatling guns, had reduced Saigō’s resistance force of 20,000 down to the last 500 Samurai. Overwhelmed and outnumbered 60 to 1, the Satsuma Samurai refused to surrender and fought to the last against overwhelming odds with swords and muskets and Samurai spirit, thereby bringing the era of the Samurai to an end.


    The movie compares this battle to the resistance put up by 300 Spartans to the Persian army of 250,000 at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. It also compares the crushing of the Satsuma Rebellion and Samurai culture with the crushing of the American Indian spirit and culture in the Indian Wars.


    I recently met Dennis Banks (, Native American co-founder of the American Indian Movement, and author of a book and award winning documentary, A Good Day to Die ( On his visit to Tokyo, he said that he identified very strongly with the Samurai culture, and the parallels are not lost in the movie. He announced that the documentary of his life is also being made into a Hollywood film. The man who will play the role of Dennis Banks is none other than Johnny Depp.


    The mechanical mowing down of the Satsuma Samurai by rapid-fire Gatling guns in The Last Samurai is accented throughout the film by flashbacks to the massacre of Native Americans in the memory of Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, who ends up embracing Bushido, as the spirit of the culture which he had originally been hired to train Imperial conscripts to crush.


    The movie is about more than nostalgia for the passing of an era, and makes a strong appeal for the Meiji Emperor and Japan to remember its roots as it plunges into modernization. In fact the new government had strong overtones of militarism. Field Marshall Yamagata went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of Japan, and his autocratic policies not only limited individual liberties, but also contributed to Japanese militarism and the coming of the Second World War.


    Japan is undergoing a revival of films and documentaries about the period of transition from Samurai culture to the modern period. Led by such features as the NHK Taiga Drama Ryomaden (, on the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, which also prominently features Saig Takamori, reflecting a deep desire to understand and perhaps recapture something of the spirit of The Last Samurai.


    This period of history fascinates me, having embraced something of Samurai culture myself through a lifelong study of Aikido. Though the spirit of Bushido is known as the Way of the Warrior, it is not a call to militarism, but rather a call to dignity and standing for what is right. Dennis Banks calls himself a Warrior fighting for a cause, to respect and protect not only humanity, but also our Mother Earth and the environment in which we live and co-exist.


    The enemy of this spirit is and always has been the politics of power and greed. It is this which The Last Samurai brings to our attention, to reexamine where we came from and where we are going. To stand up against bullying and abuse, and reclaim your self-respect, and to be strong in spirit. You won’t find this in the country’s leaders, look for it first in yourself.



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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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