The Last Samurai

This is an extract of the third edition of The Samurai Film to be published by Overlook Press later this year. More information at SamuraiFilm.com.

A glossary of Japanese terms used throughout the article is below.

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness.

– “The Heart Sutra” of the Prajnaparamita

The howls of stray dogs and the tramp of clogs pierce the air.

– “The Flower of Hell” (theme song from Lady Snowblood)

Over the course of its six parts, the Sword of Vengeance series tested the limits of the samurai genre and viewer expectations in the early 1970s. Neither the Lone Wolf with child nor the four-wheeled arsenal which doubles as a baby-cart are that extreme or outlandish in comparison to other samurai films. What distinguishes this series, what causes Itto Ogami to diverge from the road followed by so many antecedents, is the treatment and concentration of violence that surrounds the central figure. Itto presages this in the flashback to his wife’s death: “They will pay with rivers of blood”. In the course of six episodes, “they” is never really defined. For Itto, as with Kyoshiro Nemuri, killing is an existential expression. No amount of killing can calm Itto’s disturbed mind, can erase the image of neither his dead wife nor the red fingerprints on his child’s cheek. These vestiges of a past life, bloody emblems confusing death and innocence, drive Itto forward like an automaton. But Itto has no destination.

The inhumanity of Itto’s attitude does more than colour the Sword of Vengeance narratives. It reduces them to the black-and-white of the comic book page. A chilling moment, as when Itto throws a kozuka back into an antagonist’s scabbard, is no longer just a typical genre touch, a demonstration of almost preternatural skill. Nor is it purely parody, but rather a radical deconstruction of what is typical in the genre. All that remains are the constructs, an “empty form” far different from the sense of the oft-quoted passage from the “Heart” sutra.

For two decades, from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, images of the samurai were often relegated to the small screen or appeared in mixed-genre productions. While still at work on the Zato Ichi series, Shintaro Katsu began producing and starring in the short-lived Sword of Justice (Goyokiba) films focusing on the exploits of constable Hanzo “the Razor”. The influences are clear from the title sequence of the first Sword of Justice in which a Starsky and Hutch like theme plays over a TV-style cop montage of Hanzo’s “beat” in Edo. Director Kenji Misumi includes a lot of foreground clutter and careful compositions, but the pointedly off-beat elements – not the least of which are Hanzo’s priapism and investigative self-torture – overwhelm any imposition of visual nuance. While acting as executive producer for the Sword of Vengeance movies starring his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama, Katsu also produced Oshi Samurai (Silent Samurai), a television series with Wakayama portraying a mute shokin kasegi or bounty hunter named Kiichi Hogan. Based on a story by Hideo Gosha about a swordsman whose throat is slit as a child by a renegade Jesuit priest, Katsu employed the feature film technicians from his Daiei productions and directed the first episode himself (and also appeared as the quasi-villain Manji). With violence somewhat sanitised for television and, in Hogan, a lead figure more restrained that the remorseless Itto Ogami, Oshi Samurai‘s style (its third episode was directed by Kenji Misumi) mirrors that of contemporary features.

Lady Snowblood

Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973) and its 1974 sequel reflect the various narrative and stylistic influences on the genre at the time the Sword of Vengeance pictures were in their initial release. A pre-cursor to Gosha’s Death Shadows (and even Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita [1990]), Yuki, the title character and “a child of the netherworlds”, is born in prison and raised to avenge the murder of her family during the draft riots of 1873. As a young woman Yuki embarks on her campaign armed only with a shikomi-zue concealed in an umbrella, which is somewhat anachronistic in the gun-toting days of the early Meiji era. Nonetheless Yuki manages an effective vendetta. Several elements from the episodic plot to the dark glistening interiors of the women’s prison and the frequent zooms into tight shots of eyes suggest the influence of Sergio Leone; but Lady Snowblood is a world removed from Once Upon a Time in the West. During her quest, she encounters a journalist (and would-be novelist) who dies helping her bring the last culprit (coincidentally his father) to justice. Despite being shot then stabbed (by the daughter of an earlier victim) and collapsing in the snow at the end of the first feature, Yuki is miraculously revived for a sequel.

Of the various productions of the 1970s, the original Last Samurai (Okami yo Rakujitsu O kire, 1974; the last film directed by Kenji Misumi) most clearly anticipates the narratives of the late 1990s to present. Epic in length (over two and a half hours), Last Samurai follows Sugi Toranosuke as he is caught up in the violence of the bakumatsu but survives it ultimately to exchange his sword for a razor and become a barber in post-restoration Edo. From the furious sword fight at the festival in the title sequence, Misumi, as usual, treats violence as endemic to Tokugawa Japan. Another samurai, Hanjiro Nakamura readily mixes his sensory experiences: first some killing then some sex with Ohide, a “working girl” whom Sugi has rescued. Estranged from his family, Sugi is embarrassed to be a low-class or farm samurai and does not take “privileges” for granted in the manner of Hanjiro. Flashbacks reveal the rest: as a disinherited child, Sugi was so oppressed by his uncle that he attempted suicide. When he saw a ronin named Ikemoto cut down six men, Sugi adopted him as his sensei.

In present time, Sugi is asked by Ikemoto to protect Reiko, a woman being tracked by the Satsuma clan. In Kyoto, Sugi wants to join a faction, but Ikemoto forbids it: “I didn’t teach you to use the sword for fighting…so don’t waste your life”. Sugi nearly crosses swords with the shinsengumi unit of which Soji Okita is captain. Then a random encounter on the street unites the four principals as Hanjiro gives Sugi money from Ohide, who has become a Buddhist nun. Hanjiro’s character – which is based on an actual follower of Saigo Takamori and prominent figure in the bakumatsu – is nostalgic about Satsuma but, now that the clan has firmly aligned themselves in favour of the restoration, is eager for more combat. Reiko, who is now a geisha, reports back to Ikemoto then meets Sugi in a graveyard to deliver another letter again urging that he return to Edo. The argument between Reiko and Sugi, framed so that they are hemmed in by headstones, visually recalls the carving that Sugi made when his father died.

When Sugi learns that Ikemoto is the target of an ambush, he rushes to intercede but arrives too late to save him. In a low-budget, albeit stylised, staging of the historic battle of Toba-Fushimi (1), the sword-wielding shogunate loyalists are mowed down. Sugi has taken Reiko back to Edo but their domestic bliss is short-lived when she is fatally attacked by army thugs. Although he tracks down the killers and mutilates their leader, Iba, Sugi renounces the sword. The sixth year of Meiji finds all the surviving characters transformed. Ohide is leaving for England; Sugi is a barber; and Hanjiro must shortly return to Satsuma with the disgraced Takamori. When Sugi learns that Hanjiro was responsible for Ikemoto’s death, he goes to Satsuma to kill him but stops short. In his last picture, after a score of chambara where sword-skill was the only hope for survival, Misumi opts for an ironic twist in The Last Samurai: characters must either perish or accept that, as Sugi proclaims, “it’s no longer the age of the sword”.

Also released in 1974, The Last Swordsman (Okita Soshi, Masanobu Deme) focuses on the actual shinsengumi captain, and minor character in The Last Samurai, Soshi or Soji Okita, one of many members of that militia who were appointed by the daimyo of the Aizu han. The opening sequences reveal the economic difficulties of the members of the Tennen Rishu-ryo school, where Soji is a star pupil. The actual Soji was a budo prodigy who joined the dojo at age nine and was a master at 15. The opening sequence features an extreme long-shot of an as-yet unidentified Soji running down a road, using step-printing and European music to complicate the genre reading. Soji meets another Tennen disciple and a deadly fight with anonymous assailants ensues. Afterwards an exhausted Soji makes clear that it has been his first real combat: “I haven’t even killed a cat before”.

When so many of the Tennen adherents leave to join the low-paying shinsengumi, the dingy and unappealing interior of their dojo suggests that it’s a step up in pay. Once in Kyoto, they became “the wolves of Mibu”, a fearsome epithet from the Kyoto district where they were housed, which they earned through their bloody encounters with the Choshu retainers. Such devices as choker close-ups and step-printing – which creates eerie slow-motion death scenes – establish an undertone of fatalism and constriction. Unusual icons such as blood-drenched flowers and black-and-white dream imagery of innocent children and hanged men create a visual disequilibrium that reflects the narrative situation.

Soji is the one who must track down his friend and pupil from the days at the Shieikan dojo, Seisuke Yamanami, who has tired of the violence and deserted. Soji could let Yamamani escape, and no one would know but giri forbids it. Shortly after he serves as the kaishaku for Yamanami’s compulsory suicide, Soji’s health starts to deteriorate. Compounding the discovery that he is fatally ill with tuberculosis, the woman he loves is cut down by a cadre of ishin shishi. Although he avenges her killers, Soji’s anonymous death in a rural mill is grimly inglorious and ironic. In style and narrative, both The Last Swordsman and The Last Samurai anticipate numerous later releases from Samurai Fiction (SF: Samurai Fiction, Hiroyuki Nakano, 1998) and Taboo (Gohatto, Nagisa Oshima, 1999) to When the Last Sword is Drawn (Mibu Gishi Den, Yoji Takita, 2002) and the American The Last Samurai (Ed Zwick, 2003).

It may be that the violence and self-parody of the samurai film of the 1970s did more than deconstruct the genre expectations of the audience. In fact, the evolution of chambara as a whole over the end of the millennium was somewhat retrograde. As with the American Western, there were fewer and fewer samurai films made. Of those produced in the 1980s, only a few such as Gosha’s Bandits Vs. Samurai Squad and Hunter in the Dark or Kagemusha give evidence that the expressive potential of the genre had not been entirely exhausted. Still, it is significant that a filmmaker such as Gosha could carry forward the powerful themes of Goyokin and Tenchu more effectively in The Wolves (Shussho Iwwai, 1971), a yakuza film, than in his more recent, traditional chambara.

Sword of Vengeance I

Of the few theatrical productions of chambara undertaken in the past 25 years, even fewer have reached the Western viewer. Most of the directors of the “program” period films for Daiei, Toei, et al, have died or retired. The new generation works in television or in other genres. In 1974, Columbia Pictures released a re-edited and dubbed version of Sword of Vengeance III under the title Lightning Swords of Death. After the successful television adaptation of the novel Shogun in 1980, an independent production company dubbed, re-cut, and re-scored Sword of Vengeance I and II to create Shogun Assassin. The success of both Shogun and Shogun Assassin in their respective media caused a minor resurgence of interest in samurai films or, at least, in shoguns. For instance Shogun’s Destiny and Death of a Shogun (Kosaku Yamashita, 1980 and Sado Nakajima, 1979) – the latter, like Kagemusha, containing a favourable portrayal of Ieyasu Tokugawa – were released in the United States.

The scarcity and uneven quality of samurai productions in the 1980s evinced a decline in the samurai film as a vital genre. Shintaro Katsu’s last appearance in chambara was as the hapless, drunken ronin “Bull” Goemon in the flaccid remake of Ronin-gai (Kazuo Kuroki, 1990). “Times have changed”, he observers early on; “Even horse traders like you can be given the chance to hit samurai”. It is a far cry from Izo Okada on the cross, when Katsu’s “Bull” pierces himself with a broken sword to kill his arrogant samurai employer standing behind him. Directors such as Shinoda and Okamoto moved away from chambara entirely. The former’s Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (Sakura No Mori No Mankai No Shita, 1975), a supernatural fable of a bandit and a witch, has a few chambara elements, like Double Suicide, but avoids genre typing. With the exception of the second remake of Judo Saga (Sanshiro Sugata, 1975), Okamoto has made a dozen films outside the bujutsu milieu. Masaki Kobayasbi’s long-planned epic of l0th century Sino-Japanese wars was shelved due to loss of financing. Occasionally, the residual influence of chambara was evident in films of other genres. This is not a reference to the spate of martial arts or kung-fu films from a variety of Asian producers, films whose often contemporary setting and always clear-cut oppositions of good-and-evil never probed an era, a social structure, or an expressive tradition in the manner of the best samurai films.

Perhaps the attitude of chambara, like the practice of swordsmanship, does require more than “empty form”. Many Western filmmakers incorporated elements of chambara source material into their movies from the 1960s onwards. The first example is even earlier than that: John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), shot in Kyoto and starring John Wayne as Townsend Harris, the ambassador forced upon the Tokugawa through gun-boat diplomacy. Filtered through its American star’s point of view and focused on his titled, cross-cultural romance with the geisha, Townsend survives a cholera epidemic and a failed attempt by ninja assassins which leads to seppuku by the chief conspirator. Such plot points derive from a long-standing Western bias to seek out the “inscrutable” aspects to Asian traditions.

Master Gunfighter

Eventually filmmakers adopted not just the plots in the manner of The Magnificent Seven transposing Seven Samurai or The Outrage (1964) onto Rashomon, but also, as Sergio Leone had done in Fistful of Dollars, began looking for style points as well. The most outrageous, of course, is Tom Laughlin’s Master Gunfighter (1975), in which the creator of “Billy Jack”, the successful series about an outcast American Indian martial artist, transposed Gosha’s Goyokin into the American West but opted to have his gunfighters pack samurai swords as well as six-guns. While Laughlin aimed at reconstructing Goyokin shot-for-shot (and kept a portable editing room on location so that he could refer to a print of Gosha’s film whenever necessary), most of Gosha’s visual tropes and his character Magobei’s sense of angst are lost in translation.

Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982) uses period and mythic figures to create a traditional, martial arts story. But the similarities to certain samurai films – the epic structure, the chanting narrator, the sword-play, the supernatural interventions, even the insistent drum beating on the music rack – are all merely borrowed from Kurosawa of 25 years prior. A better example of the samurai ethos, at least, can be found in Walter Hill’s Hard Times (1975). In the context of the Depression-era South, Charles Bronson portrays a street fighter named Chaney with the same understated intensity as Mifune. Hill’s plans to make “The Last Gun”, a Western whose man character was named “Ronin”, fell through in the late 1970s, so despite more obvious allusions to chambara in other films – The Warriors (1979) and the Yojimbo remake, Last Man Standing (1996) – it is Bronson’s portrayal that resonates most powerfully with antecedents in the samurai genre.

As actor and director, Clint Eastwood has also repeatedly attempted to recreate that ethos. His portrayal of Leone’s gunfighter, known as the “Man with No Name” (despite the fact that had a name in the first two pictures) evolved significantly in Eastwood’s later work. In just his second film as director, High Plains Drifter (1972), Eastwood portrayed the mysterious hired gun known only as the Stranger, whose arrogant disdain and sexual rapacity types him as both samurai and devil, a Kyoshiro Nemuri on horseback. Four years later, the merciless but fair-minded title character in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) reaffirmed Eastwood’s character roots in the outlaws of chambara, which culminate in his portrayal of the aged gunfighter in The Unforgiven (1992). Eastwood even permitted moments of outright parody in Pale Rider (1985) where his Sanjuro-esque Preacher has a bokken-style combat using axe handles.

Much has also been made of the relationship of the George Lucas Star Wars trilogy to samurai film and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress in particular. Certainly Lucas’ Jedi warriors follow a bushido-like code and have the ability to wield light sabers like a daitos to vanquish dozens of assailants. Darth Vader lacks only a fylfot on his cape to type him as helmeted variant of Nemuri or the evil swordsmen of the Daibosatsu Toge adaptations. Still, the best examples can be found in the earth-bound science fictions of the Australian production Mad Max (1979) and its first two sequels, The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Both contain overt allusions to chambara from character names and hairstyles to asides by a police dispatcher. More substantively than Mad Max, The Road Warrior borrows heavily from the situations of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. It even uses an antiquated optical device, the wipe (as does Lucas in Star Wars), also a Kurosawa favourite, for transitions. Ultimately, however, what distinguishes The Road Warrior from Conan and Luke Skywalker are the attitudes of the title characters. Mere allusions or stylistic homages to the samurai film have as much dramatic impact as a group of men playing mah-jongg (which is also a reference in The Road Warrior). When Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky enters the narrative, he does so like Mifune in Yojimbo, like a stray dog. It is that attitude which types him, although a figure in a science fiction narrative, as a lineal descendant of the ronin Sanjuro, and ironically one of the few to grace the screen in recent years. Whether that impact will carry over into the third sequel in 2004 remains to be seen.

The most recent foray into the “samurai homage” sub-genre is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), which in some ways outdoes Tom Laughlin. As a noir samurai film, Kill Bill is burdened by Tarantino’s usual fractured narrative and kitchen-sink approach, a grab-bag from The Killing to the Sword of Vengeance series with a tip of the hat to Vicente Aranda’s La Novia Ensangrentada (1972), a whole different genre, thrown in. The parody elements – from the pre-title fake “Shaw Scope” logo and “Feature Presentation Banner”, scratched up as if purloined from the projection booth of some drive-in, to the extended anime sequence that fills in the back story of Oren – are purposefully over the top. The gun in the box of “Kaboom” cereal is about as deft as this movie gets, for Tarantino appears to be reaching for the American-take-on-the-samurai analogy of Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven’s modern-day, blood-and-guts variant on Bergman’s Virgin Spring (1960). The problem is that, while the exploration of a character’s revenge for the death of a child, has dramatic resonance from Sweden to Japan, the chivalric code that requires and controls vengeance looks different from a 21st century perspective. Moreover, as far as disjunctive style and narrative is concerned, Japanese filmmakers have already thoroughly deconstructed the genre on their own, directly, through the ninkyo eiga, and in all manner of commercials and music videos. The use of Ennio Morricone themes and other allusions on the soundtrack notwithstanding, the saga of “The Bride with No Name” – whatever her name is, in case the audience should fail to notice, is “bleeped” out in the first sequence – is as far from Leone as it is from Gosha; and the pre-existence of Kill Bill does not create an effective link to a series figure, to Nemuri or Zato Ichi or even Crimson Bat Oichi. Any audience understands from genre expectation, if not from the existence of Volume 2, that the Bride who would not die in the flashback cannot die in the extended combat at the end. Possessing the same preternatural sword skills as countless samurai figures, the Bride’s unbreakable blade slices through scores of black-suited minions as easily as Itto Ogami disposed of Yagyu-clan ninja. Of course, in Kill Bill the namesake of the legendary Iga ninja, Hanzo Hattori, is an Okinawan sword-smith who makes the Bride’s blade. Given this “legendary” context, even those who did not notice that Oren’s name was already crossed off the list as the saga began, must certainly expect the Bride, newly spattered with the blood of others, to conquer every antagonist. Hattori’s Japanese voice that coaches her at the end of the first sequence, exhorting her to “kill whoever stands in your way”, has become a voice inside. But all the elements, the ninja-style concealment in the eaves, the long stretches of black-and-white photography, the young combatant spared with a Sanjuro-like admonishment, add up only to the expected result.

Kill Bill: Volume 1

While the period martial arts films of Hong Kong and mainland China share many of the attributes of the samurai film, particularly the ninja sub-genre, the operatic complications and physical magic of the swordplay movies – as evident in the recent crossover success Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – overwhelm any version of giri-ninjo conflict which its characters might confront. A contemporary action film like Kiss of the Dragon (2001) is actually generically more proximate to chambara. Although seeking to clear himself of criminal charges, the protagonist’s attack on the headquarters of a crooked police detective self-righteously defies all odds in order to rescue a child. The bare-handed combat after he stumbles into a roomful of Parisian cops in white karate uniforms is closer in staging and tone to such defiant figures as Sanjuro or Itto Ogami than any scene in Kill Bill.

There are certainly antecedents to the recently released The Last Samurai. Besides Okamoto’s East Meets West and Red Sun, there is Bushido Blade (1979) where sailors from Perry’s black ships and a shogunate retainer (portrayed by Mifune) search for a stolen sword intended as a gift for Townsend Harris. Journey of Honor (Shogun Mayeda, 1991) depicts events prior to the battle of Sekigahara and a trip to Spain by the son of Ieyasu Tokugawa to obtain muskets for his father’s faction. Guns are also at the crux of The Last Samurai. While somewhat at variance with the Kojiki (2), the narration which opens The Last Samurai tells of how Japan was formed when the gods tempered a sword in the sea and the drops which fell from it created the island nation. After this mythic invocation, the scene shifts to 1876 San Francisco, where the former cavalry Captain Nathan Algren gives a drunken demonstration of his proficiency with a Winchester. His back-story as a “hero” is parcelled out over several conversations about Custer and the 7th Cavalry and physically intrudes into the narrative in the form of flashbacks to a massacre at an Indian camp. After he is hired to go to Japan with a former Colonel and a single non-com to train the Imperial army, the plot that unfolds might well have been pitched as Dances with Wolves meets Ran with a bit of Star Wars and They Died with their Boots On thrown in.

The antagonist of the Emperor is a former minister, a reactionary Samurai named Katsumoto who disdains Western arms. The real “Katsumoto”, Saigo Takamori, who lead the Satsuma Rebellion in 1876-77 and was a minor character in Kenji Misumi’s The Last Samurai, may have been more of a neo-imperialist than a bujutsu purist (3). When untrained troops are, despite Algren’s protest, sent out against him they turn and run. In the slaughter, many are killed and a wounded Algren is taken captive. While Taka, Katsumoto’s sister and widow of a samurai killed by Algren, tends the captive’s wound, there are more flashbacks to Indian camp killings as his recuperation is compounded by the delirium tremens of alcoholic withdrawal. While Algren screams for saké, his journal is being read by Katsumoto. The winter spent in Katsumoto’s mountain village is the narrative core of The Last Samurai. With scenes and characters all but transposed whole from Dances with Wolves, new journal entries provide a voiceover narration: Algren acquiesces to requests for conversation by Katsumoto (who has heard of Custer and the Indian wars); Algren picks up Japanese during meals with Taka and her sons; Algren is chaperoned by an older samurai whom he calls “Bob”; and Algren gets some harsh bokken lessons from Ujio, Katsumoto’s angry lieutenant. Certainly when the voiceover remarks about being taken in “as if I were a stray dog”, there are some telling allusions to the genre traditions of chambara but much of the process of “going native” is generic. Although the circumstances which bring him to the village are clearly different, as with Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Lt. Dunbar amongst the Sioux, Tom Cruise’s Algren is won over by the noble savagery and sense of tribal community in the samurai enclave. Over the course of several months, Algren’s skill with the bokken also grows prodigiously. With Taka’s sons acting as his mushin-no-shin coaches by calling out “no mind”, Algren visualises a series of moves, a bit like Ichi in Zato Ichi in Desperation, and remarkably achieves a draw in a practice duel with Ujio.

While the village enjoys a puppet play, as with the sneak attack by the rival Pawnee in Dances with Wolves, a squad of ninja assassins strike; and Algren joins the defense. In an extended sequence of classic chambara Algren first protects Taka and her family then fights side-by-side with Katsumoto until the ninja are defeated. At this point, the genre indicators – if not the movie publicity – are clear: there is no turning back for Algren from the path to full investiture as a samurai. Returned to Tokyo when Katsumoto agrees to discuss resuming his position as government minister, Algren is offered direction of the Imperial forces by Minister Omura, who hired him in San Francisco. Before refusing Omura, Algren understates Katsumoto’s threat: “He’s a tribal leader. I’ve know many of them”. As he packs to leave, Algren learns of Katsumoto’s arrest and realises he cannot abandon him. When confronted by Omura’s sinister aid and three henchmen, Algren chooses not to draw his pistols but still kills them all in a frenzied display of niten-ryu or two-sword technique using blades snatched from the hands of his assailants. After Algren mentally replays the combat in a slow-motion, monochromatic, “no minded” flashback, Omura’s man rises up to say the day of samurai is over and be beheaded.

The Last Samurai

While the use of genre expectation can be effective dramatic shorthand, the thumbnails that act as mile markers on Algren’s path are somewhat disjointed. When Algren talks to Katsumoto about the Spartans at Themopylae, the conversation is more about myth-making than tactics. The last battle is an extended and bloody affair that is conspicuously epic in scale and seeks to resonate with pictures as diverse as Ran and Lawrence of Arabia but ends up being mostly The Charge of the Light Brigade. Making Katsumoto and his followers, a small band of 300 or so outsiders, defiant to the death is certainly more melodramatic than the thousands who fought (and died) on each side at the historical battle of Tabura-zaka and is also in keeping with the chambara spirit of hopeless causes typefied by the saga of 47 ronin. Certainly also, Japanese filmmakers from Misumi’s The Last Samurai to When the Last Sword is Drawn have distorted the actual events at Toba-Fushimi to emphasise the hollow triumph of technology over tradition. But the Western viewer is unlikely to perceive a sub-text in which the slaughter of the last of the fierce traditionalists under the withering fire of a Gatling gun could be read as a mass funshi, a suicide out of righteous indignation, to protest the government’s policies.

Who, in fact, is to be perceived as the last samurai of the title? Clearly Katsumoto qualifies, whether it’s striding into the council of ministers with two swords in his sash in defiance of the 1876 law or riding into battle to embrace “a good death”. But Katsumoto’s persistent vision, the primordial scene of a white tiger fighting off a slew of warriors which comes to him in a Zen trance during an early sequence, also dies with him. Part of the new myth constructed by the filmmakers of this Last Samurai is in the link which Katusmoto saw when Algren fought against his warriors at their first encounter and the banner of the tiger attached to the broken lance with which Algren flailed. The transference of that vision, as Algren helps the defeated Katsumoto perform an impromptu seppuku on the field of battle, defines the real last samurai. In terms of narrative, Algren is as unlikely a surviror as Dunbar was at the beginning of Dances with Wolves. In terms of genre and myth, the expectations and impact are much the same. While the narration gives the audience alternate possibilities of Algren’s fate, the images are of him returning to the village. As last man stranding, Algren becomes the unlikely, very Western repository of the samurai spirit embodied by Katsumoto and his men.

Glossary of Japanese Terms

bakumatsu
The fall of a military regime, used to designate the restoration of power to the Meiji dynasty in 1867.

bokkenor bo-ken
A wooden sword.

budo
“The martial path”; the martial arts, methods of fighting with and without arms in which the samurai was rigorously instructed.

bujutsu
“The martial art”; synonymous with budo. The alternate spelling “jitsu” is also used, sometimes more generally, as in jujitsu.

bushido
“The way of the warrior”, an unwritten ethical code to be followed by all samurai.

bushi
A warrior; bu: “martial”; shi: “knight”.

chambara
A realistically staged display of sword fighting in a Jidai-geki or period drama; in motion pictures, a generic designation for a samurai film.

daimyo
A provincial lord who ruled a hanor province in the manner of a European duke.

daito
Literally “long saber”, a sword with a blade length of at least two and a half feet (measured in shaku – see below) but possibly over three feet, traditionally associated with the samurai, who was the only person privileged to carry it. Modern daitoshave 40-inch blades. See also tachiand katana.

dojo
A gymnasium or place of religious meditation.

giri
“Right reason”; the dutiful service which bushido directs the warrior to give to his family, clans and lord.

han
Large domains or provinces, which became prefectures after the Meiji restoration.

hara-kiri
“Stomach-cut”, a reversal of the ideographs for seppuku; a common or vulgar term for ritual-suicide.

ishin shishi
“Men of high purpose”, young, low-ranking samurai from the outside provinces who supported the bakumatsu.

kaishaku
The second in hara-kiri, the man who decapitates the performer after the stomach-cut has been accomplished.

katana
Originally designating a medium sword blade, between about two shaku long and shorter than a daito. Only samurai could carry blades longer than two shaku. Modern katanashave up to 30-inch blades. Alternate: uchigatanaor “inside sword” in the otoshi-zashi.

kozuka
A small knife or dart kept in a special compartment of the scabbard.

mushin no shin
“No-mindedness”; the mind capable of movement from unconscious thought to action; de-concentration.

ninja
A class of spies and assassins that originated in the 12th century, often depicted as clad and hooded in black and wielding exotic weapons.

ninjo
Man’s will; the personal or conscientious inclination which is often opposed or constrained by giri or duty.

ninkyo eiga
“Chivalry films”; referring to a type of yakuzafilm. Epitomised by Gosha’s The Wolves, which explores the “ethics” of gangsterism.

niten-ryu
“Two-sword style”; a method of fighting simultaneously with both swords developed by Miyamoto Musashi.

ronin
“Man on the wave”; a disenfranchised or masterless samurai; variant from the late Tokugawa era: roshior “wave knight”.

samurai
Literally a “servant”; warriors retained in the service of a clan.

sensei
A master, a term of respect for a teacher.

seppuku
“Cutting the stomach”; reversal of the ideographs in hara-kiri; formal term for ritual suicide.

shaku
A unit of linear measure. A modern shakuis 30cm or just under 12 inches (11.96).

shikomi-zue
A cane sword.

shinsengumi
“New group of select [men]”; citizen militia, quasi-unofficial police and vigilantes for the Tokugawa in Kyoto during the bakumatsu.

shogun
A generalissimo or field-marshal; the office held by the non-Imperial, hereditary rulers of feudal Japan.

shogunate
Period of de facto rule by a shogun.

tachi
A daito
hung from sash or slung over the back.

yakuza
Literally “8-9-3” from a losing card combination; in feudal society a member of a roving group of gamblers (bakuto) or pimps (ponbiki).

Endnotes

  1. Suburbs of Kyoto where the Boshin War began in January 1868 when shogunate and shinsengumi fighters lost to a smaller ishin shishi force equipped with more firearms and cannon.
  2. In the actual creation myth two divine beings, the male Izanagi and the female Izanami, stand on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, and Izanagi thrusts through the viscous waters with the Ama-no-Nuboko, a jeweled spear. When he draws it back the drops that fall from the tip coagulate into the island of Onokoro. The couple settle on the island and ultimately Izanami gives birth to the rest of the islands and sundry gods of the sea and wind. In one variant, all the islands of Japan are formed from the drops that fall from the Ama-no-Nuboko.
  3. Takamori Saigo was one of the ishin shishi from Satsuma who helped bring about the bakumatsu. After leading the Imperial forces during most of the Boshin War, he was appointed minister of the Army in the first cabinets of Prince Mutsuhito/Emperor Meiji and acted as head of the Imperial Guard. Rebuffed in 1873 over his plan to invade Korea, Saigo resigned and returned to Satsuma where he founded a private academy. When some of his followers attacked a government arsenal, he was forced into open rebellion. In the actual climactic battle of Tabura-zaka hill, which ended the Satsuma Rebellion of 1876-77, Saigo was indeed wounded and did commit suicide with his own sword. While Katsumoto’s force is depicted as a small band of mountain samurai armed only with swords, lances, bows and arrows, and a cavalry unit, Saigo’s rebel army, which numbered 10,000 men, wore uniforms not samurai armor, carried muzzle-loading rifles, had no cavalry, but did field a couple of artillery pieces. They faced a better equipped force more than twice their size in a battle that left over 7,000 dead. After death, Takamori was pardoned by the Emperor, valorised as an example of the warrior ideal, and a statue (ironically in Western garb) was erected in his honour in Satsuma. “Ujio” would appear to be based on Hanjiro Nakamoto, a key character in Kenji Misumi’s The Last Samurai, who died in the battle. “Omura” is actually Okubo Toshimitsu, a wealthy Satsuma samurai who worked with Takamori during the Bakumatsu but opposed the war with Korea. He was assassinated in 1878 by six Satsuma clansmen seeking revenge for his “betrayal” of Saigo.

About The Author

Alain Silver is a Santa Monica-based writer/producer of independent feature films, whose books include genre surveys on the samurai film and the vampire film, director studies of Robert Aldrich and David Lean, and seven volumes on film noir.