The Last Samurai is a 2003 American period action drama film directed and co-produced by Edward Zwick, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz.
The film stars Tom Cruise, who also co-produced, with Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, and Shin Koyamada in supporting roles.
Tom Cruise portrays a US Army Captain of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in 19th century Japan.
The film’s plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and the westernisation of Japan by foreign powers, though in the film the US is portrayed as the primary force behind the push for westernisation.
It is also influenced by the stories of Jules Brunet, a French Army Captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War and to a lesser extent by Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped Westernise the Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army.
Former US Army Captain Nathan Algren, a bitter alcoholic traumatised by the atrocities he committed during the American Indian Wars, is approached by his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley to train the newly created Imperial Japanese Army for a forward-thinking Japanese businessman Omura, who intends to use the army to suppress a Samurai-headed rebellion against Japan’s new emperor. Despite his hatred of Bagley for his role in the Indian Wars, an impoverished Algren takes the job for the money, and is accompanied to Japan by his old friend, Sergeant Zebulon Gant. Upon arriving, Algren meets Simon Graham, a British translator knowledgeable about the samurai.
Algren finds the Imperial soldiers are actually conscripted peasants that have no knowledge of firearms or battle. Early in their training, Algren is informed that the samurai are attacking one of Omura’s railroads; Omura sends the army there, despite Algren’s protests that they are not ready. The battle is a disaster; the undisciplined conscripts are routed and Gant is killed. Algren fights to the last before he is surrounded; expecting to die, he is taken prisoner when samurai leader Katsumoto decides to spare him. Algren is taken to Katsumoto’s village to live among his family. While he is poorly treated at first, he eventually gains the samurai’s respect and actually becomes friends with Katsumoto. Algren overcomes his alcoholism and guilt, and learns the Japanese language and culture. He develops sympathy for the samurai, who are upset that the pace of modern technology has eroded the traditions of their society. Algren and Taka, Katsumoto’s sister and the widow of a samurai killed by Algren, develop an unspoken affection for each other.
One night, a group of ninja infiltrate the village and attempt to assassinate Katsumoto. Algren saves Katsumoto’s life, and then helps defend the village. Katsumoto requests a meeting with Emperor Meiji and is given safe passage to Tokyo. He brings Algren, intending to release him. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Algren finds the Imperial Army is now a well-trained and fully equipped fighting force. Katsumoto, to his dismay, discovers that the young and inexperienced Emperor has essentially become a puppet of Omura. At a government meeting, Omura orders Katsumoto’s arrest for carrying a sword in public and asks him to perform seppuku to redeem his honour. Algren refuses Omura’s offer to lead the new army to crush the rebels, due to his sympathy. Omura sends assassins to kill Algren, but Algren kills them. Algren assists the samurai in freeing Katsumoto; in the process, Katsumoto’s son Nobutada is mortally wounded, sacrificing himself to allow the others to escape.
As the Imperial Army marches to crush the rebellion, a grieving Katsumoto contemplates Seppuku, but Algren convinces him to fight until the end, and joins the samurai in battle. The samurai use the Imperial Army’s overconfidence to lure them into a trap and deprive them of artillery support. The ensuing battle inflicts massive casualties on both sides and forces the Imperial soldiers to retreat. Knowing that Imperial reinforcements are coming and defeat is inevitable, Katsumoto orders a suicidal cavalry charge on horseback. During the charge, the samurai break through Bagley’s line. Bagley is killed by Algren, but the samurai are quickly mowed down by gatling guns. The Imperial captain, previously trained by Algren and horrified by the sight of the dying samurai, orders all of the guns to cease fire, disregarding Omura’s orders. A mortally wounded Katsumoto commits Seppuku with Algren’s help as the soldiers at the scene kneel in respect.
Days later, as trade negotiations conclude, Algren, though injured, arrives and interrupts the proceedings. He presents the Emperor with Katsumoto’s sword and asks him to remember the traditions for which Katsumoto and his fellow Samurai died. The Emperor realises that while Japan should modernise, it cannot forget its own culture and history; he promptly rejects the trade offer. When Omura attempts to protest, the Emperor silences him by threatening to seize the Omura family assets and distribute them among the populace.
While various rumours regarding Algren’s fate circulate, Graham concludes that Algren had returned to the village to reunite with Taka.
- Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren:
- A Civil War and Indian War veteran haunted by his role in the massacre of Native Americans at the Washita River.
- Following a dismissal from his job, he agrees to help the new Meiji Restoration government train its first Western-style conscript army for a significant sum of money.
- During the army’s first battle he is captured by the samurai Katsumoto and taken to the village of Katsumoto’s son, where he soon becomes intrigued with the way of the samurai and decides to join them in their cause.
- His journal entries reveal his impressions about traditional Japanese culture, which almost immediately evolves to unrestrained admiration.
- Ken Watanabe as Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu:
- A warrior-poet who was once Emperor Meiji’s most trusted teacher.
- He is displeased with Mr. Omura’s bureaucratic reform policies which leads him into organising a revolt against the Imperial Army.
- Katsumoto is based on real life samurai Saigō Takamori.
- Koyuki Kato as Taka:
- Wife of a samurai slain by Nathan Algren, sister of Lord Katsumoto.
- Shin Koyamada as Nobutada Moritsugu:
- Katsumoto’s son who is lord of the village in which the Samurai are encamped. Nobutada befriends Algren.
- Katsumoto, the samurai lord, advises Nobutada to teach Algren in the Japanese way – Japanese culture and Japanese language.
- Tony Goldwyn as Colonel Bagley:
- Nathan Algren’s commanding officer in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, who was to train the Imperial Army.
- Algren dislikes Bagley for his role in the Washita River massacre of the Native Americans that Algren cannot get over.
- Bagley is killed by Algren in the climactic battle when Algren throws his sword into his chest.
- Masato Harada as Mr. Omura:
- An industrialist and pro-reform politician who dislikes the old samurai and shogun-related lifestyle.
- He quickly imports westernisation and modernisation while making money for himself through his railroads.
- Coming from a merchant family that was like many repressed during the days of Samurai rule and the cause for his extreme dislike for their nobility, he assumes a great deal of power during the Meiji Restoration and takes advantages of Meiji’s youth to become his chief advisor (wielding power similar to those of the Shoguns).
- His image is designed to evoke the image of Okubo Toshimichi, a leading reformer during the Meiji Restoration.
- Masato Harada noted that he was deeply interested in joining the film after witnessing the construction of Emperor Meiji’s conference room on sound stage 19 (where Humphrey Bogart had once acted) at Warner Brothers studios.
- Shichinosuke Nakamura as Emperor Meiji:
- Credited with the implementation of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the Emperor is eager to import Western ideas and practices to modernise and empower Japan to become a strong nation.
- His appearance bears a strong resemblance to Emperor Meiji during the 1860s rather than during the 1870s, when The Last Samurai takes place.
- Hiroyuki Sanada as Ujio:
- One of the most dedicated, loyal and fierce samurai under Katsumoto.
- He teaches Algren the art of Samurai sword fighting, none too gently but eventually grows to respect him.
- He is one of the remaining samurai to die in the final charge in the last battle.
- Timothy Spall as Simon Graham:
- A British interpreter for Captain Algren and his non-English speaking soldiers.
- Initially portrayed as friendly yet mission-oriented and practical-minded companion, he later comes to sympathise and join the samurai cause.
- Seizo Fukumoto as Silent Samurai:
- An elderly man assigned to follow Algren (who later calls the samurai “Bob”) as he travels through the village.
- Ultimately, the samurai saves Algren’s life (and speaking for the first and only time, “Algren-san!”) by taking a fatal bullet for him.
- Billy Connolly as Zebulon Gant:
- An ex-soldier who served with and is loyal to Algren, talked him into coming to Japan.
- He, along with Algren, train the imperial army before confronting the samurai.
- He is later killed in the opening battle by Hirotaro (Taka’s husband).
- Shun Sugata as Nakao:
- A tall jujutsu and naginata-skilled samurai, who takes part in Katsumoto’s rescue, and is later killed in the final battle.
Filming took place in New Zealand, mostly in the Taranaki region, with Japanese cast members and an American production crew. This location was chosen due to the fact that Egmont/Mount Taranaki resembles Mount Fuji, and also because there is a lot of forest and farmland in the Taranaki region. American Location Manager Charlie Harrington saw the mountain in a travel book and encouraged the producers to send him to Taranaki to scout the locations. This acted as a backdrop for many scenes, as opposed to the built up cities of Japan. Several of the village scenes were shot on the Warner Bros. Studios backlot in Burbank, California. Some scenes were shot in Kyoto and Himeji, Japan. There were 13 filming locations altogether. Tom Cruise did his own stunts for the film.
The film is based on an original screenplay entitled “The Last Samurai”, from a story by John Logan. The project itself was inspired by writer and director Vincent Ward. Ward became executive producer on the film – working in development on it for nearly four years and after approaching several directors (Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Weir), until he became interested with Edward Zwick. The film production went ahead with Zwick and was shot in Ward’s native New Zealand.
The film was based on the stories of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War and Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped westernize the Qing army by forming the Ever Victorious Army. The historical roles of other European nations who were involved in the westernisation of Japan are largely attributed to the US in the film, although the film references European involvement as well.
The Last Samurai: Original Motion Picture Score was released on 25 November 2003 by Warner Sunset Records. All music on the soundtrack was composed, arranged, and produced by Hans Zimmer, performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, and conducted by Blake Neely. It peaked at number 24 on the US Top Soundtracks chart.
The film achieved higher box office receipts in Japan than in the US, with critical reception in Japan being generally positive.
As of 01 January 2016, the film had grossed $456.8 million against a production budget of $140 million. It grossed $111,127,263 in the US and Canada, and $345,631,718 in other territories. It was one of the most successful box office hits in Japan, where it grossed ¥13.7 billion ($132 million).
- The Last Samurai grossed a total of $456 million at the box office and was well-received upon its release, receiving praise for the acting, writing, directing, score, visuals, costumes and messages.
- It was nominated for several awards, including four Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and two National Board of Review Awards.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Edward Zwick.
- Producer(s): Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Scott Kroopf, and Tom Engelman.
- Writer(s): John Logan, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz.
- Music: Hans Zimmer.
- Cinematography: John Toll.
- Editor(s): Steven Rosenblum and Victor Dubois.
- Production: Radar Pictures, The Bedford Falls Company, and Cruise/Wagner Productions.
- Distributor(s): Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Release Date: 20 November 2003 (Tokyo) and 05 December 2003 (US).
- Running Time: 154 minutes.
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English and Japanese.