The Last Samurai Revisited

The Last Samurai Revisitedkobudo stamp 2    


Robert Hunt


We watched The Last Samurai the other day…again. Food for the soul for a modern martial artist.
It’s mostly fiction, or Hollywood fictionalized history, but no less fun to watch, with nicely delineated good guys and bad guys, romance, action, and, finally, a movie about the martial arts that speaks to our cumulative hearts. Thank you Edward Zwick.
There was a real last samurai, very similar to the one depicted.
His name was Takamori Saigo, and the person on whom Algren’s character was based was a Frenchman named Jules Brenet. They didn’t fight together, they were not even on the same side, but they both existed at about the same time in history.Saigo 1 - Copy
There are pivotal junctures in human experience when life takes a new direction in a short period of time, like the American revolution, for example. When things that have been in place for centuries change in a decade, history bends like bamboo in the wind.
Such was Japan in the 1870’s suspended between the old and new world. It finally evolved into a clash between the Shogun and the Emperor.
In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu had taken control of Japan at the battle of Sekigahara by defeating a group of clans, among which was the Satsuma clan from Kagoshima in the south. Tokugawa and his progeny ruled Japan for 260 years and forced it into isolation.  Foreigners caught there were executed and their death was not pretty.

In 1854 Admiral Perry landed with a fleet of warships and warned that, if Japan didn’t open its borders, he would force them to and that he would be back in a year. Imperial Japan (the Emperor et al) was impressed with western military power and knew they had to somehow enter the modern world. They resolved to take over the country from the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa’s descendent, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu - CopyThe situation was resolved with the Boshin war where Tokugawa was deposed and control was placed in the hands of the young, weak Emperor Meiji, not much more than a pawn.  The act was referred to as the “Meiji Restoration” to give it a noble feel, but it was the standard story of one side wrenching power from the other.
Takamori fought for the Emperor, the Imperial Army, in that war and helped defeat the Shogun, but not so much to see Japan modernize as to regain power.  You see Takamori was Satsuma and his clan had been part of the losing side at Sekigahara, 260 years before. No one forgets anything in Japan.
Takamori Saigo was happy to see the Shogun beaten and the Emperor in power, but not so happy to see all the modernization. For one thing, modernization meant doing away with the samurai class, their cushy stipends, and their position at the top of the Japanese hierarchy. They would no longer have the authority to chop off a commoner’s head if he didn’t bow low enough.

Emperor Meiji - CopySo, ultimately, Takamori turned against the Imperial Army and, by extension, the Emperor Meiji in a series of battles referred to as the “The Samurai Rebellion”.
The war lasted from January to September of 1876 and, contrary to the noble samurai in the Hollywood movie, Takamori did use guns. (He was noble, but he wasn’t stupid). There was even a final battle where Takamori and his warriors charged an overwhelming force of the Japanese army using only swords. But the reason wasn’t budo purity, it was lack of ammunition – they had run out of bullets.  In the final days, before that battle, they had taken to melting down metal statues and trinkets for bullets, smuggled to them by sympathetic civilians.

But the elements were all there for a good film; a military hero ostensibly loyal to a weak, easily manipulated Emperor; capitalists who wanted to westernize the country and improve its army to defend it against other powers; modernizers who thought 260 years of isolation was about enough; but, alas, no Tom Cruise.
The Japanese army was modernized in the Boshin war by French and German military advisors, (not American civil war veterans). That’s where the Frenchman comes in.
The Algren character, Jules Brenet, was a handsome, dashing Frenchman sent to Japan in 1867 to train the Shogun’s army, which he did. He then fought with it against Imperial Japan (the Emperor, his manipulators and Takamori).  When Tokugawa lost, the French pulled out, but Brunet, caught up in the mystique of Japan, resigned from the French army and moved north to Hokkaido, where he formed a new “nation” and, in league with some Tokugawa loyalists, planned to take back Japan.
It didn’t work out, of course, and Brenet had to be rescued and taken back to France where he rejoined the French army and became a muckity-muck.Jules Brenet - Copy
Edward Zwick, who wrote, produced and directed the Hollywood film, used Brenet and Takamori based characters to craft his work of art, as well as the book, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by historian Mark Ravina. Zwick changed the Frenchman to an American because Americans buy more movie tickets.
But what does this film have to do with our modern martial arts? Why does it speak to us so passionately?
What this film so aptly depicts is the moment in Japanese history when everything changed.  The ancient world emerged into the modern one and the old ways were no longer needed. The martial arts evolved into martial ways – jutsu became do – what we do.
This could be our story. Our arts, be they karate (karate-do, if you will), iaido, aikido, judo, kendo all stopped being martial arts and became something we could pursue without threatening anyone in power. The Imperial government did not want charismatic warriors like Takamori, seething in glorious dreams of rebellion in some far off corner of the island – and so they encouraged the “do” arts.
The same thing happened about the same time in Okinawa with karate. The old masters died off and people like Itosu and Higashionna turned karate into less violent, gymnastic-like pastimes crafted to build the human body and spirit more than to fight.
The interesting thing about the movie is that the disciplined practices that it depicted so well, are more creations from after the samurai rebellion, than before it. The unending practice of jujutsu, batto jutsu, kyu jutsu and the like simply for the sake of perfection is “do” not “jutsu”. In ancient Japan (and ancient Okinawa), warriors were practicing their arts (jutsu) for the purpose of killing, not spiritual development.
Zwick’s depiction of the Japanese martial arts and their devoted practice to “sharpen the spirit” is part of the “bushido” nonsense put forth by Inozu Nitobe in his book Bushido: The Soul of the Samurai, at the end of the 19th century, but that’s a different story.
The Last Samurai was a good job of Hollywood make-believe coupled with bits of Japanese history – an imaginative fabrication that articulates our own martial story so well.

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