Following in the tradition of classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai is yet another film that portrays a “white” soldier who finds his true calling and identity in the midst of a foreign culture. Predictably, this realization leads the hero—in this case, Captain Nathan Algren, an American civil war veteran who is haunted by his military past—to side with his new allies—the last remaining band of samurai—and lead them in a final, glorious revolt against the corrupt, oppressive culture Algren only recently served with such valour.
Not surprisingly, America is portrayed throughout the film as a seductive, corrupting force, undermining the ancient Japanese code of honor—bushido—in the pursuit of cold hard cash. This plays perfectly into the hands of Japanese industrialists who are eager to modernize their country and make a quick buck in the process.
The conflict between the old Japan and the new, Americanized version of the country is most poignant when Japanese businessman/minister Omura frantically orders his troops—freshly trained by American mercenaries—to pull out the “new machines” to stop an oncoming army of samurai. These new machines turn out to be hand-cranked Gatling guns (recent purchases from America) that are capable of firing 200 rounds per minute. Omura’s troops proceed to turn an entire battery of these guns on the samurai—who are armed only with swords and bows—mowing them down until not a single man remains. When it is all over, instead of celebrating their victory, Omura’s soldiers fall to their knees in a tearful tribute to Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai. Even Omura realizes that he and his troops have done more than squelch a small uprising of rebels that day. They’ve obliterated the core of their nation’s soul. And there’s no going back from here.
True to its genre, this film also romanticizes the samurai, depicting them as disciplined, enlightened people whose entire lives are based around the strict bushido code and martial arts training. Add in the fact that they live in a peaceful, remote mountain village, and it’s almost as if Capt. Algren has stumbled across paradise when they take him captive there. But lest we forget the dark shadow of death that lurks beneath this seemingly idyllic world, the filmmakers wisely place Capt. Algren in the home of a man he killed during his capture. There, Algren is forced to live with the dead man’s wife and two young sons for an entire winter. This shattered family serves as a constant reminder to both Algren and the viewer that those who live by the sword may also die by it; but it is those left behind who pay the ultimate price for the honor these strong men hold so dear.