Tom Cruise portrays a United States 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 westernization of Japan by foreign powers, though in the film the United States is portrayed as the primary force behind the push for westernization. To a lesser extent 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 Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helped Westernize the Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army.
Former US Army Captain Nathan Algren, a bitter alcoholic traumatized by the atrocities he committed during the American Indian Wars, is approached by his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley to train the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army for 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 poorly trained; rather than finding an eager army, he finds conscripted peasants that have no knowledge of firearms. During training, Algren is informed that the samurai are attacking one of Omura's railroads; Omura sends the army there, despite his protests. The battle is a disaster; the conscripts panic, and Gant is killed in the battle. Algren kills at least eight samurai before he is surrounded; expecting to die, he is surprised 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 by the samurai at first, he eventually gains their respect. Algren overcomes his alcoholism and guilt over his past sins, learns the Japanese language and culture, and develops sympathy for the Samurai, who are angry that the spread of modern technology has eroded traditional feudalism and the status and power of the Samurai. Algren becomes close with Taka, Katsumoto's sister and the widow of a Samurai Algren killed.
One night, as the village is watching a kabuki play, a group of ninja, sent by Omura, infiltrate the village and attempt to assassinate Katsumoto. However, Algren notices them and warns Katsumoto in time, saving his life. In the ensuing battle, Algren helps defend Katsumoto's family, earning his respect. Katsumoto requests a meeting with Emperor Meiji and is given safe passage to Tokyo, bringing Algren along with the intent to release him. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Algren finds the Imperial Army is now a well-trained and equipped fighting force, while Katsumoto, to his dismay, discovers that the Emperor is essentially a puppet of Omura. At a government meeting, Omura orders Katsumoto's arrest for carrying a sword in public and asks him to commit seppuku to redeem his honor. When Algren refuses Omura's offer to lead the new army to crush the rebels, Omura orders him killed as well. Omura sends assassins to kill Algren, but Algren kills his assailants. Algren and Katsumoto's samurai arrive to free Katsumoto from the Imperial Army. They manage to rescue him; however, in the process, Katsumoto's son, Nobutada, is wounded, and he sacrifices 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. Citing the Battle of Thermopylae, the Samurai use the Imperial Army's overconfidence to lure their soldiers into a trap and deprives them of artillery support. The ensuing mêlée 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 charge on horseback. During the charge, they break through Bagley's line, and Algren kills Bagley in battle. They rush through his line, and are quickly mowed down by gatling guns. The Imperial captain, previously trained by Algren, is horrified by the sight of the dying samurai and orders all of the guns to cease fire, disregarding Omura's orders. A mortally-wounded Katsumoto commits seppuku with Algren's help. The soldiers present in the scene kneel down in respect for the fallen samurai.
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 died. The Emperor realizes that while Japan should modernize and continue its interaction with other countries, it also should remember its own culture and history. He rejects the trade offer; when Omura protests his decision, the Emperor decides to seize the Omura family assets and distribute them to the poor. Algren returns to the village to Taka; while various rumors about Algren start to circulate, Graham concludes that Algren has finally found peace in his life, as he returns to the village to reunite with Taka.
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 Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army. The historical roles of the British Empire, the Netherlands and France in Japanese westernization are largely attributed to the United States in the film, for American audiences.
The Last Samurai: Original Motion Picture Score was released on November 25, 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.Track listing
All music composed by Hans Zimmer.Instrumentation
Strings: 32 violins, 23 violoncellos, 8 double basses
Brass: 8 French horns, 5 trombones, 2 tubas
Solo: vocal, Navajo vocal, fiddle, cello solo, koto, taiko drums, shakuhachi, flute & ethnic woodwinds
The film achieved higher box office receipts in Japan than in the United States. Critical reception in Japan was generally positive. Tomomi Katsuta of The Mainichi Shinbun thought that the film was "a vast improvement over previous American attempts to portray Japan", noting that director Edward Zwick "had researched Japanese history, cast well-known Japanese actors and consulted dialogue coaches to make sure he didn't confuse the casual and formal categories of Japanese speech." However, Katsuta still found fault with the film's idealistic, "storybook" portrayal of the samurai, stating: "Our image of samurai is that they were more corrupt." As such, he said, the noble samurai leader Katsumoto "set (his) teeth on edge."
The Japanese premiere was held at Roppongi Hills multiplex in Tokyo on November 1, 2003. The entire cast was present; they signed autographs, provided interviews and appeared on stage to speak to fans. Many of the cast members expressed the desire for audiences to learn and respect the important values of the samurai, and to have a greater appreciation of Japanese culture and custom.
In the United States, critic Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, saying it was "beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with conviction, it's an uncommonly thoughtful epic." Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 65% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 214 reviews, the site's consensus stating: "With high production values and thrilling battle scenes, The Last Samurai is a satisfying epic", and with an average score of 6.4/10, making the film a "Fresh" on the website's rating system. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 55, based on 43 reviews, which indicates "mixed or average reviews".
As of 1 January 2016 the film had grossed $456.8 million against a production budget of $140 million.
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Ken Watanabe), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Sound (Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and Jeff Wexler). It was also nominated for three Golden Globe Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Watanabe), Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Tom Cruise) and Best Score (Hans Zimmer).
Awards won by the film include Best Director by the National Board of Review, Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects at the Visual Effects Society Awards, Outstanding Foreign Language Film at the Japan Academy Prize, four Golden Satellite Awards and Best Fire Stunt at the Taurus World Stunt Awards.
Motoko Rich of The New York Times observed that the film has opened up a debate, "particularly among Asian-Americans and Japanese," about whether the film and others like it were "racist, naïve, well-intentioned, accurate – or all of the above."
Todd McCarthy, a film critic for the Variety magazine, wrote: "Clearly enamored of the culture it examines while resolutely remaining an outsider's romanticization of it, yarn is disappointingly content to recycle familiar attitudes about the nobility of ancient cultures, Western despoilment of them, liberal historical guilt, the unrestrainable greed of capitalists and the irreducible primacy of Hollywood movie stars."
According to history professor Cathy Schultz, "Many samurai fought Meiji modernization not for altruistic reasons but because it challenged their status as the privileged warrior caste. Meiji reformers proposed the radical idea that all men essentially being equal ... The film also misses the historical reality that many Meiji policy advisors were former samurai, who had voluntarily given up their traditional privileges to follow a course they believed would strengthen Japan."
The fictional character of Katsumoto bears a striking resemblance to the historical figure of Saigō Takamori, a hero of the Meiji Restoration and the leader of the ineffective Satsuma Rebellion, who appears in the histories and legends of modern Japan as a hero against the corruption, extravagance, and unprincipled politics of his contemporaries. "Though he had agreed to become a member of the new government," writes the translator and historian Ivan Morris, "it was clear from his writings and statements that he believed the ideals of the civil war were being vitiated. He was opposed to the excessively rapid changes in Japanese society and was particularly disturbed by the shabby treatment of the warrior class." Suspicious of the new bureaucracy, he wanted power to remain in the hands of the samurai class and the Emperor, and it was for this purpose that he had joined the central government. "Edicts like the interdiction against carrying swords and wearing the traditional topknot seemed like a series of gratuitous provocations; and, though Saigō realized that Japan needed an effective standing army to resist pressure from the West, he could not countenance the social implications of the military reforms. For this reason Saigō, although participating in the Okinoerabu government, continued to exercise a powerful appeal among disgruntled ex-samurai in Satsuma and elsewhere." Saigō fought for a moral revolution, not a material one, and he described his revolt as a check on the declining morality of a new, Westernizing materialism.