Most modern cinema is essentially the re-enactment of the same story. A protagonist is born into a world containing racism, sexism, anti-Semitism or some combination thereof. After a lengthy struggle, which may involve overcoming deep seated prejudice and bias within oneself, the properly reconstructed hero overcomes whatever remnants of Tradition exist, and triumphantly sets the world onto the correct path towards ever greater Equality. The costumes and character names may change, but The Narrative is always the same.
There is a variance of this plot, where the white hero is set on the road to enlightenment by a non-white who possesses the cultural authenticity, empathy, and soul that whites lack by their own inherently evil nature. The non-white helps the atomized Aryan come to a better understanding of himself, his place in the world, and, inevitably, his failed romantic life. Thus, the protagonist transcends his white identity to become an active soldier against his own people in the fight for ever greater equality. In so doing, of course, he proves his own moral and social superiority over his fellow whites. The contradiction between the previous two sentences, needless to say, is never noticed. When white advocates or anti-racists criticize such films as anti-white or condescendingly racist respectively, both groups are correct.
The Last Samurai is a typical example of the genre, seething with over-the-top hatred of Western Civilization and stuffed with progressive racial fantasies. It’s Stuff White People Like comes to Japan, complete with SWPL entry number #11 (Asian girls.) However, the movie inadvertently transcends itself in its defense of the moral code of the Samurai and the apology for a vanished society. Equality, economism, democracy, and modernity itself are savaged in the name of aristocracy and honor. The Last Samurai may be one of the most compelling defenses of Tradition and organic society Hollywood has ever produced. However, it’s only possible because the startlingly reactionary message of The Last Samurai is marinated in the contemptuous anti-Western hatred the Zeitgeist demands. It is simultaneously anti-white and anti-liberal and for that reason its intended message is confused and contradictory.
The movie begins with a recounting of Shinto mythology about the creation of the Japanese home islands. The nation itself is a product of divine providence, with blood, soil, and the gods integrated into one whole. The narrator, Mr. Graham, tells us that he believes that Japan was really created by a group of brave men who willed it into existence – the samurai. We are introduced to the leader of the samurai rebellion, Katsumoto, who is mediating on a vision of a white tiger flailing at a circle of foes surrounding him. This foreshadows the white protagonist. As with all stories of this type, the white man’s redemption through self-hate is at the center of the tale.
Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is an American military hero who has returned from the Indian Wars with the Congressional Medal of Honor. A drunk, he’s been reduced to making rambling speeches about Winchester firearms in front of crowds of potential customers. An earlier version of the script shows Algren haunted by the memory of his brother’s death in a Civil War battle. However, since having a hero loathe himself for participating in the butchery of evil Southern racists may lead to uncomfortable conclusions, the produced film limits the Civil War to a passing reference and changes the traumatic experience to Algren tormented by memories of killing saintly, peaceful, and enlightened Native Americans.
Algren makes his last sales pitch in front of a horrified audience, with Cruise overdoing the clichéd “horrors of war” by moaning about the bodies of scalped troopers baking in the sun and holes being blown open in the fathers of children. After he demonstrates the accuracy of the rifle by firing over the heads of the terrified crowd, he bitterly thanks them “on behalf of those who died in the name of better mechanical amusements and commercial opportunities.”
After he walks into the street, his old comrade Gant (Billy Connolly) greets him and tells him of a job opportunity. He drunkenly meets with his old commander, Colonel Bagley, whom he despises. Colonel Bagley tells him that Japan “has it in mind to become a civilized country” and wants “white experts” to train their army. The main Japanese figure behind the planned modernization is Omura, who enthusiastically wants modern weapons to crush a rebellion of Samurai, but secretly despises the Americans. “A nation of cheap traders,” he caustically remarks to an aide. Algren accepts the contract but makes sure to tell Bagley before he leaves that Algren may be willing to kill whoever he is ordered to for money, “but I’ll gladly kill you for free.”
Algren arrives in Japan and finds a society in transition. While most of the people in the streets are dressed in traditional clothing, there are a few in Western garb. A deleted scene shows the samurai Uijo walking through the streets before being confronted by two Japanese men in top hats and tails. They refuse to show deference and mock him for his top knot, sword, and clothing. One even pokes him with a cane. Uijo instantly slices the man’s head off and coolly walks on, while the other rolls onto his belly to show homage. We can expect that this scene was cut because this is what a society dominated by the samurai actually was – a rigid social order where a refusal to show deference to one’s betters could be punished by death. Modern cinema demands that the “good guys,” in this case the samurai, must be shown only as victims.
Therefore, in the produced film, the samurai receive a more appropriate and modern introduction. Algren questions the translator Simon Graham on everything he knows about the samurai. When the Irish sergeant Gant mocks them for still wearing armor, Graham uses the usual cinematic trope of reminding the white man that while his ancestors were barbarians, the nonwhites were superior. In this case, we are told the samurai were the most cultivated warriors in the world while Europeans were presumably grubbing amidst the caves.
Even though the training of the Japanese peasant conscripts has barely begun, Algren receives orders to move the army to confront a samurai force that is destroying Omura’s railway. The terrified peasants line up in the woods, the view shrouded by fog. The samurai, with terrifying masks and huge horned helmets, appear as demons out of the mist, their charge instantly breaking the conscripts’ line. Gant ignores Algren’s order to move to the rear and is killed for it. Despite refusing to use “cowardly” weapons like firearms, the samurai easily manage to defeat the rifle armed infantry. Algren meanwhile manages to slay several of the enemy, before being wounded and surrounded. He flails wildly with a spear he’s captured from an enemy that has a banner with a white tiger. Katsumoto approaches, recognizing the premonition. Wounded, Algren is about to be slain by a warrior in red armor, but at the last moment, Algren stabs him in the throat. Katsumoto saves Algren before he can be killed by the others and takes him prisoner.
Thus begins Algren’s introduction to an idyllic and vanished world. First, of course, he must confront his own evil. The pathetic drunk suffers through alcohol withdrawal as he cries out for sake and is consumed by visions of slaughtering peaceful Indians. He also learns that he is being kept in the house of Taka, Katsumoto’s sister and the wife of the warrior in the red armor that he killed. When he finally recovers and is brought to Katsumoto, he cannot understand why is being kept alive only to have “conversations” so Katsumoto can learn about his enemy. Algren, the modern post-Western man that the movie has retrofitted into the past, speaks with shame and loathing about his service with General Custer. Katsumoto meanwhile, is impressed that Algren has served with such a legend and envies Custer’s glorious death.
The main contradiction of the movie is thus established. Katsumoto is a man who curtly ordered his sister to take in the man who murdered her husband. When she understandably objects and offers to take her own life, he orders her to “do what you are told.” The society is one of a firmly established patriarchy, with peasants obeying their masters, and a forthright embrace of warrior values. However, since it is non-whites doing it, the film never shows anyone rebelling against this, and instead emphasizes the beauty, dignity, and harmony of an organic society. No one is opposed to this within Japan itself except for self-centered and greedy capitalists such as Omura, who, it is implied, is only this way because he has been corrupted by the outside world.
The movie thus succeeds in creating a way to critique modernity while not associating with anything icky or reactionary like an authentic Western tradition. As we’ve all learned in our distinguished universities, “whiteness” is a social construct, and here it is defined as the leveling forces of capitalism, industrialization, and globalization. As Algren increasingly identifies with his new community, and with Taka and her children, he ceases to be white and becomes Japanese. When spring comes and he is returned to the Japanese government, he finds that in his absence the frightened peasants that he left behind have been transformed into a disciplined modern army, complete with artillery and Gatling guns. The transformed Algren, now enlightened about the evils of the West, reacts with disgust. He quietly refuses command of the new force and Omura perceives him as an enemy for the first time.
Before the final struggle, there is a brief attempt to forge a peace between the old Japan and the new. Katsumoto is permitted to ride to the capital and meet with the young Emperor Meiji, who addresses him respectfully as his old instructor. Katsumoto frames his rebellion as a rising not against the Emperor, but against the Emperor’s true enemies. In a critical scene, the Emperor reveals that he doesn’t know what to do and begs Katsumoto to tell him the correct path. Katsumoto is thus faced with the classic problem of all reactionaries – the institution he has sworn to serve has become subverted, but the logic of his ideology prohibits him from taking command and thus destroying the principle of authority. Katsumoto prostrates himself and tells the Emperor that he must find the strength within himself.
Alas, the Emperor, despite his divine nature, is not capable of such an act of courage. Katsumoto is maneuvered out of power when he refuses to relinquish his sword during a council meeting, which is technically against the law. The Emperor remains silent, refusing to defy Omura, who has become the real ruler of Japan. Arrested, defeated, disgraced, Katsumoto’s rebellion appears to be over.
Instead, it is the white man who takes up his rescue and, of course, is responsible for further bloodshed. The translator Simon Graham helps Algren bluff his way past the guards by intimidating them, claiming Algren is in fact “the President of the United States” who has come to personally defeat the rebel army. While easily the funniest scene of the movie, the implication is that Japan is now so degraded that the President of a foreign power is somehow perceived as in command even by the Japanese military. Together with some of the samurai, Katsumoto is freed, but at the cost of his own son, who dies bravely in battle slaughtering rifle armed troops with bow and arrow.
Returning to their hideaway, Katsumoto wonders aloud if the Samurai have become obsolete. With the zeal of a convert, Algren tells him that the role of a traditionalist warrior is somehow more necessary than ever and that he should fight back against the attack that is coming. Of course, this means that men will die in a futile struggle in the name of “honor.” While Algren was disgusted by Custer’s willingness to die for an abstraction, it is justified and even glorious for nonwhites to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause, and he is quite willing to lend his own sword hand.
Algren and Katsumoto meet their foes in the field, but arrange their archers and swordsmen in such a way to draw their enemies into a trap. Algren tells Katsumoto about the Battle of Thermopylae, laughingly telling him that the defenders were “dead to the last man” in glorious combat by the end. It’s amazing what fighting for another people’s culture can do for the white man, as he grins in anticipation of his own sacrifice.
By soaking the ground with flammable pitch and feigning a retreat, the samurai draw their enemies close and take away their advantage of superior weaponry. Having won a tactical victory, but knowing enemy reinforcements are on the way, Algren, Katsumoto, and the surviving warriors take to their horses for a final charge.
The final battle scene is a masterpiece. One is reminded of Faulkner writing about Pickett’s charge, “This time, maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain…” They rip through a line of infantry that fail to stop the charge, Colonel Bagley impaled by Algren’s sword. Omura begins to panic, shrieking hysterically for the soldiers to load the “new guns”. The inexperienced Japanese soldiers fumble with the loading mechanism and the samurai draw ever closer, screaming their wild cry of battle frenzy. Any moment one expects to see the officers slice apart by the vengeful guardians of old Japan as the music swells to a crescendo. Suddenly, the music cuts off and the sickening mechanical clank of the Gatling guns shatters the sudden quiet. They are all cut down – Algren, Katsumoto, and the rest. We see that they weren’t even that close. The age of chivalry has gone, and that of sophists, economists, and calculators has succeeded, thanks to the new guns.
Wounded, dying, Katsumoto crawls to Algren to request help in ending his own life. Omura shrieks for his troops to finish them off, but his own officers disobey, revolted by the dishonorable slaughter. Algren assists Katsumoto to commit seppuku, giving the samurai both an honorable death and a moment of total perfection as he dies. Awed by the sacrifice, the Japanese troops bow to their vanquished foes. Of course, as Algren (albeit wounded) is seemingly the only survivor, we are seeing the non-white masses prostrating themselves before the principled anti-racist. It is the ultimate liberal fantasy.
Now that the rebellion has been crushed, the Japanese are poised to sign a trade agreement with the United States that will give great benefits to the Americans, as well as personally profit Omura. As the agreement is about to be signed, Algren limps into the imperial chamber to present the Emperor Meiji with Katsumoto’s sword. Deeply moved, the Emperor speaks, explaining that he dreamed of a powerful Japan with modern weapons and industries, but now that they have those things, “we must not forget who we are.”
Cultural authenticity is then re-established with a capricious act of Oriental despotism. The Emperor suddenly tells the American ambassador that he will not approve the treaty. The ambassador is understandably outraged at this duplicitous behavior, while Algren grins, having successfully harmed the interests of his own country. Omura protests, only to be told that the Emperor is randomly seizing all of his property. If he feels shamed, the Emperor suggests, Omura can kill himself using Katsumoto’s sword. While modernity is here to stay, the greater nobility of the way of the sword, of patriotism, and of service to the Emperor is established by the sacrifice of the samurai, whose deaths have now been redeemed (thanks to anti-racist whites.)
On a superficial level, one is tempted to simply dismiss The Last Samurai as a rip-off of James Clavell’s Shogun. However, the film is distinct from Campbell’s story in its basic theme in two ways, aside from the obvious differences of setting, characters, and plot. First, while Shogun shows the glory of Japan’s traditional way of life, it also reveals the deviousness and backstabbing underlying the talk of honor and sacrifice in the same way as Game of Thrones. The Last Samurai allows nothing to interfere with its portrayal of Traditionalist life. While we can perhaps chalk this up to naiveté or even liberal condescension, it is refreshing to see a forthrightly positive portrayal of an organic society.
More importantly, The Last Samurai has genuinely bracing insights on the inherent evils of modernity and liberal capitalism. Even though democracy has justified its triumph in the name of “dignity” for every person, the film shows that everyone from a samurai to a peasant had a value and worth in a real society, “dedicating themselves to perfection” in all that they do. Under modernity, there are vulgar city dwellers parading in foreign garb, mocking their own traditions in the empty pursuit of status granted by an alien elite.
The Last Samurai portrays the rot of nationalist identity once the primary value becomes money grubbing, but more than that, it show the even greater evil when nationalism (as a word) is married to money grubbing. Despite all the professions of loyalty, sacrifice, and power, the Japanese Army throughout most of the film is essentially a private security force for Omura’s corporate interests.
There is an obvious parallel to the American military, and to Smedley Butler’s passionate cry that his distinguished Marine Corps career was nothing but serving as a “high class muscle man for Big Business.” If it is sickening to see the way of the sword and the pursuit of perfection replaced by the rule of gold, it is infinitely worse to see martial values in the service of international finance.
Of course, the second way the film differs from Shogun is why the film is permitted to give this subversive message. Instead of a white man traveling amongst the Japanese as in Shogun, the film portrays the Japanese as essentially backdrops to the moral journey of the white man. That journey, of course, is away from his own “whiteness,” which is explicitly defined as modernity, capitalism, moral rot, and of course, alcoholism.
During one scene, Colonel Bagley asks Algren, “Just tell me one thing, what is it about your own people that you hate so much?” Algren has no answer. However, we get a hint in his response to a samurai child who asks him why he, Algren, is willing to fight against the “white men” who are coming to destroy Katsumoto’s army. Algren responds, “Because they come to destroy what I have come to love.”
Cut off from his own roots, with his own martial service in defense of “better mechanical amusements,” Algren turns to self-hate. It’s impossible to imagine his erstwhile Confederate opponents plagued by such doubts. With Traditionalism removed from Western Man, he seeks salvation in the Tradition of others, immersing, assimilating, and ultimately annihilating himself in the society of the Other. Thus the film ends with Mr. Graham suggesting that Algren ultimately found peace by living as a Japanese man, married to Taka and raising the children of his former foe.
As we see the postmodern graduates of American universities throw themselves into the indigenous rituals of agrarian tribes or champion the causes of all oppressed peoples except their own, we find that Colonel Bagley’s question is still with us and deserves an answer. What is it about our own people that we hate so much?
It’s that our people have been defined not by a culture, but by an anti-culture. In a cruel irony, “whiteness” has become a social construct, identified as export of junk food, junk culture, and junk values. Moreover, such “whiteness” should be hated. Cut off from ourselves and our past, we reasonably seek to identify with a real culture and a real people somewhere else.
Of course, there is a solution. If Algren had said to himself that while it is nice to have modern technology and material prosperity, whites “must not forget who we are,” the film would have a real message of subversion. However, our enemies won’t make that movie, never mind concede that whites even can refer to themselves as we. Like Katsumoto, we must rise; rise against the institutions that have failed us, in the name of the triumphs of the past and future we demand. That said, unlike the noble but failed samurai warlord, we cannot be bound by the enemy’s rules.