The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edward Zwick
Produced by Edward Zwick
Marshall Herskovitz
Tatiana Le-bour
Paula Wagner
Scott Kroopf
Tom Engelman
Screenplay by John Logan
Edward Zwick
Marshall Herskovitz
Story by John Logan
Starring Tom Cruise
Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography John Toll
Editing by Victor Du Bois
Steven Rosenblum
Studio Radar Pictures
Bedford Falls Company
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date(s) December 5, 2003 (2003-12-05)
Running time 154 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $140 million
Box office $456,758,981[1]

The Last Samurai is a 2003 American epic drama film directed and co-produced by Edward Zwick, who also co-wrote the screenplay based on a story by John Logan. The film was inspired by a project developed by writer and director Vincent Ward, who had previously filmed the movie in 1990, starring Lance Hendriksen, John Fujioka, and John Saxon. Ward became executive producer on the film – working in development on it for nearly four years and after approaching several directors (Coppola, Weir), he interested Edward Zwick. The film production went ahead with Zwick and was shot in Ward’s native New Zealand.

The film stars Tom Cruise (who also co-produced) in the role of American soldier Nathan Algren, whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in the Empire of Japan in 1876 and 1877. Other actors include Ken Watanabe, Shin Koyamada, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Timothy Spall, and Billy Connolly. The film's plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and also 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. These details, characters in the film and the real story are simplified for plot purposes and to maximize income from US audiences; the film does not seek to duplicate history. The Last Samurai was well received upon release, with a worldwide box office of $456 million. In addition it was nominated for several awards, including the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review.



The film begins in the summer of 1876, introducing Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a disenchanted ex-United States Army captain and an alcoholic, who is traumatized by his experience fighting in the Civil War and the Indian Wars. In the years following his army service, Algren makes his living by relating war stories to gun show audiences in San Francisco, an experience which further hampers his mental state. Fed up with Algren's perpetual drunkenness, his employer fires him, forcing Algren to accept an invitation by his former commanding officer Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), whom Algren deeply hates and blames for his waking nightmares after his role in the massacring of Indians. Bagley approaches him with an offer on behalf of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Omura (Masato Harada), to help the new Meiji Restoration government train the new Western-style Imperial Japanese Army. Assisting them are Algren's old army colleague Sergeant Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly) and Simon Graham (Timothy Spall), a British translator with a deep interest in the samurai.

Under the command of Bagley, Algren and his companions travel to Japan. Japan is in the middle of drastic civil change, and the new Western-style additions to society have not gone unopposed. The samurai are conducting an armed insurrection against the modernization campaign and it is for the purpose of suppressing this insurrection that Algren is called to Japan. The newly-formed Japanese Army is a poorly-trained and equipped conscripted army of peasants totally lacking in combat experience. Algren does his best to remedy this, but before the men are trained to his satisfaction Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) attacks a railroad outside his province. Bagley orders Algren to lead the inexperienced conscripts to engage Katsumoto. Algren protests and in a demonstration, illustrates the army's inexperience and inadequate training. Bagley dismisses Algren's concerns and orders a regiment to track down and engage Katsumoto.

When the regiment arrives at the battlefield, Bagley moves to the rear and orders Algren to do the same, since the Americans are technically non-combatants. Algren refuses and takes personal command of the regiment. Algren then orders Sergeant Gant to report to the rear as well, but Gant refuses out of personal loyalty to Algren. During the battle, the conscripted peasants panic despite Algren's best efforts to keep them under control. Samurai swarm the wholly unprepared army and the soldiers flee in disarray. Algren and Gant stand their ground and manage to kill several samurai, but Gant is killed and Algren is thrown from his horse. On foot, he desperately fends off several samurai with a broken spear embroidered with a flag depicting a white tiger. The flag on the spear reminds Katsumoto of a vision he experienced during meditation. Katsumoto's brother-in-law, the red-masked samurai Hirotaro and Gant's killer, prepares to finish Algren as well. As Hirotaro prepares to deliver a killing blow, Algren seizes a spear from the ground and stabs him through the throat. Believing what he has witnessed to be an omen, Katsumoto prevents his warriors finishing off the wounded Algren and takes him prisoner. Algren is taken to an isolated village, where he gradually recovers in a house belonging to Hirotaro's family, including his widow Taka, her two sons, Higen and Magojiro, and Katsumoto's son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada).

Over time, Algren overcomes both his alcoholism and the nightmares of his traumatic past, and begins to assimilate to village life, although he does not adopt many Japanese customs. Eventually, he meets Katsumoto, who takes an interest in Algren and begins conversing regularly with him, each gaining a healthy respect for the other. Algren confides to his journal that he has never felt entirely at peace until he came among Katsumoto and his people. Despite lingering fidelity to Hirotaro, Taka develops romantic feelings for Algren, particularly when she notices his budding fatherly relationship toward her children. Algren studies swordsmanship under skilled swordmaster Ujio (Hiroyuki Sanada) and becomes fluent in Japanese by conversing with the local residents; in doing so, he earns their respect.

In a brief scene, Katsumoto parodies the comic role of a kyōgen actor in an open-air torchlight performance (Takigi Noh). The carefree respite is interrupted by an attack of ninja assassins. Algren raises the alarm and then takes up a sword to help the defense. The samurai succeed in defeating the ninjas, but with many losses. Though Katsumoto does not confirm it, Algren deduces that the attack was ordered by Omura.

In spring, Algren is taken back to Tokyo. There he learns that the army, under Bagley's command, is now better organized and outfitted with howitzers and Gatling guns from the United States. Omura offers to place Algren in command of the army if he agrees to crush the samurai rebellion, but Algren declines. In private, Omura orders his men to kill Algren if he attempts to warn Katsumoto of their intentions. At the same time, Katsumoto offers his counsel to the young Emperor, to whom he was once a teacher. He learns that the Emperor's hold upon the throne is much weaker than he thought, and that he is essentially a puppet of Omura. When Katsumoto refuses to observe new laws that forbid samurai to publicly carry swords, he is arrested and confined to his quarters in Tokyo. Anticipating an assassination attempt on Katsumoto, Algren heads directly for his quarters but is ambushed by Omura's men; Algren narrowly escapes death through use of the skills he learned in Katsumoto's camp. With the assistance of Ujio, Nobutada, Nakao, the Silent Samurai, and Graham, Algren frees Katsumoto from custody. During their flight, Nobutada is mortally wounded and stays behind to aid his father's escape; Algren looks on as a mortally wounded Nobutada charges their foes, only to be cut down by gun fire.

Katsumoto is still mourning the loss of his son when he receives word that a large Imperial Army unit, commanded by Omura and Bagley, is marching out to engage the samurai. A counter-force of samurai, numbering only 500, is rallied. Algren makes a reference to the Battle of Thermopylae in which a small army of 300 Spartans fought against a much larger opposing force of roughly over 250,000 Persians (Algren claims it was against 1 million) by using the terrain and the enemy's overconfidence to their advantage; Algren surmises that a similar tactic would reduce the effectiveness of their enemy's artillery. On the eve of battle, Algren is presented with a katana of his own. Taka also gives him her dead husband's armor, and they kiss just before Algren leaves.

When the Imperial Army confronts the samurai's rebel forces, the samurai fall back to higher ground, preventing the Imperial soldiers from using their superior firepower. As expected, Omura immediately orders the infantry to advance. Bagley expresses misgivings and advises sending in scouting groups first to assess the area, but Omura overrules him and insists on a full attack. The infantry marches straight into a trap. Setting blocking fires to cut the enemy's immediate fighting strength in half, the samurai then unleash volleys of arrows on the infantrymen. A wave of samurai swordsmen, Katsumoto and Algren among them, attack the disorganized body of soldiers before they can recover from the arrow attack. A second wave of Imperial infantry follows behind, only to be countered by samurai cavalry and a savage mêlée ensues that leaves many dead on both sides before the Imperial soldiers finally retreat.

Realizing that fresh Imperial forces are coming and that defeat is inevitable should a second battle occur, the surviving samurai resolve to make a final, fate-charged mounted assault. During the battle, Bagley shoots Katsumoto in the shoulder, but before he can finish off the samurai, Algren hurls his sword at Bagley, killing him by spearing him through the chest. On approaching the Imperial rear line and progressing far enough to scare Omura, the samurai are finally cut down by Gatling gun fire. Moved by the sight of the dying samurai, who charged fearlessly despite the Imperial soldiers' superior firepower, the captain of the Imperial troops (who was originally trained by Algren) orders the Gatling guns to cease fire, against Omura's wishes. Katsumoto, observing Bushido, asks Algren to assist him in performing seppuku; Algren obeys, ending Katsumoto's life. Led by their captain, the Imperial soldiers show their still-lingering respect for the old order by kneeling before the fallen samurai.

Later, as the American ambassador prepares to have the Emperor sign a treaty that would give the U.S. exclusive rights to sell firearms to the Japanese government, a badly injured Algren offers Katsumoto's sword as a gift to the Emperor. The Emperor understands the message and realizes that, while Japan must modernize, it also must never forget its own history, cultural identity, and traditions. The Emperor then tells the American ambassador that his treaty is not in the best interests of Japan. When Omura objects, the Emperor, realizing that he need not be ruled by Omura, confiscates his estates and fortunes. When Omura tries to protest, the Emperor then offers him Katsumoto's sword, retorting that if the dishonor is too great to bear, he should commit seppuku. The cowardly but respectful Omura merely lowers his head and walks away.

The film ends with Algren — under a narrative provided by Simon Graham — returning to the samurai village and to Taka. Graham philosophically concludes that Algren has "found some small measure of peace that we all seek, and few of us ever find".


  • Tom Cruise as Captain Nathan Algren, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran haunted by the massacre of Native American civilians at the Washita River. Algren was born in the British Empire but is a naturalized American. Following a dismissal from his job, he agrees to help the new Meiji Restoration government train its first Western-style conscript army for a hefty sum. 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 evolve to admiration.
  • Ken Watanabe as samurai Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto, 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 organizing a revolt against the Imperial Army. Katsumoto is vaguely based on real-life samurai Saigō Takamori.
  • Shin Koyamada as Nobutada, Katsumoto's son who is lord of the village that the Samurai are encamped in and befriends Algren. Katsumoto, the leader samurai, advises Nobutada to teach Algren in the Japanese way – Japanese culture and Japanese language. He is killed during Katsumoto's escape.
  • Tony Goldwyn as Colonel Bagley, Capt. Algren's commanding officer in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, who was to train the Imperial Army and a main antagonist. Algren despises Bagley for his role in the Washita River massacre of the Native Americans that Algren cannot get over. In a flashback, we see Bagley murdering children and women in the Indians camp. Bagley bears close resemblance to General Custer (whom Algren dubs "a murderer who fell in love with his own legend"). Bagley is killed by Algren in the final battle when Algren throws his sword into his chest.
  • Masato Harada as Omura, an industrialist and pro-reform politician who dislikes the old samurai and shogun related lifestyle and the primary antagonist of the film. He quickly imports westernization and modernization 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 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.[citation needed]
  • 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 modernize 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 a typical practical-minded Englishman, he later comes to understand the Samurai cause. This character is shown to have some resemblances also to the real-world Corfiote photographer Felice Beato.
  • Seizo Fukumoto as the 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. He bears a marked resemblance to Kyuzo from Seven Samurai.
  • Koyuki as Taka, Katsumoto's sister and the wife of the red-masked Samurai Hirotaro, whom Nathan Algren kills earlier.
  • Billy Connolly as Sergeant 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.
  • Satoshi Nikaido as the Lieutenant, one of the first soldiers trained by Algren, who manages to escape from the battle where Algren is captured. He later reappears as Omura's aide in the final confrontation; distressed at the slaughter of the remaining samurai, he defies Omura by ordering the guns to stop firing so that Katsumoto can die with honor.


Filming took place in New Zealand, with Japanese cast members and an American Production crew. Views of Mount Fuji were superimposed using CGI of Mount Fuji as seen from Yokohama. Several of the village scenes were shot on the Warner Brothers Studios backlot in Burbank, California.


The Last Samurai
Soundtrack album by Hans Zimmer
Released November 25, 2003
Label Elektra

All music by Hans Zimmer. Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony, conducted by Blake Neely.

  1. "A Way of Life" 8:03
  2. "Spectres in the Fog" 4:07
  3. "Taken" 3:36
  4. "A Hard Teacher" 5:44
  5. "To Know My Enemy" 4:49
  6. "Idyll's End" 6:41
  7. "Safe Passage" 4:57
  8. "Ronin" 1:53
  9. "Red Warrior" 3:56
  10. "The Way of the Sword" 7:59
  11. "A Small Measure of Peace" 7:59


The film achieved higher box office receipts in Japan than in the USA.[2] Critical reception in Japan was generally positive.[3] 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 that "Our image of samurai are that they were more corrupt." As such, he said, the noble samurai leader Katsumoto "set (his) teeth on edge."[4] 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 America, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert 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."[5] There were numerous unflattering comparisons to Kevin Costner's film Dances with Wolves. 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."[4]

The film currently has a mixed rating on Metacritic of 55 out of 100.[6] Rotten Tomatoes has a rating of 65%, with the site's consensus stating "With high production values and thrilling battle scenes, The Last Samurai is a satisfying epic."[7]

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Supporting Actor for Ken Watanabe) and three Golden Globes (Best Supporting Actor for Watanabe, Best Actor - Drama for Tom Cruise and Best Score for 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.[8]

See also


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