In the words of Jonathan Dresner, an East Asian history professor at Pittsburg State University, Kansas, “From the opening voiceover and title to the final scene, ‘The Last Samurai’ is a historical disaster.”
Tom Cruise plays a character named Nathan Algren (who was probably a composite of a few different people), a Civil War veteran who is hired to train Japanese soldiers to fight a rebellion of Samurai who refuse to embrace industrialization. Algren, of course, ends up a prisoner-turned-honorary member of the Samurai after learning about their combat and way of life. The Samurai class of Japan was made up of more than a million people before the changes enacted during Japan’s Meiji era, and many of them did choose to assimilate to new ways of living.
The Samurai who didn’t want to assimilate and rebelled didn’t do so because they feared the evils of modernization, but rather because they didn’t want to lose the specialized privileges and duties they retained because of their status. The film bases its war on the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, but in that rebellion the Samurai seized armories and readily made use of modern arms.
Furthermore, many of the aristocrats depicted in the movie were of the Samurai class and most of the Samurai were living in more urbanized areas by the late 1800s. The film’s romanticization and over-simplification of what was actually a complex faction made up of many different clans and interests is cringeworthy.