The Art and Philosophy in ‘The Last Samurai’ – I

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This movie, directed by Edward Zwick , stars Tom Cruise and Ken Wantanabe as Katsumoto, a Samurai Warrior. The film is loosely based on a true story about the end of the traditional Samurai in Japan.

In the movie, the sword smith shown in the village is a real sword smith. His name is Yoshihara Shoji, brother to Yoshihara Yoshindo. Shoji is a “Mukansa” level master sword smith, one of the highest rankings in Japan. Swords have always been a of significant value in Japan. Japanese swords, or nihonto (日本刀) are among the most highly sought  swords in the world today. It is believed that a sword was  involved with the mythological creation of Japan. The Japanese sun goddess  Amaterasu gave her grandson Ninigi the legendary sword Kusanagi (along with a mirror and jewel) when he was sent down to Earth to plant rice in Japan. Unfortunately the art of true Japanese Shinken (lit. real sword) is in danger of dying out. The sword used in the film is the folded steel Orchid katana by Paul Chen.

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Most Samurai swords have Kanji characters engraved on them.

Kanji (漢字;  are the adopted logographic  Chinese characters (hanzi) that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana and katakana. The Japanese term kanji for the Chinese characters literally means “Han characters”.

The Kanji character that the Taka’s younger son paints and gives to Algren is the character for “samurai”.

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The kanji characters that appear on the posters, often beneath the title, do not say “The Last Samurai.” They say “bushido” (“the warrior Way,” i.e., Japanese chivalry).

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The real-life counterpart of Katsumoto (played by ‘Ken Watanabe’) is Takamori Saigo, who led a samurai rebellion in 1877. As shown in the movie, Saigo ended up committing suicide in September 1877 after defeat in battle. Japanese popular sentiment toward Saigo, who though defeated, was regarded as a hero; a statue of Saigo was erected  after his death, and can today be seen in Ueno, in northeast Tokyo.

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In a bathing scene where  Taka is in a state of undress and Capt. Algren chances upon her, there is a shot with her clothes slightly below her shoulders looking backwards over her shoulder. This is a homage to the Hishikawa Moronobu’s ukiyo-e painting “backwards beauty”.

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