Cross-Cultural Virtue in The Last Samurai
By Sean Mattie
Lear: What art thou?
Kent: A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the king.
Lear: If thou be’est as poor for a subject as he’s for a king, thou are poor enough. What wouldst thou do?
Lear: Who wouldst thou serve?
Lear: Dost thou know me, fellow?
Kent: No, sir, but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.
Lear: What’s that?
King Lear, I.iv.18-30
In his comments on The Last Samurai, Christian asks, “How do you balance the need to show both Western and Eastern concepts of military virtue? How do you do this through the eyes of a character who has forgotten Classical virtue and is a product of Machiavellian prudential virtue?” He adds, “The conflicts for Cruise’s character prevent the director from fully utilizing the Japanese cultural setting and so he abbreviates it.”
I agree and disagree, in part, with these comments on virtue, culture, and cultural representations in the film. I have only a layman’s knowledge of Japanese history, but I had the privilege to attend a screening of The Last Samurai with a colleague who is quite an aficionado for Japanese culture and history, who studies aikido, and who wrote a college thesis comparing the bushido ethical/religious system to the feudal code of the Western Middle Ages. On the basis of certain parallels with European feudalism, I gave him my opinion that historical samurai, being aristocrats, probably exhibited aristocratic vices (haughtiness, lording it over inferiors, cruelty) as well as aristocratic virtues, and that there probably was not always peace, harmony, and good feeling between peasants in the village and their warrior lords. Thus, The Last Samurai’s depiction of domestic life in Katsumoto’s village is something of an ahistorical whitewash to highlight Katsumoto’s nobility. My colleague agreed with a chuckle (though like me he enjoyed the movie, and even for the historical authenticity that, he said, it did have). So director Edward Zwick does simplify Japanese history and culture for the sake of drama and story.
That said, I think that the film shows the possibility of fundamental “conversations” between Western and Eastern culture. These revolve around virtue and, I think, nature, but not exactly in the way that Christian presented it. Christian presents Nathan Algren as (at least at the beginning of the story) a representative of Machiavellian virtue (perhaps what he implies is utilitarianism) rather than classical virtue (perhaps he implies some orientation to the good for its own sake). If he means that part of Algren’s crisis is that of discovering the right end (telos) for action and life, then I may end up agreeing with Christian. At any rate, it seems that there are strong classical elements in Algren from the beginning and throughout the story. He has a nature and it is to be a warrior. He has martial virtue -- he is disciplined (on the field, at least) and courageous under fire. He shoots straight, is handy with his saber (and, eventually, sumarai sword), and he knows how to command. The film shows that he knows his own nature, though at times he laments, “the only job for which I am fit” apparently is to kill savage peoples.
But Algren’s real crisis is one of ends or aims -- finding the right cause for which to act. In personal terms, this means finding a worthy master and commander (another film I admired, but that’s another blog). At the beginning of the film, he can barely bring himself to show up on time (and sober) for the crass Winchester salesman who employs him to hawk the rifle that won the west. Shortly after, his former commander, Colonel Bagly, plies him with an offer to work for Omura, training a modern Japanese army to suppress the rebellion of the samurai against modernization in Japan. Through Algren’s flashbacks to his military campaigns against the Indian tribes of the plains, the film shows Bagly to be cruel, punitive, and unjust by the laws of war. In the rest of the film, Bagly is shown to have a venal, contemptuous, and self-serving nature. Omura is his natural counterpart, and they act in concert throughout the story. Part of Algren’s existential crisis is that his nature determined him to fight and exercise his virtue, and so he must, actively. But, for the first half of the story, he has no worthy commander for whom to fight. Those who would act in this role are base, and so the causes they promote are likewise base. Algren is something of a ronin.
This crisis of virtue and ends is also the crisis of Katsumoto. As Algren learns while prisoner in Katsumoto’s village, the word samurai means to serve, and Katsumoto lives to serve the Emperor Meiji, the “living god” who is also the symbol of the Japanese people as a whole. Katsumoto obviously has military virtue, including strategic knowledge and the capacity to command. Though Katsumoto lives his warrior ethos as part of bushido (while Algren claims that he is “not a churchgoing man” and admits to shaken faith), the two men still share a certain nature. The military crisis in the story stems from Katsumoto’s belief about how to serve Meiji and Japan. But this belief points to a crisis of ends. One end is Japan as the way of life represented by modernity, depicted visually in the film by innovations like photography, by mechanisms that conquer matter (like railroads, howitzers, and machine guns), and by mass processes like national conscription. Another end is Japan as the way of life represented by the samurai -- independence and magnanimity, yet strict social ties of personal loyalty and service.
Focusing on the story of Algren and Katsumoto, The Last Samurai doesn’t and probably couldn’t address the larger philosophical, historical, political, and physical aspects of modernity, globalization, and, as Bacon proposed, “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” These aspects raise serious and difficult questions about what is good and what is inevitable in modern life. Nonetheless, the personal focus of the film enables The Last Samurai to present these questions sharply enough. The choice of ends is, in a sense, the choice between two regimes -- one that elevates the self-serving Bagly and Omura and one that elevates the self-sacrificing Katsumoto and Algren (especially once Algren is spiritually revived). Through these persons, nature (or art, as in cinema) has presented the utilitarian and instrumentalist way of life, on the one hand, and the way of life as service and personal excellence, on the other. To Aristotle, this is the conflict between the views of happiness as pleasure and as nobility. The latter view leads to the classical account of virtue, an account that arguably transcends West and East in The Last Samurai. Algren, I submit, always essentially believed and practiced classical virtue, though it took the political crisis of Japan and Katsumoto to help him in his own crisis about nature -- the question of worthy masters or ends.