The True Story Of 'The Last Samurai' That Hollywood Got Wrong

Remember The Last Samurai? The historical epic, starring Tom Cruise, tells the powerful story of an American soldier in Japan in the late 19th century. He goes there to train an army and winds up fighting against them. It’s an extraordinary situation that was actually inspired by real events. But what’s the true story behind the movie? As you might expect, the reality is far more complex — not to mention much stranger — than fiction.

The story

In the Oscar-nominated film, Cruise plays damaged U.S. Army Captain Nathan Algren, who is tasked with putting the Japanese Imperial Army through its paces in an era when this formidable fighting force was brand-new. Algren grudgingly travels to Japan, encountering a very different culture to his own. He then becomes a prisoner of Lord Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe.  

A national upheaval

Katsumoto leads a revolt against the increasing move toward modernization, aggressively spearheaded by Emperor Meiji, played by Shichinosuke Nakamura, and businessman Matsue Omura, portrayed by Masato Harada. Described as the “last samurai”, Katsumoto wants to preserve the traditional way of life for samurai and their role in Japanese society. He finds an unlikely ally in Algren, who discovers a whole new purpose in life.

How accurate is “The Last Samurai”?

Algren also forms a relationship with widow Taka, played by Koyuki Kato, who is grieving for the husband that he himself killed! She’s also Lord Katsumoto’s sister. The story of The Last Samurai is packed with action and incident, and takes its cue from real people and situations. Yet is it a particularly accurate version of Japan’s history? 

Real inspiration

In terms of Emperor Meiji, well, he was very much a real figure who took on the country’s samurai with controversial changes to the culture. This period is referred to as the Meiji Restoration, with the Boshin War — or Japanese Revolution — claiming thousands of lives in 1868-69. That said, The Last Samurai takes a fair number of liberties, as you might expect. 

Hollywood and history

Hollywood has form when it comes to simplifying, and even downright fictionalizing, certain parts of world history. While you probably couldn’t accuse director Edward Zwick’s film of the latter, it has received some criticism regarding how it depicted Japan at that time. We’ll go into this more later. For now, let’s talk about the actual background to the story.

A policy of isolation

Japan had established an identity over centuries, keeping itself to itself. The island followed a strict foreign policy of seclusion — “sakoku” — beginning during the Tokugawa shōgunate, which ran from 1603 to 1868. This policy, which had been in place for over 200 years, began to change after Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed in from the West during the early 1850s. The Japanese had been expecting him.

Perry’s prerogative

Sent by America on a trade mission, Perry wasn’t there to be friendly. His orders were to change minds, not win hearts. Accompanied by a squadron of ships, his arrival was anticipated after the Japanese had received advance word about American intentions. They were basically required to accept goods from the West, or else. Eventually a “peace” treaty was signed, the Convention of Kanagawa.

The end of the old Japan

This happened in 1854 after months of intimidation by Commodore Perry. Emperor Kōmei had ruled Japan at the time, signing the treaty and taking his subjects down a new path that wasn’t welcomed by everyone. His successor Meiji took over in 1867 — the year before the Tokugawa shōgunate ended. The restoration that bears Meiji’s name also closed the book on what’s known as the Edo period.

The fall of the shōgunate

The formal Emperor-awarded title of shōgun, or commander-in-chief, had first been used back in 1185, although the term had also been used from the 8th and 9th centuries onwards to refer to military leaders. Initially, wars had raged between various feudal landholders, with power decentralized. The first Edo shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, unified the country, and the shōgunate that bore his name lasted from 1603 to 1867. This Edo period had seen Japan isolate itself, but the dynasty would eventually crumble under mounting pressure from outside.

What was a samurai?

There are a lot of names and titles here, but what actually is a samurai? As mentioned by website History Hit, fighters who were deployed during the military campaigns of the 8th and 9th centuries are thought to have formed the beginnings of this noble warrior class. By the time the 12th century rolled around, they’d become an all-encompassing part of the power structure. 

The last stand of the samurai

Also referred to as bushi, samurai reached lofty positions, and even today their look and philosophy is explored in books and films. Still, nothing lasts forever. When Commodore Perry arrived, it signaled the start of the demise of these warriors and their powerful hold over Japan. Not that they went quietly: if anyone was going to put up a fight, it would be samurai.

Meanwhile, on Kyusu Island…

Interestingly, one of the big counterstrikes against Emperor Meiji and his plans came years after the Tokugawa shōgunate was defeated. The Satsuma Rebellion happened on Kyusu Island, where warriors had established their own part of Japan, which they were accustomed to running themselves. They knew about the Meiji Restoration but kind of ignored it, or at least kept its impact at bay.

Beyond the Meiji Restoration

The long-established Satsuma region had been reinforcing itself as late as the 1860s, with ThoughtCo noting it “began to invest heavily in armaments, building a new shipyard at Kagoshima, two weapons factories, and three ammunition depots.” Kagoshima is the biggest city in the prefecture — or district — of the same name. The law later dictated that everything would fall under outside control.

The Satsuma Rebellion

Were the samurai there going to yield to Emperor Meiji? Of course not. Things seemed relatively peaceful until 1877, when governmental authorities tried to get their hands on the Satsuma weapons stash. The local army numbered some 13,000 men, so a battle was inevitable. Hostilities lasted between January and September that year. Influential samurai Saigō Takamori led the rebellion.

The men who inspired The Last Samurai

This brings us neatly back to The Last Samurai, the story of which is set in the year prior to the Satsuma Rebellion, 1876. In fact, actor Watanabe’s character of Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto was inspired by the aforementioned Takamori. As for Cruise’s Captain Algren, he was actually based on a French Sub-Lieutenant named Jules Brunet.

Nathan Algren and Jules Brunet

Let’s compare and contrast the historical journey of Brunet with Cruise’s character, highlighting the similarities and differences between the two. If you’ve seen The Last Samurai, then what we have to reveal is truly surprising. As with most conflicts, it isn’t always a simple case of good and bad. Naturally, we’ll begin by talking about why Brunet was in Japan in the first place.

Brunet arrives in Japan

Like Cruise’s Algren, he’d been sent to train the Japanese in more up-to-date fighting techniques. Yet the context is rather different. For starters, Brunet went to Japan in 1867 — a decade or so before Algren landed there for his mission. He acted on orders from Napoleon III, who’d been asked for support by none other than the Tokugawa shōgunate.

Training an army

This is a departure from the narrative of The Last Samurai, where Captain Algren trains up the Imperial Army to fight against the old warrior class. All the same, the dramatic motivations remain. In its comparison of the movie versus the reality, website Ranker writes that “both were strangers in a foreign land caught up in a series of events bigger than themselves.”

Similarities between Algren and Brunet

Algren was around for the fall of the samurai, which affected him deeply enough to switch allegiances, whereas for his French counterpart “it was seeing the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate firsthand” that spurred him to take drastic action. At its heart, the emotional dynamic of the pair is the same. Both saw the realities of samurai life and traditions up close.

A personal battle

When Brunet and his men went to Japan, the civil conflict known as the Boshin War was yet to break out. In the movie, Algren has already entered into a dangerous environment and soon finds himself in trouble. His underprepared band of men are overwhelmed, and Algren is captured by Katsumoto’s forces. It’s here that he comes to understand Watanabe’s formidable opponent.

A prisoner of war?

Did something like this happen to Brunet? Not in Japan, it seems, though he did wind up being held by the enemy at the Siege of Metz during the Franco-Prussian War. Also, Algren’s romantic interest in Katsumoto’s sister after killing her husband appears to have no parallel with Brunet’s experiences. It’s all par for the course when it comes to screenplays for big-budget movies. 

A lasting bond

 The relationship between Algren and Katsumoto is deep enough for the American soldier to talk the Japanese Lord out of committing suicide. Again, this serves a dramatic purpose, but Brunet apparently wasn’t in a situation like this to our knowledge. Ultimately, Brunet and Katsumoto’s fictional counterpart Takamori never met, though the Frenchman certainly shared the same beliefs about the samurai.   

Were the samurai the good guys?

Another way in which Algren’s journey differs from historical accounts concerns the presentation of the conflict. It’s easy to look at the heroic Cruise and assume he’s fighting for the forces of freedom. Indeed, he definitely picked a side. Yet you couldn’t describe the samurai as an oppressed people as such. They were trying to preserve their own power base and hold on to the country.

Response to the Restoration

Also, some Japanese people liked the idea of what the Emperor was trying to achieve. The country was, after all, isolated and opening up the culture proved an attractive prospect to some. The Tokugawa shōgunate weren’t evil as such, they just ran society in their own way. That rule included operating in their own interests. And that brings us to another interesting detail.

Satsuma endorsement

The samurai group involved in the later Satsuma Rebellion opposed Emperor Meiji and his Restoration. But back in 1868 they had very much supported it. According to website All That’s Interesting, Brunet and a colleague once ran into members of the Satsuma and Chōshū clans. The powerful clan lords had been “the influence behind the Emperor’s decree” to modernize Japan.

Guns vs. swords

At that time, Brunet and his army were on their way to deliver a message to Meiji to cease and desist. Instead they encountered hostile forces. This clash resulted in the Boshin civil war. During conflicts in The Last Samurai, traditional warriors suffered at the hands of Imperial forces and their technologically advanced approach to warfare. Gatling guns made short work of men with swords.

The samurai did use firearms

Yet the depiction of the samurai here is lacking. Truth was, the samurai knew all about guns. Ranker noted that the Japanese had used firearms since the 16th century, and the country both imported and then manufactured them. Does that mean samurai pulled triggers as well as wielded a blade? You bet it did — though there were exceptions, naturally.

Dramatic license

The website also draws attention to the Shinpuren Rebellion of 1877, where guns weren’t used on principle by the warriors there. You could say that Edward Zwick’s film simplified aspects of the situation, though again we should point out that this isn’t a strange thing to do in the context of creating a dramatic story within a certain running time. 

How similar were Algren and Brunet?

We’ve looked at Brunet’s experiences in Japan through the prism of Algren, as played by Cruise. While the former inspired the latter, the two men are really too different to draw a great deal by way of comparison. Particular historical details remain the same of course, but on balance one was real and the other pretty much fictional. 

American samurai?

Would Cruise’s character have become a fully-fledged samurai, with armor and everything like in the movie? Well, the traditional outfit may have been a step too far. The thinking is that, while it looked great, it wasn’t that widespread and was considered obsolete, a fact mentioned by Ranker. The idea of an American soldier taking on the mantle of a samurai, though, is possible.

Fighting for Japan  

The upheaval in Japan was caused by the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, an American. So, it wasn’t exactly unusual for people from the United States to be fighting in Japan. And there are cases of outsiders who embraced the culture and were accepted into it. In such a perilous situation, how did it end for Algren?

A somewhat happy ending

Happily it seems, though not without a lot of blood and tragedy along the way. Watanabe’s Lord Katsumoto dies in battle, and it’s left to Algren to come face-to-face with the Emperor, bringing with him his comrade’s sword. By this stage he isn’t looking to kill his enemy. He’s presenting it symbolically, to keep respect for the samurai alive. 

What happened to Brunet?

After this, he appears to stay in Japan. This wasn’t true of Brunet, who returned to his homeland. What happened to Takamori, who inspired the character of Katsumoto? He too met his end on the battlefield, though it isn’t known precisely how he died. Brunet was lucky to make it out of Japan. He was evacuated by sea, with the Emperor demanding justice.

A heartfelt letter?

In France, Brunet was celebrated for choosing to abandon his role with the Imperial Army and fight alongside the Tokugawa shōgunate. In the communication he originally wrote to the French Emperor Napoleon III when switching sides, he stated, “Soon a reaction will take place, and the Daimyos of the North have offered me to be its soul.” Whether this letter came straight from Brunet’s heart, or was a bid to paint his defection in a favorable light to the Gallic authorities is open to debate.


He added: “I have accepted, because with the help of 1,000 Japanese officers and non-commissioned officers, our students, I can direct the 50,000 men of the Confederation.” Already the recipient of the Legion of Honor before going to Japan, he went on to become Chief of Staff and passed away in 1911. He was eventually pardoned and honored by the Japanese during his lifetime.

The director’s take

What would his samurai friends have made of it all? It’s tough to say, but when it comes to the relationship between Algren and Katsumoto, the connection is clear. The Last Samurai director Zwick said in a 2003 BBC interview that “It was almost as if I felt the character of Katsumoto had been lonely and the character of Algren had been alone”.

Why did Cruise make the movie?

For Zwick, the two characters “finally found someone who understood the other and would understand what they were talking about. They found something kindred.” Cruise, speaking to IGN about his motivation for starring in the movie, said, “I find… [Japan’s] aesthetic and the people fascinating. I wanted to know more, more about their history, how they lived, how they got to where they are today.” 

A big-screen success

For some critics, Cruise and Zwick presented a fascinating and unknown insight into the history of Japan. For others, they were self-indulgent and filmed a “white savior” narrative that reduced the struggles of the people there. Either way, The Last Samurai was a box-office success, making its reported budget of $140 million back several times over. 

What did the actor who played “The Last Samurai” think?

Did Cruise’s co-star Watanabe feel the movie was misjudged? Even years later in 2022 he believes the film made an important contribution to the depiction of Asian people in U.S. cinema. Watanabe told British newspaper The Guardian after the movie’s release that the producers had “tried to be more authentic” and not fall back on stereotypes. He’s certainly happy with the outcome.

Cruise control

Nearly 20 years on, The Last Samurai remains an unexpected entry in Cruise’s resume. In recent years he’s focused on action-oriented fare such as the Mission: Impossible franchise. This Japanese odyssey showed there was more to him than a square jaw, a clean-cut image and a penchant for riding motorcycles off cliffs.