After sitting in a darkened theater watching the saga of the fictional samurai leader Katsumoto unfold on screen, Associate Professor of Japanese History Mark Ravina sips coffee at a nearby café and carefully considers his reaction to the cinematic version of The Last Samurai.

“I liked it more than I thought I would,” Ravina says. “I might go see it again.”


“Of course,” he says, “parts of the movie are just all wrong, historically.”

Ravina should know–he spent years researching and writing a just-published biography, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori (2004, John Wiley and Sons), about the samurai leader who inspired the movie.

“I first heard that the movie was about the samurai rebellion [in 1877]. Then I learned more about it and I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Someone was making a movie about my guy! I was stunned.”

Although Ravina’s book and the movie were independent projects, he has enjoyed a flurry of press attention and book sales as a result of the fortuitous timing, and has appeared on CNN, the History Channel, and National Public Radio.

“Comparing history’s version and Hollywood’s version is like comparing veal piccata and key lime pie. They can both be delicious in their own way,” Ravina says. “I’m not going to criticize the movie too much–it got me on TV.”

But George Hisaeda, consul general of Japan, has a different take on his friend’s newfound fame. “Thanks to the publishing of Mark’s book, I believe the number of moviegoers has increased,” said Hisaeda, who visited Emory in February for the presentation of the Fukyuban edition of the Koji Ruien.

Friends of the Emory Libraries purchased the fifty-one-volume historical encyclopedia of Japanese life and culture for the Asian Studies collection of the Woodruff Library.

Ravina, chair of the East Asian Studies program, became fascinated by the legend of Saigo Takamori in graduate school at Stanford, while researching nineteenth-century Japan’s transition from a feudal to a modern society. “Saigo personified that shift,” he says. “He was caught between two political systems, two social structures.”

Saigo Takamori was born into poverty in 1827, the son of a tax official who was a low-ranking urban samurai and his wife, the daughter of a local samurai. Takamori went on to became one of Japan’s most honored warriors, a sentimental favorite of the people for his towering stature (he was six feet tall), courage, charisma, and humility.

“He didn’t order people to bow before him,” Ravina says. “He lived with such honor that people were overcome with respect for him.”

In 1867, at the request of the emperor, Takamori and a group of samurai warriors seized control of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto and restored the Meiji Empire, ending 265 years of rule by the feudalistic Tokugawa shogunate. Ironically, in their drive to modernize Japan, the Meiji emperor and his advisers soon abolished all samurai privileges, including their ancient right to carry swords.

“The new Japan that Saigo helped create then stripped the samurai of all that made them samurai–tradition, honor, glory, and feudal privilege,” Ravina says.

Takamori, who had been given command of the Imperial Guard, Japan’s national army, became dismayed and eventually resigned from the government to return to his native Satsuma, where he opened a military academy for former samurai warriors.

“He didn’t want to rise in rebellion, but he didn’t want to betray his followers either,” Ravina says. “Saigo was a traditionalist in much more subtle ways than the movie was able to show–he supported traditional morality versus the profit motive. He didn’t speak English, as he did in the movie, but he did have an appreciation for some Western things. He just thought the changes had gone too far.”

Eventually, Takamori led some thirty thousand disgruntled samurai in a seven-month-long rebellion in which he and most of his followers were killed. While that bloody confrontation signaled the end of the samurai class, the samurai lifestyle is glorified in contemporary Japan much as the Wild West is romanticized in America.

“Modern Japanese associate the samurai tradition with clarity and singlemindedness of purpose,” Ravina says. “Friends tell me the movie has been well-received in Japan, and I can see why. Basically, it’s a Japanese western– Jidaigeki–a period piece.”

In The Last Samurai, written and directed by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz of thirtysomething fame, Katsumoto teaches Captain Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) the nobility of the samurai lifestyle. Algren, a disillusioned Civil War hero, had been hired by the Japanese emperor to train the Imperial Army in the use of modern weapons. After being captured by the samurai and living among them, Algren ends up fighting with the rebels against the army.

“The Tom Cruise character is about 80 to 90 percent fictional,” Ravina says. “It’s the old device of bringing American audiences into foreign stories by having an American character advance the plot. There is no doubt, though, that Katsumoto was inspired by Saigo.”

After Takamori’s death in battle, followers cut off his head and hid it in an attempt to prevent the ceremonial “presentation of severed heads.” Ravina’s book, in fact, opens with the question: “Where was Saigo Takamori’s head? For one frantic morning in 1877 this question consumed the Japanese government.”

While legend has Takamori undertaking ritual suicide on the battlefield, historical records show he was paralyzed by a bullet and would have been unable to do so.

Even so, both the modern movie and wood block prints that artists drew of Takamori’s death at the time show him committing seppuku, the honorable death for all warriors who have been defeated.

“Of course, they made it all up,” Ravina says. “Then, as now, they gave the people the ending they wanted.”–M.J.L.



© 2004 Emory University