August 4, 2003

Ravina's biography parallels upcoming movie

Eric Rangus

Icebreakers don’t come any better than sharing the interests of Tom Cruise. The actor’s next movie, which he also co-produced and is due in theaters in December, is The Last Samurai, a sweeping action/drama in which Cruise plays a Civil War veteran caught up in an insurrection in Japan in the 1870s.

Mark Ravina knows a lot about the subject.

His second book, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, will be released in November. Saigo, who joined the insurrection and became its leader, is the title character not only of the book but also of the film. (The two were independently produced.)

“Saigo is the figure who has one foot in traditional Japan and one foot in modern Japan, And he almost makes it all the way through,” said Ravina, associate professor of history and a specialist on Japan. “Arguably, had he made it all the way, he’d be a less compelling figure because he wouldn’t be the great tragic hero.”

Saigo is not a main character in the film, but as the book’s title implies, he is the core of Ravina’s story. Ravina explores Saigo’s personal history, and also places him in the tumultuous context of 19th century Japan when the last remnant of the country’s feudal system—the samurai—passed out of existence.

Saigo, a samurai from southwestern Japan, was the leader of a rebellion in the 1870s against the Japanese government he helped create. He began with an army of 20,000 men that eventually doubled in size, due in no small part to his personal charisma and leadership abilities. The rebellion was doomed, however, and Saigo was among the final men killed in a last-ditch charge against government troops in 1877.

The background behind the rebellion is complicated and dealt with extensively in Ravina’s book, which he spent five years writing and researching. In grand terms it was a conflict between the old-world values of the samurai (honor, duty, heroic courage) and the increasing technological influence of the West.

A vastly complex figure, Saigo can be compared to men ranging from Robert E. Lee
(a man who doesn’t believe in everything being fought for, but for whom honor is paramount) to Elvis Presley (Saigo was a staple of the popular press of his time, and there was a contingent of supporters who believed he hadn’t died in battle and was destined to return to Japan).

“Saigo was celebrated because he was a man of integrity standing up against what was seen as a manipulative and ruthless government,” Ravina said. “Yes, samurai could be brutal, but not Saigo. Saigo represented an aspect of samurai who believed it was a virtue to be frugal and munificent. Everything you might miss about a traditional society you would find in Saigo.”

Saigo has been written about extensively, so it isn’t easy to break new biographical ground. One way Ravina accomplishes this is by looking at Saigo’s poetry, which for the most part has not been studied.

“If you look at his poems, you get a sense of someone who had a lifelong quest for duty and kept struggling with his mission,” said Ravina, adding that Saigo wrote mostly in Chinese.

The book will be marketed not only as an academic work but also to a general audience. The budget for the Cruise movie is $100 million, so obviously the story is pretty compelling. This is the first time Ravina has written for a general audience, and he found the process a bit different.

“Historians are interested in how you found things out; when you find a certain document, what document was next to it?” Ravina said. “A general audience doesn’t care about that. They just want a good story. It’s not that general readers don’t want as much detail, they just don’t want you to argue with other historians.”

Although the book has been finished for a while—Ravina now is waiting to view page proofs—he hasn’t slowed down. He is teaching The History of Modern Japan (HIS 372) during the second summer session. The class meets for more than two hours, three days a week. On occasion, though not this year, he teaches his HIS 371 course, Medieval and Early Modern Japan, the first summer session.

In a little more than a month, Ravina rips through about 150 years of Japanese history. An energetic speaker, Ravina keeps the class lively without dragging—something he can’t afford with such a condensed schedule.

“Every minute is like an hour,” he said. “You just can’t waste one.”

One of the first subjects Ravina covers in the class is Saigo. “He stands as one of the fathers of modern Japan,” Ravina said. “There is a question that resonates for people today: In a world that is changing so rapidly, what parts of traditional culture do we want to keep?

“Saigo asked how we can engage world while maintaining what is good about ourselves as Japanese,” he continued. “He is a good model for hard times, and for a generation, he embodied samurai virtue.”