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
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