View Full Version : 'Samurai' a good film maybe, but good history unlikely

John Lindsey
28th November 2003, 14:06


WHEN the film "The Last Samurai" (Warner Bros.) opens Dec. 5 it will probably be another Tom Cruise blockbuster, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. It also seems poised to spur an interest in ancient Japanese warfare not seen since the miniseries "Shogun" captured the interest of millions of television viewers in 1980.

But will the film be historically accurate?

Considering the popular notion of what the Samurai were, probably not, according to Bowdoin College Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Thomas Conlan.

Conlan extensively has researched the Samurai and warfare in 14th-century Japan. His book "State of War: The Violent Order of 14th Century Japan" recently was published by the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies.

His research has revealed that the myth of the Samurai is just that -- a myth. The folkloric vision of the Samurai -- a loyal warrior, ready to die for his cause, riding into battle with his sword -- is a fabrication. In fact, the Samurai, or at least the ideal with which we are so familiar, were born in peace centuries after they actually did battle.

Promos for "The Last Samurai" depict Cruise's character, a disillusioned Civil War vet, as living by the "values and codes by which the Samurai have lived and died for centuries": namely courage, loyalty and honor. The film's official Web site (lastsamurai.warnerbros.com/home.php) opens with Cruise engaged in intricate swordplay.

Bunk, says Conlan.

This prevailing image of the Samurai is not rooted in how warriors actually fought in 14th-century Japan. Instead, the image was created by the Samurai themselves, during the 17th-century peacetime, when they felt a need to justify their own existence.

"I have a very different take on what the Samurai are, were, than the later ideal," Conlan said.

Fourteenth-century Japan was indeed the time of the Shogun and a time of war, and there were Samurai warriors, but the way they behaved was different from the way they've been portrayed in literature and film. Conlan expects the Cruise film to feature the same distortions of history.

Conlan has recently been interviewed for two documentary productions -- one being produced for National Geographic and another for the History Channel, both timed to coincide with the movie's release. As Conlan has shared his discoveries, he has become aware that many people hold dear the ideal of the Samurai, and they don't want to let it go.

"That ideal is very much alive," he said. "A lot of people have something invested. They want to believe this."

In 13th-century and early 14th-century Japan, the Imperial court governed the country, but the emperor delegated authority to a Shogun, who delegated judicial authority to the Kamakura regime. The Kamakura regime was concerned with maintaining order and overseeing policing issues and land disputes. (In 1232, the Kamakura regime created a law code that gave greater protection of land rights than the Magna Carta.) An important part of this judicial regime was the production of documents. As land rights became more concrete, warriors began keeping their own documents -- wills, tax records, deeds to land and the like.

The Kamakura regime was destroyed in 1333 as part of a dispute over imperial succession, and a civil war raged in Japan for the next 60 years, but warriors continued to document their military service, including their actions in battle.

Japan's history of record keeping is what has made Conlan's discoveries possible. Books containing copies of documents ranging from the years 1180 to 1600 line his office on Bowdoin's Brunswick, Maine, campus.

"They make a paper that is indestructible," he said. "The documents were a mark of social status, so they were preserved."

By translating 1,302 military documents, Conlan has been able to recreate entire battles and gain an understanding of the life a warrior in 14th-century Japan that scholars previously lacked. The documents are narratives of battles, including mentions of wounds, fatalities and witnesses.

For example, in one document, a warrior has described a wound, a gash, that sounds quite serious, but someone else later wrote over it in red "shallow." Someone was checking to see if the soldier had exaggerated his wounds and found that he had.

"I saw these documents and I went, 'Well, it's possible, through wounds, to reconstruct pretty precisely the way people fought,'" Conlan said. "It turned out to be a very rich topic."

"I realized they're acting very different than we assumed."

For example, Samurai rarely used swords in battle -- instead they most often used arrows. So the idea of the sacred Samurai sword isn't exactly accurate. Their weapon of choice was actually the pike, which was essentially a spear. Swords were very expensive, so they weren't used often, which also explains why they survived.

Other surprising findings:

Loyalty has been grossly exaggerated. Warriors were interested in reward and recompense. Conlan found evidence that warriors moved from one side to another depending on the reward they would receive.

Conlan found that warriors, above all, cared about preserving their land, but didn't care specifically about dying for a lord. Conlan has read reports written by warriors about attacking, and then choosing to retreat when they began experiencing casualties.

"They're really looking out for their own interests," he said.

Even the idea of hari kari -- opting for suicide rather than facing dishonor -- wasn't as noble as the Samurai wanted us to believe. In the 14th century, warriors would sometimes kill themselves, but it was usually when they were about to be captured and executed. They thought it was better to kill themselves than to let their enemies do it. But even though this occurred, according to Conlan its prevalence has been exaggerated.

The notion of the Samurai was created by the warriors themselves in the 17th century. Unlike 14th-century Japan, 17th-century Japan was not ravaged by war. Peace became so important, in fact, that in order to keep peace people willingly gave up many of their rights in service to the law. Because so many disputes in the past had been rooted in land rights, the rulers systematically broke the ties to the land, so even though the Samurai remained an identifiable class, they lost their land rights.

At this time "there's the sense that the law must become a transcendent force," Conlan said. "As a means of establishing authority, there's an emphasis on obeying the law at all costs." Execution became an important tool of the law, and even minor thefts were an executable offense.

In a time of peace, with a stable government, and no more land rights, the Samurai needed to justify their existence. They began promoting that "the way of the Samurai was death," and exaggerating their sense of honor and loyalty. "They also encouraged the idea that suicide was an ideal of the warrior, but even in the 17th century, suicides were often pragmatically motivated: If a warrior was executed, his material possessions were not passed on to his heirs. If he killed himself prior to execution, however, his possessions went to his heirs, so some made that choice to protect inheritance rights."

"When you have peace, you can say, the way of the warrior is death. But that's a luxury that you can only say in a time of peace. In a time of war, you can't say that," Conlan said. "I just think their 14th-century compatriots were more sensible."

Other evidence is the response Conlan gets to his findings: People get upset when they find that the myth they believe in is not reality.>

David T Anderson
28th November 2003, 15:40
I don't think the idea that the samurai were far more pragmatic than their usual romantic portrayal would come as much of a surprise to anybody who has looked at Japanese history. I have often gotten the feeling that this romantic view was a variation on the 'Noble Savage' archetype...they were purer, more loyal, more determined, fiercer warriors, more artistic and poetic, willing to throw their lives away for their overlords or a fine principle...better than Westerners who had been corrupted by commerce, middle-class mores..blah, blah.

While the Japanese certainly did things differently and sometimes strangely to western eyes, I have no doubt that their culture and mores made [and make] sense in ordinary human terms given their environment and history.

I think the important point is the question of how much the Japanese [and the samurai in particular] bought into their own myths and notions of the Ideal. Crazy things have happened in history simply because individuals and societies have bought into myths and ideologies that appealed to them without much regard for reality. Whether it is the Satsuma Rebellion, the expansion of the British Empire, the eruption of the Third Reich or the Manifest Destiny of the USA, or the current Iraqi adventure, mythology drove the popular spirit where mere concrete considerations of money and political power would have had far less effect.

Is it so unlikely that the movie [which neither I nor Prof. Conlan have seen yet] might not be portraying the buying of the Samurai myth, both by the samurai characters _and_ the Tom Cruise character, rushing out to some 'noble death' for reasons that made no actual sense? I'm not sure who said it [Oscar Wilde, maybe?] but there's a line that goes 'You must be very careful who you pretend to be, because after a while, that's who you really are...'.

Maybe I just don't like Prof. Conlan's debunking tone, but I am willing to believe that for every Samurai motivated by crass desires for land or money or power or status, there were others who were motivated and lived and died by the romantic myth of what a Samurai should be. Who is to say that they were [are] wrong...we all end up dead anyway, and a glorious myth that we are part of might be a better posession than a heap of money or a corner office and a big house.

28th November 2003, 16:20
By translating 1,302 military documents, Conlan has been able to recreate entire battles and gain an understanding of the life a warrior in 14th-century Japan that scholars previously lacked.

Looks to me like Conlan is plugging his book at the exspense of the film which is set no where near the 1400's.

28th November 2003, 20:45
Its about time somebody wrote a TRUTHFUL account of WHO the Samurai were. I'd like to see the same done for the ninja. The results of that would surprise MANY people.

Lets look at the United States. Lets look at terrorists. To see them for what the really are would surprise you as well. I'll tell you one thing that most people don't seem to know... Terrorists are NOT muslim. All one has to do is read the Koran to see that. Its too bad that the US doesn't focus MUCH MORE on this fact in its campaigns against terrorism. It is admitted, but, it is not focused on enough, and that aids the scum in their recruiting. But, then again, the US is not what everyone seems to think it is either, but, I won't get into that.

I wouldn't want to attact any unwanted attention.

Can this book be viewed online? I'd be interested in reading it. I find texts like the Book of Five Rings and Hagakure interesting. I like some of the things that are spoken in them. But, anyone who researchs Musashi knows that all of his fights were uneqal, all he did was fight people off lesser skill.

Hagakure is an excellent piece of Samurai propaganda, but, he makes interesting points. One thing I like is where he says that if one asks a Samurai the meaning of the way of the Samurai, the person who would be able to answer promplty is rare, this is because the meaning was not established in his mind beforehand. In this way, one's mindfullness of the art can be known. VERY GOOD POINT, and an EXCELLENT tool to use in other areas of life. There is ussually SOMETHING good in most propaganda, otherwise it owuldn't fool the masses. A lot can be learned from the myth, if one knows which parts are usefull, and which parts are crap.

28th November 2003, 22:29
Yeah, isn't the movie set in the early meiji era or something like that?

Perhaps Prof. is as pragmatic as the samurai he's studying?

I still won't be seeing the movie; Tom Cruise is a jerk:mad:

29th November 2003, 21:57
Samurai - The World of the Warrior was elso recently released to coinicide with the movie. I am enjoying reading it. And although it does not come out and expose the Samurai as myth, it does leave the impression that it was not all we may have been led to believe.

It does talk about Samurai switching sides during battle and tends to downplay the sword. It discusess the long range use of the bow and talks some about the expense of swords and the cheaper use of the spear. It seems that a single sword could cost as much as hundreds if not a thousand spears. So a Daimyo would rather spend his money on spears.
This book also discusses the introduction of cannons and muskets after a Portugese ship armed with them wrecked off the coast.

I look forward to this other book coming out.

I never saw a Tom Cruise movie before but I still think I am going to see this.

Nathan Scott
1st December 2003, 23:59
What the hell does 14th C. history have to do with 19th C. history? TLS takes place in the Meiji period, and warfare and swordsmanship were much different than that of 14th C. Japan. While swords may not have seen much action on the battlefields, swords were used by the Satsuma, Tosa and Choshu forces during the Meiji Restoration period.

Much of what the Professor says (whom I've never heard of) sounds reasonable, but his tone sounds as if this is all new information to him. I'd be much more interested in hearing the opinions of our own Professor Friday or someone else like Professor Bodiford, Varley of Hurst.

I have seen some of the fight scenes and talked to some of the people involved, and is seems as though they watched "Samurai I, II, & III" with Mifune, and based everything off of these movies. The production companies were more interested in claiming that they had solicited "experts and professionals" than they were in listening to feedback. Even the Meiji period details they weren't really that interested in, even though they claimed they were. The only thing I think they really took to heart was my strong suggestion for them to not use the "rising sun" stereotypical cliche imagery in their promo. I'm embarrassed by their desire to impress the Japanese with this film. The kanji you see scrolling across the screens in most the promo stuff says "Bushido", which just adds to the cliche stereotypes.

I think it will be an entertaining film, with good costumes and sets. But it will more than likely be the typical big budget, multi-demographic aimed block buster formula that we've all seen with Titanic, Pearl Harbor, and a number of other recent films. Action, love interest, etc.

WB is having a private premier viewing and after party tonight in West LA. They had originally contacted me (for the 5th time!) about joining in a cutting demonstration, but this apparently ended up turning into a request for a choreographed samurai vs. ninja fight scene (reproduced from the movie), complete with walking around in costume and in character after the performance to entertain those in attendance. Pass.

The Last Samurai people - at least those working directly for WB - have been generally annoying and uninformed. Hopefully Colin will have a better time with the NHK people in Japan!

But myself and some of my guys are going to check it out on Friday the 12th. If you have low expectations, you'll be that much more likely to enjoy the film!

It sure is hard to picture Tom Cruise in this role though.


Earl Hartman
2nd December 2003, 00:29
Well, Nathan, by putting Tom Cooze in a film with a Japanese love interest, I think they were trying to find a way to pair him with an actress where he didn't have to stand on a box to look roughly the same height as her.

I don't like La Cooze, and I'm sure the movie will be filled with howlers (Zwick saying that he wanted to make a tribute to Kurosawa is a HUGE red flag), but I'm gonna see it because:

1) It looks like there will be a lot of pretty good Samurai Fu
2) I like Watanabe Ken (the sidekick truck driver in Tanpopo)
3) I like to see how wrong most directors get Japan.
4) It looks as though La Cooze gets hit in thead a lot with heavy wooden sticks.

For a film that actually gets (modern) Japan kind of right, see Lost in Translation.

Cady Goldfield
2nd December 2003, 00:43
Originally posted by Zartosht
Its about time somebody wrote a TRUTHFUL account of WHO the Samurai were. I'd like to see the same done for the ninja. The results of that would surprise MANY people.

Evidently, there are some folks who need to refresh their memories...


Interesting article overall, John, but...
"Even the idea of <i>hari kari</i> -- opting for suicide rather than facing dishonor -- wasn't as noble as the Samurai wanted us to believe."

Hari kari? Wasn't he a character actor...? :laugh:

2nd December 2003, 01:21
Also a Chicago sportscaster...


2nd December 2003, 01:29
You know, I don't find the premise at all out of historical bounds. It is a fact that the Shogun's army (pre-Meiji Restoration) did utilize French officers to teach new tactics; and the newly-formed naval forces in the south had contracted with England. Other daimyo likewise employed foreign advisors.

After the Restoration the newly-empowered Emperor's military administrator recommended maintaining the French contract so as not to create confusion. The new government again contracted with France who sent one Lieutenant and a Noncommissioned Officer; If I recall correctly, more followed. It's only these two instructors whom I have seen named -- and don't ask because I'd have to sort through my records (source is in French and was transcribed for a meeting of the Japan Martial Arts Society in the 1980s). By the way, these foreign advisors taught tactics and weaponry at the Rikugun Heigakko-ryu Toyama Gakko Shucho-jo -- later named Rikugun Toyama Gakko. I'd have to check yet again, but they might have taught at the Heigakko.

Both the Lieutenant and the NCO studied Jikishinkage Ryu gekken (kendo/kenjutsu) at Sakakibara Kenkichi sensei's dojo circa 1873-4. The NCO was a Matre d'Armes (sabre, I think).

Therefore, I can envision a scriptwriter combining the personas of both French Advisors into a single person, then changing his nationality to American. (Interestingly, in "Master and Commander" the enemy switched from America to France when it became a movie).

So, the movie isn't as off base as it may seem. Except for the alleged love interest stuff -- ugggh !! They don't kiss do they? Yuck!


Earl Hartman
2nd December 2003, 02:00


However, I think the "historical inaccuracy" that the Extinguished Perfesser quoted above was talking about was the historical innacuracy of portraying the samurai as being motivated by honor, integrity, devotion to one's lord, bravery, loyalty, etc., since we all know that REAL Japanese warriors were treacherous, bloodthirsty, cowardly mercenaries who cared only about swag and who would turn and run if the going got rough or sell out their own mothers if they thought they could benefit by it.

Unlike, of course, European knights, whom, as we all know, were stainless examples of the Code of Chivalry.

Heck, just read Mallory. It's all there in La Morte d'Arthur right?


2nd December 2003, 02:03
Hehehehehehehe ....

Yew slay me (said the Frenchy foot sojer at Agincourt).


Joseph Svinth
2nd December 2003, 04:37
Well, who wants a movie about hypocritical politicians, greedy merchants, xenophobic religious leaders, and generals all set to win the last war set in an exotic setting? We have the news for that.

Ron Tisdale
2nd December 2003, 19:48
Or the bible...


3rd December 2003, 00:18
I haven't seen an advertisement calling this a documentary or of being based on any real occurrences. Granted most big budget movies like to make movies like this as real as possible by bringing in experts, but reality doesn't sell as well as fantasy. Maybe it was just made to entertain? I know this sounds hard to believe but it does happen. This is just my view; I try not to take movies that seriously.

Lane ferguson

4th December 2003, 01:05
Originally posted by Nathan Scott
What the hell does 14th C. history have to do with 19th C. history? TLS takes place in the Meiji period, and warfare and swordsmanship were much different than that of 14th C. Japan. While swords may not have seen much action on the battlefields, swords were used by the Satsuma, Tosa and Choshu forces during the Meiji Restoration period.

Much of what the Professor says (whom I've never heard of) sounds reasonable, but his tone sounds as if this is all new information to him. I'd be much more interested in hearing the opinions of our own Professor Friday or someone else like Professor Bodiford, Varley of Hurst.

From http://listserv.uoguelph.ca/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0301&L=iaido-l&P=R8939

Date: Tue, 21 Jan 2003 10:48:24 -0500
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Sender: Japanese Sword Art Mailing List <IAIDO-L@LISTSERV.UOGUELPH.CA>
From: Karl Friday <kfriday@ARCHES.UGA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Battlefield injuries
In-Reply-To: <3E2CAA1D.D2B30D94@budogu.com>
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At PM 09:02 01/20/03 -0500, Peter Boylan wrote:

>It was already requested. Turns out it's someone else's research, so
>Karl's not doing anything with it until that guy publishes and gets
>credit for it.
>Say Karl, has it been published yet? We got some great online journals
>that would love to publish your friends work.

The statistics I reported in that particular post came from Suzuki
Shin'ya's *Teppo to Nihonjin* (Yosensha, 1997) and *Katana to kubitori*
(Heibonsha, 2000). Tom Conlan (at Bowden U) has also been doing some
interesting stuff with analysis of wound records. I'm not sure what state
his book manuscript is in at the moment--I think he has it coming out from
Hawaii. He also has an article on adoption of the gun coming out in
*Monumenta Nipponica* sometime soon. Watch for it!

Karl Friday
Professor of Japanese History
Dept. of History
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602

...and, FWIW--


Date: Mon, 8 Nov 1999 12:46:41 +0900
Reply-To: Japanese Sword Art Mailing List <IAIDO-L@LISTSERV.UOGUELPH.CA>
Sender: Japanese Sword Art Mailing List <IAIDO-L@LISTSERV.UOGUELPH.CA>
From: Karl Friday <fguest10@HI.U-TOKYO.AC.JP>
Subject: Re: Battlefield Realizm
In-Reply-To: <199911051804.NAA28956@testinfo.cs.uoguelph.ca>
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At 01:04 PM 11/05/1999 -0500, Ulf Undmark wrote:

>On Fri, 5 Nov 1999 11:39:33 +0900, Karl Friday <fguest10@HI.U-TOKYO.AC.JP>

>>They lost in part
>>because the gov't army outnumbered them, and in part because they
>>approached the fighting with a largely traditional samurai mindset and
>>tactics. The main drama of the rebellion, and the principal military
>>history lesson to come out of it, wasn't so much that machine guns can
>>defeat swordsmen, but that the era of the hereditary, professional warrior
>>was over--peasant troops could easily be more than a match for samurai.

>Was this plain stupidity or was it "makin' a statement"?
>Not the knowledge of the fact that they would be heavily outnumbered, this
>was not much to be done about...But fighting in a "traditional" way?
>Hadn't it been proved several times earlier in history that matchlock-men
>easily could wipe out Samurai cavalry? Hadn't they learnt the lesson,
>didn't they have the knowledge, or was this a mass-suicide?

I think you could call it a little of both plain stupidity and "makin' a
statement." As far as matchlocks vs. cavalry providing lessons, there
really isn't much relevance.

First, this whole picture of Light Brigade style charges against gunners is
dramatically overblown; there's a ton of new research coming out that shows
that guns didn't dramatically alter the shape of Japanese warfare, they
simply replaced the bow and arrow. An analysis that I was just looking at
this morning, of documents reporting battlewounds, for example, shows that
between 1500 and 1560, out of some 620 casualties described, 368 were arrow
wounds, 124 were spear wounds, 96 were injuries from rocks (thrown by
slings or by hand), 18 were sword wounds, 7 were combined arrow and spear
wounds, 3 were combined arrow and sword wounds, 2 were combined rock and
spear wounds, and 2 were combined rock and arrow wounds. Between 1563
and 1600 (after the adoption of the gun) some 584 reported casualties break
down as follows: there were 263 gunshot victims, 126 arrow victims, 99
spear victims, 40 sword victims, 30 injured by rocks, and 26 injured by
combinations of the above (including one poor SOB who was shot by both guns
and arrows and stabbed by spears, and one who was speared, naginata-ed, and
cut with a sword). In other words, long distance weapons (arrows and
rocks) accounted for about 75% of the wounds received in the pre-gun era,
and about 72 % (arrows + guns + rocks) during the gunpowder era. Which is
to say that "traditional fighting" does not appear to have been heavily
centered on close-quarters clashes of swords or even of spears, except in
literary sources.

Second, and more to the point, what matchlocks could do to and for 16th
century armies is pretty much irrelevant to the issue in 1877. As I said
earlier, even Saigo's rebel army made some use of modern firearms--and of
course they also had matchlocks, as well as swords and such. They even had
some experience in modern Western tactics and drill, although they weren't
committed to this new paradigm to the extent that the gov't army was. The
big shock/drama/lesson though, was not so much tactics and/or hardware per
se, as the fact that an army of samurai--hereditary, professional
fighters--could be beaten by one composed of conscripts.

The whole episode was, in fact, essentially suicidal from the outset, and
Saigo knew it. It began when some of his followers took it onto themselves
to raid a gov't army, and Saigo fatalistically decided that the die had
been cast. He had already decided that he was something of an anachronism
anyway (which is why he had retired to Kyushu in the first place) and seems
to have looked on this as an opportunity for a glorious death.

Karl Friday

ph. 706-542-2537

31st December 2003, 17:52
[QUOTE]Originally posted by Zartosht
[B]Its about time somebody wrote a TRUTHFUL account of WHO the Samurai were. I'd like to see the same done for the ninja. The results of that would surprise MANY people.

Really? why would you want such a thing? People dont need to know about ninjutsu. those that wish to learn seek out teachers. those that should know seek the right teachers. ninjutsu has always been kept mysterious for a reason, it makes it more effective. i say let them think we are training to be uber secret black clad night warrior assassins. we know the real truth, and thats the way i like it. everytime i try to explain it anyways, people dont understand, and i doubt any movie would have an impact to change this view. I once thought like you, thinking it would be great to have a true account of the ninja on the big screen, but its better the way it is now. im sure someday it will be done, but the real essence of ninjutsu is just starting to cross the ocean, so it needs some time to settle in before the movie would even be marketable. not to mention i dont want a buncha kids who just saw a movie coming into our training hall trying to re-enact what they just saw. my only reccomendations for a true account of ninjutsu would be the takamatsu dvd. :) train on!