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.