A real Japanese Samurai from 1866

Kane Khanh | History
May 18, 2024

The Last Samurai true story adds a lot of context to the Tom Cruise period drama. The movie chronicles a real-life Japanese rebellion from the 19th century but fictionalizes several historical events and people. The Edward Zwick drama received four Oscar nominations upon its 2003 release and has sparked debates over the years about its subject matter and White Savior narrative. So, how much of the story is real, and how much of the true story was changed for The Last Samurai?

Photo of a Samurai, circa 1866, by Felice Beato. A year or two after this photograph was taken, the Samurai were abolished. | 侍 写真, 侍, 歴史的な写真

The Last Samurai stars Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren, a member of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment who served during the American Indian Wars. Algren is recruited to train the Japanese Imperial Army to fight against the samurai rebellion, led by Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu (Ken Watanabe). The two develop respect and admiration for each other as Algren learns the ways of the samurai and joins Moritsugu’s forces in their final battle. However, the reality of The Last Samurai true story is complicated.

Samurai - Wikiwand

The Last Samurai’s Katsumoto Moritsugu is based on the iconic Japanese samurai Saigō Takamori. In real life, Saigō initially led the Imperial forces and won the four-day Battle of Toba–Fushimi in January 1868. By 1877, he sided with rebel forces and fought in what’s now known as the Satsuma Rebellion. Saigō was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shiroyama, which is the inspiration for the final extended battle sequence in The Last Samurai (and thus part of the true story).

Tom Cruise’s character inThe Last Samurai isn’t based on the true story of an American soldier but is inspired by the real history of a French Army officer named Jules Brunet. In 1866, Brunet was sent to Japan to train military forces and ultimately fought in the Boshin War after refusing orders to return home. In 1867, military dictator Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned, leading to the end of a Shogun-centric world in Japan and spurring the Meiji Restoration under the 14-year-old Emperor Meiji.

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The character’s real-life inspiration, Brunet, served during the Second Franco-Mexican War.

Whereas The Last Samurai’s Algren previously participated in both the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars, the character’s real-life inspiration, Brunet, served during the Second Franco-Mexican War. He later achieved the rank Général de Division and served France until 1899.

Is The Last Samurai Real At All? True Story Explained