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180: The Last Samurai with Dr. Brian Dirck

In 2003’s The Last Samurai we learn the story of Captain Nathan Algren, an American soldier who travels to Japan to train the early Imperial Japanese Army to fight off a rebellion against the Emperor. How much of it actually happened? That’s what we’ll look at in this episode. Dr. Brian Dirck joins us again to separate fact from fiction in the film. Dr. Dirck is a Professor of History at Anderson University.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:33

The Last Samurai isn’t necessarily based on a true story in the same way that other movies that we’ve looked at like Lincoln and conspirator. But let’s start this by looking at the main character in the movie, Tom Cruise’s version of Captain Nathan orgran of the US is seventh Cavalry Regiment. Was he based on a real person in history?


Dr. Brian Dirck  01:53

Very loosely, I would capitalize the Very on that. The writers of the script are never entirely clear on this. Oh, I’ve seen several different versions of this. The theory is that they were based on a Frenchman named Jules Brunet. He actually was a French attache to the Japanese army. And kinda like in the movie, he got caught up in a samurai rebellion and the Japanese Civil War called the beauchene War. So he wasn’t even involved in the rebellion in the movie. And they seem to take into his story of a European who comes to train people militarily gets caught up in the conflict and sides with the traditional samurai. That’s one theory. There’s no theory that he also may be partially based on a couple of other Frenchmen who were kind of also tangentially involved. But yeah, I mean, that’s it. That’s as close as you can get to historical reality, if there were no Americans directly involved in anything that the movie depicts the rebellion and all that.


Dan LeFebvre  02:53

Okay, and not to get too far ahead of the movie storyline where we’re at here, but the person leading the revolt on the other side, is can autonomies character Quasimodo? Was he based on a real person at all?


Dr. Brian Dirck  03:04

Yes, he was based on a samurai named Saigō Takamori, who’s a very famous man in Japanese history. If he did, in fact, he basically called give me He led the restoration of the Emperor as the movie implies, he worked for the Emperor and helped put the Emperor back in a position of power during the Meiji Restoration. But he became very upset, by the way that the new government was basically ending Samurai rule. And he didn’t lead a rebellion, as the movie suggests, and he did die in the last battle of that rebellion. So yeah, in that sense, yes. Everything else is really quite fictional.


Dan LeFebvre  03:43

Okay, okay.


Dan LeFebvre  03:44

Now, early on in the movie, we Captain Algren get recruited by someone named Captain Bagley for a job with a Japanese man named Mr. Omura. We find out pretty quickly that all grin doesn’t like badly because of something that happened during the Indian Wars, and we see some flashback scenes of chaos. But the movie doesn’t really get too far into that. So can you give us a little more context around? What happened during the Indian Wars that might have haunted a veteran like Algren?


Dr. Brian Dirck  04:08

I think it was one of the better parts of the movie, frankly. So yes, they weren’t real specific about the actual incident is a series of flashbacks, because in the movie, all green is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner the Battle of Gettysburg, assuming that the conflicts with native tribes happened immediately after the Civil War. There are lots of those. The movie isn’t real clear which one that is probably deliberately, you know, they didn’t want to get too deeply into it. Then, of course, he’s supposed to be a member of customers famous seven cavalry, who were slaughtered in the Battle of Little Bighorn, which is repeatedly referenced in the film. Custer himself was involved in the sorts of things that the movie depicts American soldiers doing very bad things to Native American tribes not being too terribly careful about whether they’re punishing the right tribe or not. I think there’s a line in the movie where Tom Cruise’s character says these people have nothing to do with what we’re punishing for. Here’s the guy he hates, it says, I will care and we’re gonna do it anyway, that was quite common. It’s a famous wartime slaughter in Colorado, in which these are actually Colorado militiamen, US Army soldiers, who just came down and just slaughtered a group of peaceful Native Americans who actually had signed a treaty. And we’re doing anything, and slaughtered women and children and did really, really ugly, terrible thing. So I mean, I thought that part of the film was really well done, just a series of flashbacks, but it’s not hard to imagine. And I’ve had to read some soldiers accounts of soldiers rather like all green in the film, who were haunted by what they had seen and what they had done, what they got caught up in. That sense that I got from a lot of those flashbacks was it wasn’t necessarily soldier against soldier, you know, military thing. It was like women and children. And you know, just the big problem with the planes wars, was finding the hostels, you know, finding the Native Americans, because they were superlative guerrilla fighters, what we would call guerrilla fighting, they would swoop down, shoot up a train, or whack out a settlement or take out small squad of soldiers and then disappear to the planes. And the same thing happened that we see later in Vietnam, American soldiers were increasingly frustrated, they can’t find their enemy. They really I mean, if you read soldiers accounts in the war, he really even saw Indians, they they’re long gone, you know. And when they did find Indians, the hesitancy not to be able to restrain that anger and that frustration, and it would boil over and the sorts of things in that film that took place very much did take place, just just freaking out and just killing everybody they can find. The timeline of the movie starts in 1876. And it suggests that at this time, Japan is trying to pull in some Western experts to learn from them. They mentioned like lawyers from France, engineers from Germany, architects from Holland, and of course, warriors from America.


Dan LeFebvre  06:51

Can you give a little more historical context around why this effort was going on to westernize Japan and why was needed?


Dr. Brian Dirck  06:58

Oh, well, let me just preface this by saying I realize I’m oversimplifying this, otherwise, this would be hugely long podcast. I mean, you we go, Okay, we got another hour to go. Yeah. Okay. Well, it’s really, really complicated. But the bottom line is this. Japan had been a highly isolated culture for at least the previous couple, 100 years of the geography. It’s an island, you know, I mean, it’s hard to get to anyway, run through the rule of the Tokugawa Tokugawa Shogun, it is the shogunate that ran the country. They had imposed isolation they had they know they had contact with some people, but most people couldn’t go to Japan from other countries without permission. They really hadn’t had much to do with the West at all. Then you get into the 19th century, and the Japanese are starting to be aware of they’ve always had a contract with the Dutch and the Portuguese. But then the Americans show up. Hey, how you doing? There’s gonna be Matthew Perry. He is a Commodore in the US Navy, and under orders from the President himself, sales and warships into Japan, I forget the exact year, I think it’s at 54. And maybe, um, sales, sales in drops, anchor has a lot of big guns and says, you know, we don’t really care for this isolation thing anymore. Okay, we want to open trade. They also wanted to work. And this isn’t quite as belligerent as it sounds, because there have been cases of American whalers who had been stranded in storms on the shores of Japan and bad things have happened to them. And they were like, Look, we want to protect our sailors here. We may have guys washed up on your shore, we don’t want them killed. Okay, just can we can we work this out? This was shocking to the Japanese. Because most of the gun technology and the ship technology, they’re looking at Western tech, and they’re going, whoa, we need to do something about this. Because if we don’t look up, we’re gonna look look just like China. Because at this point, China had been carved out by all the colonial powers, the British, the French, the ducks, they all carved experience vehicles training was even a country anymore. Interesting, man, if we’re not careful, and we don’t westernize to a certain extent, we’re going to be conquered the same way the Chinese are getting conquered. So there is this huge debate over whether Japan should westernize and most people feel like some version of westernization is needed. And how far do you go? And there were some people who said well, we just need to learn how they how they make these big guns, but we’re gonna keep everything else but there were others who said look in for pinion for pound, if you’re gonna learn all the tech, you got to learn the culture around it or you’re not gonna understand any of it. So Japan is embracing westernization, variety of modes, but largely out of a sense of self survival. We got to become involved here, okay, because the world is not going to stay out. Look at this dude that just showed up in our heart with a bunch of big guns. We’re not careful bunch more guys are gonna show up at them a lot more because they wouldn’t be you know, so yeah, there’s a real push to do that. Yeah. And the film I thought I actually did a really nice job that one opening scene where all groups landing and that just crazy the hustle and bustle of a Japanese port town and you know, you see Western stuff and see Japanese stuff. It’s all kind of glommed together. That’s probably what that felt like in the 1870s. And one thing when Algren does get there, he’s called in to train an army of conscripts. And I think there’s some dialogue where he mentioned that most of these are people are peasants who have never seen a gun. And then of course, he’s there to train them in the way that movie kind of puts it with the rebellion going on is the ancient and the modern, or at war for the soul of Japan. And then, of course, you know, the US comes to help train was the US actually involved in training the early makings of the Imperial Army, barely, that’s one of the major artistic licenses that the film took. Because you gotta remember in that time period, and the mid 19th century, the United States was not really considered, even though we just wanted a huge Civil War, the United States was not considered sort of the creme de la creme of military technology know how in training, it was the French, the French, and we don’t think of them as a big military power, but they were This is Napoleon had just done his thing. And then the, the, the Prussians, the Germans were considered to be the two countries that if you needed to go learn how to do more stuff in a modern world, go to those guys. So they weren’t doing much of anything with the United States. It was all Prussians and Frenchmen that were teaching and training these conscript armies.


Dan LeFebvre  11:25

Now, you mentioned that Japan was isolated there, but were they keeping tabs on what was going on around the world to know that it was that to go to the Prussians to know to go to the French and that kind of thing?


Dr. Brian Dirck  11:34

Yeah, I also say to say that, because that’s the kind of common stereotype that Japan was a completely closed down country that also very shows up and boom, the walls fall on that Wait, all they did have contact with the outside world. And they did. There had been, for example, a Dutch trade settlement near the port of Nagasaki, all the way back to the 16th century. So they had had some limited contact with the Dutch, they had some limited contact with the Portuguese, who were Roman Catholic, and they had had some contact with Catholic missionaries trying to come to Japan to convert Japanese people to Christianity. So they knew about all of that. And they always had trade relations with the Koreans and to the with the Chinese, who in turn had connections with the Prussians and the French and all of that. So they weren’t ignorant of the world. And there’s, I would hate anybody to think that, okay, because they’re isolated, they don’t know what’s going on, they got a really good idea, then they don’t really understand nuances, like the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant that kind of throws them sometimes, but for the most part, they know which countries to go to. So, for example, you know, like they’ve said, the beginning of the movie, they go to one country for one thing that they do they do that quite well, they, they they they figure out, okay, we will go talk to the Germans because they know how to train our armies, we will go talk to the Dutch because of medical care. Turns out the Dutch had really good doctors, and they got medical technology and on and on and on. Okay, okay. Yeah, cuz when you mentioned that the first thing that pops in my head, you mentioned Korea, of course, I’m going to think of a country like North Korea that is purposely isolated. And you think of what they don’t know anything about the outside world and that, but it sounds like that wasn’t the case at all. It’s completely different. Not at all, they do have context. It’s just the Shogun in particular, was really concerned about too much Western contact, mostly because he didn’t want the Japanese to turn into China. And he didn’t want Japan to turn into North America, because rumors had gotten back to the shoguns, all the way back into the 1500s of the nasty stuff that the Spanish were doing to the Native American Indians, you know, and and the Dutch were prostitutes or ageing at all. I mean, it’s like, Damn Spaniards stay away from them, because they’re slaughtering the Incas and Aztecs. You’re like, dude, if we let these people in here, they’re gonna do that to us next? And who’s to say like not to happen? You know, I’m saying I mean, because it could be that way, you know?


Dan LeFebvre  13:49

Now, before we go too much further, as far as the movie is concerned, I do want to ask about the samurai from an overall perspective, because there are bits and pieces throughout the movie that talk about their history. And I got the sense from the film that the samurai were seen as the protectors of Japan, I think there’s a line where katsumoto comments that they protected Japan for over 900 years. Is that a pretty good description of what the samurai really were?


Dr. Brian Dirck  14:11

Oh, no. What one of the reasons this film had an ambivalent reception in Japan. There are people who liked this film in Japan because it’s you know, it’s a it’s a highly my argue romanticized vision of Japanese culture in many respects. And there were people in Japan who said, Man finally an American filmmaker actually wants to get to know us as opposed to just stereotype cardboard cutout so there’s that but there are a fair number Japanese reacted to that very thing you’re talking about because yes and no, the samurai had been the ruling warrior class of Japan all the way back to roughly the 1800s Okay, they had been running they were the warrior there weren’t planning protecting the in the sense that the two times that the Mongols tried to invade Japan the same I fought them off, you know? Typhoons came in and killed us a long story. But anyway, they did do that. On the other hand, the samurai ferociously fought among themselves for several 100 years. And we’re not all that careful about things like loyalty and and all the things you associate with the samurai. That’s almost a modern invention, the original Samurai would cut each other’s throats, man, they were they were trying to grab domains, they were trying to grab power, they’re trying to do this and that a lot of Japanese associate, not all but a lot of Japanese associate the samurai with treachery and with with backstabbing, and with pursuing naked military and war, your power, you know, now at the same time, they’re also highly admired. My point is, it’s not a yes or no answer. It’s highly ambivalent. Even today. I think a lot of people understand that the samurai were a lot more complex than that.


Dan LeFebvre  15:51

There’s something else that we see in the movie there, though is like another warrior class I maybe that’s not the right term, but it would be the ninjas when they come in and attack.


Dr. Brian Dirck  15:59

Oh, God. Yeah.


Dan LeFebvre  16:05

Well, I’m just curious like what the structure there you call them a warrior class. So then when ninjas almost be an another warrior class, or is that just a different way of fighting? Or what’s the difference there is, as an ignorant American who doesn’t understand?


Dr. Brian Dirck  16:17

I tell my kids this are some of the kind of grown and you’re all man, yo, everybody wants to have ninjas around. They’re just too cool. Okay. Okay. Hey, I’m a huge Dark Knight series fan. Okay, the whole ninja thing in the first movie. There we go. Okay. There may or may not even have been ninjas. Okay. There’s a lot of argument over whether these people existed. But if they did exist, what they were, were basically stealth assassins employed by some Samurai leaders against other Samurai leaders, who could infiltrate the opponent’s castle could infiltrate their town, and then by all kinds of activities, I mean, swordsmanship is a small part, you know, a dagger. Poison was a big one, too, could infiltrate and get somebody okay. So that’s what a ninja actually was. All right. They didn’t wear the black clothing, okay? I mean, my God, can you imagine, you want to be a stealth assassin, but you’re gonna walk down the street. And you might as well say, I’m a ninja, because you’re wearing the black clothing, okay, but it’s in every movie ever made. The whole thing is actually a creation of pop culture. In many ways. A lot of the manga and anime and things in Japan and in Western Europe. We kind of picked up on it. That part of the movie, I cringed. I was like, Guys, come on, man. You just make them into other Samurai to do the work on it. Whatever. Like it’s not bad. Okay, so yeah, that part although I love the sword fighting that scene, I was like not ninjas, man, please.


Dan LeFebvre  17:42

Yeah, I mean, they have their the ninjas uniform.


Dr. Brian Dirck  17:44

Yeah, yeah. It’s like, everyone’s gonna know what I am. I’m gonna do this anyway. So there we go.


Dan LeFebvre  17:50

Yeah, I could see as watching the movie as a viewer. You have to be able to tell who’s who.


Dr. Brian Dirck  17:56

I get it. You know, and you know, Dan, we’ve done these interviews before and it’s like, I get the movies have to do things. But that particular one, I was thinking this unforced error. Why do you have to drag that in here? Okay. I mean, customer is about people getting killed. Just have some guys come in and do it. Why do you have to dress them up like that? But that’s Hollywood.


Dan LeFebvre  18:17

I want to ask about the other side of this because there is a scene in the movie where we see the American ambassador talking to minister Omura and he’s talking about the contract for the US to be the exclusive firearm supplier for Japan. Amara is very quick to point out that the English and the French would be happy to put forward an offer to be the exclusive supplier if the US doesn’t. So we kind of talked a little bit about the Japanese side and then reaching out to Western countries Well, what about the other side where there are a lot of countries that were looking to do deals with Japan now that they’re now that they’re open to trade?


Dr. Brian Dirck  18:52

Yeah, and I should be clear to what I was pointing out that the Americans weren’t involved in training much the Japanese armies they were involved in selling arms to the Japanese. Okay, so that’s I’m gonna make that distinction. They were I mean, you can get the Civil War had just ended. There’s literally warehouses full of American rifles, they were more than happy to sell them to the Japanese so they were involved that way. So that particular seems not bad at all, actually, because yeah, I mean, the French the English, other colonial powers are lining up to sell whatever the Japanese need and arms would certainly have been among the list because that was in huge demand in Japan. They wanted Western firepower.


Dan LeFebvre  19:32

Okay, and then I guess it could make sense that once once they have these weapons, and we’re gonna have to have people come and train us how to use these.


Dr. Brian Dirck  19:39

Sure, sure. They would have gone to the French or the Prussians, though, they just didn’t go…and back then, the American army had a bad reputation at this point because they everybody in Europe thought of the Civil War as a bunch of American mob farm boys duking it out in the woods, not real experts. I mean, it really did. There wasn’t this belief that the Civil War is going to produce the kind of experts that would give you a Nathan Algren to come over and talk, you know, good stuff to you it just wasn’t gonna happen.


Dan LeFebvre  20:07

Yeah, that makes us curious about that though you talk about after the Civil War, having a bunch of weapons and things like that, and something that is kind of a driver for all going to go there is he needs money. And he’s, I think at the very beginning, we see him you know, basically he’s doing ads for Winchester, right? He does these little performances, was that sort of thing, those two performances common for veterans after the Civil War?


Dr. Brian Dirck  20:28

Sure. I mean, like, I can’t think of any specific things that look like that. But yeah, you’ve got a lot of veterans from the war. And the one thing they didn’t point out was after the Civil War was over these huge armies, everyone sent home a man like Nathan all green if he had stayed in the in the military anisette real clear what his status is in the US Army, really in the in the movie. But you know, if the people that were hanging on to their jobs in the army, by and large for people that desperate for money, you can get a better job someplace else they didn’t pay well. And once Apple maddix happened, and Lee surrendered, the overwhelming feeling was we’re going to go home. So if algorithms still hanging around, it’s probably because he doesn’t have a job that it can get him a living. And I think the movie kind of implies me. He says at one point, it seems the only thing that I’m suited for is suppressing tribal leaders. And I think that was a nice touch, because he kind of said, yeah, if he’s still in this game in 1876, he’s probably somebody that’s tried civilian life and didn’t work out.


Dan LeFebvre  21:29

As part of the attempt to defeat the revolting samurai, the movie shows omura passing laws against them. The movie doesn’t really explain the specifics of what the laws are. But we see soldiers in the streets harassing no batata and cutting off his top top not of hair, simply because he’s Samurai where they’re really laws that were passed against the samurai like we see in the movie.


Dr. Brian Dirck  21:50

When the Emperor is restored to power, and the westernization push his full throated ladies in Sydney, it will make this seem to need this took decades, okay? But once the Emperor is restored power, they want to westernize there was the sense that the samurai as a class, because remember, they were a hereditary class, this is not what came later, in the 20th century, when Samurai culture was thought of as being Japanese culture. The Samurai were a specific hereditary class, who the feeling was, had outlived their time. They were nice to have around when you’ve got civil wars, when they’re you know, when you when you have wars to fight, but they had always had this ruling vibe where they ran the world. And there was there was a real sense of they, why do they have this we don’t need these guys having these kinds of privileges. I mean, it wasn’t just things like the top not forbidden to wear swords in public, that was a huge deal because the swords were the symbol of Samurai Samurai power. The Samurai were restricted in the end, because you know, you go back a couple 100 years a samurai, if a peasant looked at the samurai funny he’d find himself headless about 10 seconds flat. Well, Samurai couldn’t do that anymore. You can’t dispense your own form of justice here. I mean, things like that. So yeah, it was Yeah, that was very realistic. The bit that the movie put on, it was, it was tragic. You know, they can a poor kid. He’s just trying to preserve his culture and look what they’re doing to him, which I’m sure that was true. But there’s also a sense of these guys have been pushing us around for a long time. And it’s about time things got even now,


Dan LeFebvre  23:28

you mentioned swords, and I wanted because there’s there’s kind of a concept that the movie pushes forward that the samurai were against using modern technology and their weapons and such I think there’s even a point where one of the I can’t remember who it was that says it but he mentioned he mentioned that catchy moto refuses to be dishonored by using guns. Was that that push towards modern technology modern as far as the 1870s were concerned, you know, guns and things like that. Was that something that the samurai really resisted that hard?


Dr. Brian Dirck  23:58

No, the movie get that totally wrong. They really did. The firearms had been in Japan, at least back to the 16th century. And in fact, there’s some evidence that they had some more primitive Chinese firearms all the way back in the 15th century. But like the samurai are practical warriors. Okay. Yeah, I mean, the samurai are trying to kill people and not get killed. It’s a whole lot better to kill somebody. When they’re 100 yards away with an ARCA bus or a musket, they have to get up on them with three foot long razor blades and these are these are practical men know they very much embrace firearms. And in fact, the man who eventually establishes the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was for 200 years, took a God of what Yasuo did so at least in part in his in his predecessors least import the overall very good at acquiring firearms and employing them more effectively than the people they were trying to conquer. So the movie really got that that badly wrong. There was a scholar He wrote a study here about 3040 years ago who claimed that and he ended up just miss reading some scripts that seem to claim that but not the same, right? Do you have a problem farms? I use them all the time.


Dan LeFebvre  25:10

Okay. Yeah, I really got the sense that it was old versus new. And you know, new technology of firearms and stuff was something that they were fighting against. But that’s…


Dr. Brian Dirck  25:19

No. The only reason Saigō Takamori didn’t have guns is he couldn’t get any I mean, in real life, the rebellion that he led one was a siege of a castle, and then a couple more battles. I believe he had firearms, I think, I think it was it looked like a 19th century battle, although they also had sores at the same time.


Dan LeFebvre  25:36

Throughout the movie, there are numerous mentions and depictions of seppuku, and as movie explains it, it’s the act of restoring your honor by taking your own life. And it’s a concept that seems totally foreign to an American like allgreen. Can you explain a little bit more about that and how it fit into the culture?


Dr. Brian Dirck  25:54

Well, I I prefer not to commit superhero by you. So yeah. I’m not opposed to booking Okay, very, very much. And thank you for saying seppuku not harikari, which is a much more vulgar version of it. Okay. Yeah. So book actually dates, way back into the medieval Japanese period. The idea being that to preserve your honor, you take your own life, or there are a lot of different origin stories here. But one origin story was a samurai warrior, who’s about to be conquered by his enemies, decided to kill himself rather than be taken captive. And he chose purposely to do it in a very painful way. I mean, if you cut cross your gut, that’s gonna really hurt you. But the thinking was, this is the honorable way to die, because you’re not dying to escape pain, you’re dying in the most painful way possible to preserve your honor. So there’s that ordering someone to commit suicide has a very long history and similar cultural impact for hundreds of years.


Dan LeFebvre  26:47

When I think of that, kind of the first thing that comes to mind would be in World War Two, you see that, you know, kamikaze pilots and things like that. Was that a similar concept?


Dr. Brian Dirck  26:55

I gotta admit, Dan, I’m no expert on World War Two. Civil War is my main thing in 19th century. So the Kamikaze I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t want to presume to speak to their their motives, but from what I know of them, there was this sense of honorable sacrifice in battle.


Dan LeFebvre  27:09

That was kind of my point in the eye that the idea of honorable death.


Dr. Brian Dirck  27:13

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. I can totally see that connections. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I bet you know, growing up as a Midwestern white kid and reading stories about Japanese Kamikaze charges, and World War Two and committing, you know, seppuku at all that my senses are nuts. You know, because as I, as I’ve learned more about Japanese culture, I must think i think it’s a good idea. But I understand, you know, I understand the thinking behind it a little bit better than I used to, and I’ve never, you know, it’s all been appreciated another culture in a lot of ways.


Dan LeFebvre  27:43

In the movie, there is a point where we actually get to see the Emperor and I think, all grand and some of the ambassador’s go to see him. And the idea that I got there was, it’s very, very uncommon for foreigners to be able to see the Emperor. Was that really the case?


Dr. Brian Dirck  28:02

Yeah, very much. So yeah, the movie kind of pushed the edge of plausibility, their plant, remember, the Japanese Emperor is considered to be descendant literally from a god, okay? Now, I’m not talking about divine right monarchy in Europe, which is, you know, you have God in the king is the vicar of God. You know, God says, the king and forces. The belief was that the Emperor was literally God, a god, one of one of many, but a God, if you go far enough back, you know, so, you know, there was a long standing, thinking that you don’t get an audience with the Emperor, unless it’s extremely special. And if for that matter, even the Shogun, if you if you saw the Shogun had a personal audience, that was an extraordinarily high order.


Dan LeFebvre  28:46

You mentioned earlier, the battle and the real revolt, and there is a big battle towards the end of the movie where the samurai and and the imperial army of Japan fighting its swords against guns old versus new, right? Can you give a little more context around what really happened in those battles?


Dr. Brian Dirck  29:00

The real Saigō Takamori, who had been disillusioned with the Emperor, embracing Western ways more than he had wanted, led a rebellion. That didn’t go well, up there what exactly he was planning to do, I don’t think he was not going to overthrow the Emperor and one does not overthrow the Emperor. Okay, but I think he wanted to march on Tokyo and overthrow some of the Emperor’s evil advisors. Okay. He actually didn’t want to lead a rebellion. He had established a school for young men to learn traditional Samurai ways and the movie doesn’t get that right. The original psychos like Moria is a samurai traditionalist, he really doesn’t want to westernize very far. He thinks things are gone way too far. And he trains these these young men are trained in this tradition. They start the rebellion they start you know, they they gather an army and talk about marching and Tokyo and then he decides to join them. Then there are some people who think that he didn’t even really want to do this. He just figured he had to. They try to lay siege To a castle along the way, one of the supporters of the government, and they get really bogged down in this castle that in the siege because he just take forever. The truth is the real Saigō Takamori, a brave man standing for spiritual Samurai values. He’s not that successful field commander because he should not have let himself get bogged down because when he gets bogged down superior forces for the Emperor able to come up, drive them away from the castle. He’s retreating, he fights a couple of battles. And then I guess sort of what was like the movies battle. He’s kind of cornered, he can’t go any places No, he owns this whole thing is going to end. With some accounts have him charging into the mouths of the canon of the Imperial Army, the way the movie depicts, only waving a sword just sort of died honorable death.


Dan LeFebvre  30:41

In the movie, we do hear some dialogue where they mentioned that the word Samurai means to serve, and katsumoto believes that his rebellion is actually in service of the Emperor. Do we know if the motivations behind that word like what the movie implies?


Dr. Brian Dirck  30:57

I say yes. To an extent. It’s really complicated. Okay. Saigō Takamori, or capsule motors, remain loyal, believes himself to be loyal to the Emperor’s sort of true interest. And we don’t yet we have to speculate Saigō Takamori didn’t leave a lot of documentation. He didn’t keep a diary that I know about, or I’ve ever heard of. It’s all secondhand accounts. But what he seems to believe was evil advisors. Like in the movie, you kind of get the impression in the movie evil advisors were taking the Emperor way too far down the path of westernization that, okay, let’s go get some guns, let’s go learn their tech. But my God, let’s not necessarily eradicate the samurai as a class that is Japan. Okay. So there’s a belief that the Emperor had been led astray. And we’re going to go back, take out those advisors, and then leave the Emperor back on the true path of where he should be, if that makes sense. But you know what the truth is, as well, this is not all that it’s not just noble like that. There was also a lot of just resentment, these are samurai, they’re there, they’re losing their privileges, man, they’re because the government, among other things, eradicated their pensions. Up until this point, the samurai, as a ruling warrior class receive pensions from the government to live on because they weren’t allowed before the Meiji Restoration. They were not allowed to be farmers, they were not allowed to be merchants, they had to be one of the only samurai. And the only way you could do that is you had somebody getting put food in your belly. She had to live in the government subsidize that, well, the subsidies were coming to an end. And they were really mad about that. They were like you’re taking my money, what the heck, you know, I mean, you know, so it wasn’t just noble defense of Samurai culture. It was that, okay, but it was also just some real resentment, that our privileges are being suddenly and painfully erased.


Dan LeFebvre  32:49

Okay, similar to what we were talking about earlier with the concept of Ahlgren you know, as a vet, can’t go back to civilian life because this is all that I know that similar type concept, right?


Dr. Brian Dirck  33:00

Yeah, I tell you what the movie that I always think of when I watched this movie is Dances with Wolves. Because there’s many similarities you go back and look at it. Same basic story are disillusion, you know, white American officer encounters and a radically different way of life. That where he finds true meaning in his life. I mean, that’s, that’s Kevin Costner in a nutshell and Dances with Wolves. I really see that when I see this film.


Dan LeFebvre  33:23

I’m curious about there’s a little conversation between Quasimodo and orgran, where he asks if Ahlgren is the general in the army, right. And, and Auburn says, Now he’s a captain. And then Quasimodo asked Is that is that a low rank? Like, he doesn’t understand what a captain is, which I could make sense that he wouldn’t understand the ins and outs of the American army in the 1870s. But in this very same conversation, just like moments before he says, you know, we’re both students of war was What is it? Right? Yeah. It would it be crazy to assume that he would not know what a captain is,


Dr. Brian Dirck  33:54

you know, what I find that hard to believe? I think the the movie wants to depict katsumoto as sort of a wise tribal leader that, you know, has his own ways that he’s keeping up finding everything. But I find it I would find it really difficult to believe that he wouldn’t even have a cursory knowledge of the ranking system of a Western army. After all, he had originally supported the the Emperor in, in trying to westernize in military tech, very likely, he hadn’t met some Frenchman and Germans who knew what a captain was. So they were kind of pushing that just a little far.


Dan LeFebvre  34:31

Was there a similar sort of ranking system in the samurai? Like, like you would see in an army or is it not necessarily like generals and captains and, you know, leaders and that kind of thing?


Dr. Brian Dirck  34:41

Well, I think it probably depends on which era you’re talking about, you know, there’s a pretty complex ranking system of greater and lesser samurai, there were the simple dine Yo, which were basically the head Samurai of a domain, and then they would have advisors and they would have names and they have Other advisors named have names and then there there were certainly a ranking level among the samurai, of people that were closer or further away from the Shogun, as a matter of fact, Shogun had won his office and read it to Japan in a battle called sekigahara. And there was a ranking system after that. The Samurai who had supported him before sekigahara, were ranked higher because they were seem to be more loyal. The people who supported him only after he won that battle were seen as opportunists, and they were pushed further away. So there was definitely a hierarchy there. It just wasn’t, I don’t think it was quite as rigid as a Western army system.


Dan LeFebvre  35:39

There’s another scene in the movie I wanted to ask you about. And this is when they’re when they’re training orgran is training with Ujio. And I think it’s raining out. And they’re using these long wooden sticks instead of swords, but it’s extremely physical, to the point of where, you know, he’s taken his legs out, or he has taken his legs out and you know, hit him in the gut and even hitting him alongside the head with this stick. How did the movie do showing this? The training?


Dr. Brian Dirck  36:04

What to say the truth? I like it, I you know what, some of the stuff might have been pushing it just a little much. Okay. But just, this is my Kindle background, you know, I’m Sam, I would not train with a real sword. It’s a three foot long razor blade, one wrong move, you don’t have a training partner anymore. Not a good idea. Okay. So they developed these wooden wooden train sorts of poccadot, which is what they were using in the film. And the idea was, most of the time when you were training, you didn’t actually strike your opponent that you’d be learning, okay, if I’m on a battlefield, and this dude comes after me with a headshot, I do this, this this. And they have literally hundreds of scenario called kata that would show you what to do in a certain situation. That said, I have seen references and some swordsmanship schools where they did strike not not full blows, like the shoot the movie, for example, I’ve read that you could tell a fencing teacher in Japan, because they would always have these calcified knots on their wrists, where they got tapped so many times that it screwed your wrist up. So yeah, you could get hit. I’m telling you the movie, push that a little deeper. You don’t want to get hit with a book like that. Okay, you probably won’t get back to the baseball bat. Okay, I mean, the movie I was kind of like, dude, if you actually level the Tom Cruise like that Tom Cruise has made his last mission impossible movie, okay, cuz it ain’t gonna happen after that, you know? So yeah, I thought that was a little much. Although on the other hand, I really thought they were very careful about the swordsmanship scenes in an impressive way. They really were,and then look like him pretty hard. Yeah, yeah. They had kendo at that point. 10 does with the body armor that we wear and the shehnai that was actually invented in the late 18th century. But if they were traditional samurai, they wouldn’t trade with a bocce toe, and they would have been striking just not full force. But they would they would have been, they would have been probably smacking each other a bit when they were training with these things.


Dan LeFebvre  37:59

Along the same lines with training, the the timeline of that I think, starts with all green, getting captured. And he says, you know, Winter is coming. It doesn’t give specific dates or anything or months or anything like that. But you get the idea that winter is coming in the beginning, already is just getting beat like he you know, he doesn’t know how to fight like this. And then by this time, spring rolls around, all green is able to come to a draw with each Oh, it wouldn’t be even possible to train over a few months to get to a point to where you could fight as well as a samurai.


Dr. Brian Dirck  38:30

I’ve read that Tom Cruise wanted to make this movie very badly. And he personally trained for a year in basic techniques of kendo UI in kenjutsu to be able to fill the UI. So there’s that he couldn’t do that. Okay. It was one of the more suspension of disbelief aspects of this movie. That I mean, the timelines indistinct but only months, right? Since the time he’s captured and battle the time he comes back, what, four or five months? And I mean, dude, he can fight like a just absolutely serious. And on top of that, he masters the third hardest language in the world, okay. I mean, trust me, I’m preparing for this trip to Japan, and trying to learn the rudiments of Japanese and I’m like, Oh, my God, you know, and that guy was okay. I mean, I would love to have his language skills. No, they know, from my experience, you know, doing kendo I mean, frankly, I’m not a natural and I have to work really hard at it. But after 14 years of practicing kendo, I’m the equivalent of a third degree black belt that worked awfully hard to get there. And he was doing stuff that I don’t think you could do after you’ve been practicing for a decade, frankly.


Dan LeFebvre  39:38

Okay, yeah, that was something that I thought they might have pushed the timeline just a little bit. At the very end of the movie, we do see what happens with the treaty that will make the US the sole firearm supplier for Japan. After O’Brien shows up the Emperor ends up he turns down the treaty, but he decides that yesterday Japan needs to modernize. But we cannot forget where we came from, how old did the movie Duke showing this ending, as the movie implies, you know, the end of the Samurai and modernization and all that.


Dr. Brian Dirck  40:10

It’s a movie, you know, they have to give you a kind of a neat ending, you know, I’m saying that it’s a two hour or two and a half hour movie, you got to tie it all off. And I get why they did that. But they’ve reality was far different and far Messier. Really, the Emperor went rather the opposite. And he fully embraced westernization. And in fact, from about the 1870s, till at least the early part of the 20th century, there was a mania for westernization in Japanese culture wasn’t just the Empire. For example, I’ve read that there was a mania for Western poetry and Western literature to the expense of traditional Japanese poetry and traditional Japanese literature. You know, there was there was this general sense in the population, that traditional Japanese ways were backwards in the West was, especially science and technology, were forwards. And if you are, if you are embracing the old things, then you are somehow a fuddy duddy. And you know, that kind of thing. That will change. In the early 20th century, when Imperial Japan began to sort of embrace their version of Samurai values as a way to unite the population and build Japanese nationalism. But at the end of the 19th century, it’s a very messy process that you couldn’t I got why they did in the movies on how you put that in the movie, it was just it was a very complicated thing.


Dan LeFebvre  41:30

Okay, speaking of something, I’m sure is gonna be very complicated as well, if we look at the movie, overall, kind of the the concept is, you know, we talked about somewhere, Japan is this isolated country. And so when allgreen comes, it’s just a culture shock to him. And then we get a little bit of that the other way, we talked a little bit there with, you know, katsumoto, maybe not understanding what a captain is, you know, but we see some of that culture shock, you know, from the other, the other side as well. What are some of the key cultural differences between the US and Japan that, like, Did movies, I guess, do a good job kind of picking out some of those cultural differences? Or were there other ones that might be what you’d consider a key difference that they might come across?


Dr. Brian Dirck  42:15

Yeah, I thought I actually did a fairly decent job with that. I mean, again, it’s a vastly more complicated thing than that. And I hate to exaggerate the boundaries too much. Of course, the Japanese were aware of quite a few Western Western isms, you know, they they had been in contact with the Dutch for over two centuries, they knew the Spanish, not nearly so much contact with the United States, for various reasons before then the US really wasn’t a world power until after World War Two, the Civil War. So you know, they hardly met very many people from the United States. And, you know, his image mattered most people until after the Civil War anyway, or a backwards provincial place, that kind of thing. So if you will just kind of go down the line, the Japanese don’t have a very good concept of like, the US government structure, they don’t really have real shape or politics. As I pointed out earlier, it was still hard for the Japanese to kind of grasp the differences between a prostitute and a Catholic because they have a very, very different religious structure that’s rooted in traditional Shinto and Buddhism. I mean, it’s, I mean, you’re really mixing oil and water there, you know, so that the the Japanese and very most of Matsumoto, those are customers questioning of Muslims are much more is questioning of doctrine, or overt are right. I mean, he would have been, you would have not known maybe would have about captains and stuff, but there’s a lot of things he would not have understood. I actually thought they did a fine job of augmenting counter Japanese culture, you know, living in a traditional Japanese place. You know, he’s house with a woman and he goes to help hernias and understand the men don’t do that kind of thing. And the Japanese culture, you know, so I overall, yeah, in terms of those personal relationships, yeah, there’s there was contact they knew of the of the United States, of course, there had actually been a mission to the United States in 1860, of a delegation of Japanese traveled to Washington DC to sign the treaty that Perry had begun in 1854. Of course, they’ve missed some Americans then. But that was really rare. It was just it was very unusual for a Japanese person to have been to America and actually seen anything and vice versa.


Dan LeFebvre  44:28

Okay, that movie doesn’t really mention this, but I’m just thinking of it from being in the us today. Where we are seeing at you know, especially you know, after World War Two, we are kind of seen as the the military power right. And so, with movie obviously being created after that, I could see how they would just want to make it seem like the US was the culture. As far as the US in the movie is post World War Two post this, this aspect as opposed to the way it was


Dr. Brian Dirck  45:00

Yeah, that’s a very good point, actually, you know, because they kind of behave in the movie, as if the United States is this very powerful nation that they now need to be reckoning with. Do they step it’s true, it’s not entirely untrue, but really the French and the Prussians and the European powers, who are steadily colonizing into modern day, Indonesia, colonizing East Asia, they’re much more of a threat to the Japanese and everybody else then the United States at this point.


Dan LeFebvre  45:27

That’s a good point, at that point in the 1870s, that had the US started colonizing a lot? I mean, obviously, not nearly nearly as much as like the French and the British.


Dr. Brian Dirck  45:36

You know, the your that’s a great point, because the No, we didn’t, we didn’t really have colonies to speak of, until the 1890s in the Spanish American War, when we get the Philippines and you know, we get when we get Guam, I think we have several islands in the Pacific. And that kind of thing, we sort of embraced the Imperial stick, right around the turn of the 20th century. I’m not aware right offhand of any new direct colonies we had in the 1870s, other than the contiguous United States, Alaska courses purchased at about this point, you know, but that’s about it. We’re not really a colonial power yet. But you know, the Japanese and every reason to fear that we would become one. And again, what scares them is China. China is a sad story. At this point. It’s not a unified country. It’s been ruthlessly exploited by the European powers and the Japanese, who always had a heavy connection to the Chinese. were like, Oh, my God, we don’t really end up like them. You know, we’re we just we’ve just been occupied by a country with more technology and superior firearms.


Dan LeFebvre  46:37

Okay, that that makes sense. Even being there right next to China in seeing what’s happening to them.


Dr. Brian Dirck  46:41

That’s one reason why that the Japanese in the early 20th century and occupying Korea, because they’re really concerned that then you create a buffer state between them and China. And it’s not a pleasant occupation, either at all, you know, but a lot of what you see in Japanese in the early 20 century, especially, is a completely understandable worry about powers, like the United States, with all this technology, basically conquering them and they’ve ever been caught.


Dan LeFebvre  47:07

Okay, let’s say you were directing this movie, what, what’s something, maybe maybe a lot of some things, but what’s one big thing that you would have changed?


Dr. Brian Dirck  47:17

I just, I don’t know, I would have, I would have liked to seen them. Make make Matsumoto a bit more of an ambivalent character, you know, because the real psycho takamori is more ambivalent, it would have been nice if they could have been just a little more gray area ish about this. And pointing out the cycles, like Maury is protecting his his interests as a samurai, as well as preserving a traditional culture that this isn’t. he’s not, he’s not a nobleman fighting the good fight and going down swinging. He’s got an interest in this, that’s maybe not so altruistic. And then I would have, it would have been nice if they had taken auger in and actually turned him into some kind of freshmen or something resembling what actually happened. Okay, guy, get it, you’ve got to market to an American audience with movies, especially in 2003. I can’t help but think if this had been a Netflix prestigious series, like we have now, that would have been two or three seasons long, and they might actually been able to do a better job with the multiple people involved. Because like I said, there’s more than one French officer gets involved in this. It’s actually a fascinating story. Just a two and a half hour movies, I can do this justice.


Dan LeFebvre  48:27

Thank you so much for your time to come on to chat about The Last Samurai. For someone listening to this, who wants to learn more about your work? Can you share a little bit about your books and where they can go?


Dr. Brian Dirck  48:35

Like I said, I’m not I’m no expert in Japanese history at all. I’m a US historian. But my expertise is the Civil War era, and especially Abraham Lincoln. And I’ve written quite a bit on a board a first name basis now because I’ve written my latest book is the black heavens, Abraham Lincoln and death. And I’m looking at roughly the same period as the last time right, and looking at how Lincoln processed issues of death and dying during the war.


Dan LeFebvre  48:57

Okay, thanks again so much for your time, Brian.


Dr. Brian Dirck  48:58

Cool, thank you.



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