The Emperor's decision at the end wouldn't be in the best interest of Japan either
The Emperor asks for American help in upgrading and training his military to counter an internal problem. Once the internal problem gets taken care of, he changes his mind at the last minute and basically kills the deal essentially making other people deal with his nations problems without the payment promised. Er, Your Majesty, you do know that screwing over other world powers (especially ones more modernized than you) can lead to wars, right? Wars your only recently-upgraded military and mostly pre-industrial nation will probably have trouble dealing with?
Maybe the role was expanded apart from what was on camera, but the "help" the Emperor received was a small handful of officers who were obscenely well paid for their efforts. The dakka shown in the final battle was implied to be a special introductory offer mainly pushed for by Omura to begin with.
That's beside the point. The deal was outright stated that the Americans would offer help in training their military in modern warfare in exchange for exclusive rights to sell firearms to the Empire. In the movie, the Americans fulfilled their part of the bargain. Even if they hadn't sweetened the deal with the More Dakka later, it doesn't change the fact that the Emperor's decision nullified the Empire's part of the deal, meaning they didn't live up to it while the US did. Going back on deals with any world power usually has bad results. Especially since the movie was set in the 19th Century when the Western powers were a whole lot quicker to launch wars of aggression out of economic interest. So, no matter the nature of the deal, the Emperor still backed out of it, pissed an industrial power off (the American ambassador even said "This is an outrage!"), and handed over what Western powers back then would see as a legitimate cause of war to the country which was selling them weapons. Oops.
On the other hand, the US and Japan didn't go to war for another hundred years or so, meaning either (a) the US holds serious grudges or (b) the Emperor knew the US couldn't ante up with military force against Japan and basically gave 'em the white-gloved finger. The US ambassador is a politician, after all, and politicians are well known for exaggerating their responses.
Doesn't count since the film is obviously set in a alternate timeline where the Japanese Empire and the United States made some sort of weapons deal. In real history the Japan of that period was armed by the British and Russian Empires, never by a direct deal with the United States.
Thats why you write and sign treaties BEFORE delivering your end of the bargain because before the treaty is signed there is technically no binding argument and hence the Emperor can back out of it without the US beeing able to do more than complaining. Besides, the massive undertaking needed to project enough military power across the pacific to actually conquer and hold Japan would surpass the costs of the deal by several orders of magnitude.
They don't need to conquer and hold Japan. A common dick move strategy in the 19th Century among western powers was to simply topple or destabilize an unfavorable "small-fry" government and let the internal chaos take its course. The Imperial government is still newly-minted, solely dependent on the US for their armament, and there hasn't been enough time for the Imperial government to set up the industry to do any mass production of their own fireamrs. It wouldn't take much to destabilize the government and play the resulting chaos until something to your favor results from it. The British, Dutch, and French did this several times in the 19th century — and by that point the Dutch and the French also had power projection issues as well. There wouldn't need to be a total conquest or occupation. Even if the resulting chaos doesn't work out to the favor of the Western power instigating it (as also happened in real life), the local government is still fucked.
It was precisely the threat of the above that caused the Japanese to rapidly modernise. They watched what happened to China and decided they'd rather be the boot than the arse. In the last scene of the movie the Emperor is quick to point out that any number of powerful Western nations wait in the other room ready to sign treaties that will protect Japan from the US.
Which still means nothing. "Ready to sign" doesn't mean "done deal." Hsitorically, Britain and Russia did nothing to aid Japan any in the point in history this movie is set in other than sell them guns for their civil war. What has changed here in the alternate history scenario of this film? Nothing, except that America sold them guns first for a deal much more comprehensive than more hands off arms deals of Russia and Britian IRL. Why would those nations come to the aid of Japan against the US when they have no vested interest there and no real established ties with the government yet? What's to stop them from waiting for another power to "soften them up" and make them more pliable and beholden to foreign powers as also happened in real life in other countries? Being the the boot not the arse sounds nice, but you have to make it happen—which is a tough deal when you just screwed over the guy giving you the leather and the other guys you can get leather from have no real reason to pick a fight with the first guy over you.
The United States of the day was not a world power. The US spent a goodly bit of it's time after it's birth as a glorified Banana (Cotton) Republic. This movie took place during a time when America would not even be able to land troops in Japan, let alone enough to wage any sort of war.
Which completely ignores the fact that it was the US that *opened* Japan in the first place, in large part by sailing a war fleet far beyond anything an indigenous power in the Orient could produce, and *threatening to land troops.* By the time of the post-Civil War era we're on, the United States was beginning to climb up to easily rival or exceed that of the other traditional Western Great Powers (like Britain, France, and the Netherlands), and in a few scant years would completely obliterate Spain. If it cannot be defined as a world power in this time frame it's hard to imagine what could be. They would not suffer insurmountable problems landing forces in Japan.
We're given to believe in the movie that the Emperor himself has never really actually been part of these negotiations, which have all gone through Omura. Omura is the one who has arranged all these things, essentially saying that he will guarantee the Emperors blessing. When Omura is basically cast out of the government and stripped of his wealth in front of the ambassador this is a fairly good sign that Omura has promised something he can't deliver. Essentially all that the Emperor has done is heard the presentation of the treaty and rejected it - it's Omura that's broken his word.
This. The Emperor had been a figurehead for the duration of the Omura negotiations with the US and the whole deal had been brokered on the back of Omura's reputation as the Evil Vizier of the Japanese Empire. With Omura disgraced it stands to reason that anything brokered on the strength of his word was valueless. As far as being in Japan's best interests, it's hard to see how Meiji could have foreseen Showa's inability to stop Tojo's government from perverting not only Bushido but also Shinto.
So what? Will it really matter to a foreign power who made the deal? Especially if they want a pretext for war? Omura made the deal, but he was making in on behalf of the Japanese government. So what if he's disgraced? So what if they claim that they didn't really authorize him? The deal was made. Military assets were given to the Japanese government, and now the promised recompense for them is coming. Do you think it would matter that the Emperor didn't make the deal personally? Who made the deal can't stop the foreign power from claiming that the government broke the deal, they even need to mention who. Do you really think a dickish 19th century power is gonna let that slide when doing so means they just backed down from some backwater nation that isn't even industrialized yet?
Also, as a point of reference, "
Want to join my elite warriors, American? Welcome aboard!
From a historical standpoint, this bothers me: Would it have been realistic for an American soldier to actually join Samurai ranks and fight with them? I would imagine that if one tried, the Japanese would hava a) killed him or b) rejected him and recommend he's go back to his own military. Also, would that be called DEFECTING for him to do this?
There is a historical precedent for Westerners becoming Samurai (or Samurai equivalent). See here.
That's three, in exceptional circumstances, over the entire period of Samurai rule, and in each case authorised by the Shogun himself — not just any minor Samurai lord. Note that in all of those cases, the Westerner in question was given a new Japanese name, and the first one was declared to be dead as a Westerner and reborn as a Samurai. Algren-san is, well, kind of less likely.
Doesn't matter how special it was or who authorized it. The point is it happened, ergo it can happen again. And Katsumoto wasn't just some "minor samurai lord". He was a personal advisor, confidant, and friend of the emperor himself.
Agreed. This is hardly the worst example of "We took your cool story and made it American" is it? Adams even became a Hatamoto and a land owning Samurai.
Why is the emperor's re-interest in the ways of bushido a good thing?
So the Emperor understands samurai honor and values. Shame that following bushido leads to two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, huh? Guess following those guys who traditionally decapitate peasants for looking at them funny was a bad thing.
 The whole bushido thing was created to stir up nationalism and contributed heavily to the Japanese worldview of "We are superior, so surrender or die" in WWII. Coming from a modern perspective, the idea that the feudal nobility have the right to rule over and dominate the uneducated peasantry is reprehensible and belongs in the mouths of villains. That's the real reason the way of the sword was valued, because then civilians can never train to be as effective in combat with it as the nobility can.
Bushido in this movie is rather tangled up with Buddhist and/or new age spirituality, together with a distinctly Anvilicious theme that the old ways are better than embracing the new, decadent West. It's what makes the film Dances With Samurai. In its historical form, Bushido was intended as a sort of combined etiquette and chivalry for society. Suggesting it had much to do with spirituality is like saying the Marquis of Queensbury rules or Grandma's Book of Manners holds the keys to a fulfilled life.
That's a pretty good point, although the point, arguably, wasn't that the old is better than the new, decadent West, but rather that old and new have to find a way to coexist - even Katsumoto notes that the time of the Samurai is over, but their principles (fictionalized as they were, considering how the samurai as a class were no better than feudal knights) shouldn't be discarded along with their way of warmaking. This is kind of highlighted with the inscription on Algren's sword, which reads something like (paraphrasing) "I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have met with the new". If the message was that the old ways were better, the inscription would instead completely valorize the old ways and either discard or marginalize the new.
Quite; the message of the film was not about the old being superior to the new, but rather that if a society completely throws out everything that is old in the rush to embrace the new and modern, you end up losing some things worth saving in the process.
But that's just the thing: the movie's message about not abandoning the principles of the Samurai makes no sense when you realize said principles were completely fictionalized. It portrayed the Samurai class as honorable victims of progress and cultural imperialism when, in reality, the Samurai were anything but. Hence, you could say that the movie is lying to the viewers by taking such liberties with history. Compare it to several older Civil War films that portrayed Confederates in a similar light while glossing over the horrors of the antebellum south.
The modern view of the Bushido tradition and subsequent brutal Japanese rule through Asia was an invention of the militarist Empire in the 30s, which used foreign imperialism to quell a restive population suffering from the Great Depression. Until the 1930s, the Japanese were famous for being courteous (and still are), even their soldiers, and were in fact allies of the British and the United States (the Japanese occupation of Korea was no worse than any other imperial power's until the 30s; and Chinese often went to Taiwan, Japanese administered, to get a good liberal education.) Bad economic times and the subsequent rush to ramp up the exploitation of Korea and China to keep trouble at home from brewing into rebellion led to the downward spiral from the "Good" end of the Bushido tradition to the very bad end in World War II.
I feel you're missing the point - the film is (very loosely) based on the death (and life) of Saigo Takamori who was one of the architects of the dissolution of the Samurai caste. What caused his rebellion was not the removal of samurai priviliges of the dismantling of the Shogunate and Samurai powerbase, it was the realisation that the new Japanese government would be run according to the dubious ethics of Western Realpolitik instead of Confucian Principles. Obviously a movie about comparative ethics makes for a less than exciting two hours but in the contrast between the silent figurehead Emperor with his shadow government and a Katsumoto who leads by example you have precisely that clash of West and East that Saigo Takamori fought in.
Sorry, I don't agree. What plays out in the film is nothing like what you just said. Yes, Takamori may not have fought for the lost Caste System, but, believe it or not, a lot of his followers did. The loss of Samurai powerbase was in fact a large motivation for many a former Samurai's displeasure with, and subsequent rebellion against, the new government. Takamori is just one man, and not all of his followers necessarily agreed with him on every issue. As for the "Realpolitik vs. Confucian Principles" thing, the movie treats the Samurai as some sort of oppressed group being unfairly pushed around by the new rule and robbed of their personal way of life, which was not even close to the truth. Like you said, it was very loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion; so loosely, in fact, that all historical accuracy disappears, leaving the Samurai we see in the film a completely fictionalized creation. My point stands. And as for what you say here: Obviously a movie about comparative ethics makes for a less than exciting two hours... Since when? I personally think that would've made a much better film. A story where ethics are argued and compared wouldn't have been as cheesy, melodramatic and full of Unfortunate Implications as the movie we got, which compared the (fictional) suffering of the Samurai class to that of American Indian tribes in the old west. Instead, it would have been far more interesting to hear both arguments made, would have had a much more ambiguous (and thus, better) ending, and most of all, would have been HONEST about historical accuracy. To each his own.
Doesn't some of this belong in the 'YMMV' section? The nobility treating peasants callously or even murderously is hardly limited to the Samurai. Our own feudal system was pretty brutal. I wonder how many Knights got into trouble for killing peasants that got uppity?
But no one is suggesting that that kind of horrific behavior was limited to feudal Japan. The point is that a system of violence and oppression is being glorified and placed on a pedestal for us to worship. It makes no difference what culture it is. The movie's glorification of "samurai honor" is sick, disturbing, and intellectually dishonest to anyone who knows even the tiniest but of information about that period of history.
This troper wishes that people would remember that Feudalism exists in a continuum as a culture moves from Tribalism, through Feudalism and on into Statism. Feudalism did not exist independently from the less enlightened Tribal society or the more enlightened modern Nation State. Berating a Feudal culture for being brutal and oppressive is like beating a child who can barely walk for not breaking the four minute mile.
...except that it doesn't, if you do some research. Not all cultures moved through feudalism before getting to more centralised government structures, (Roman Republic, most of the rest of classical-era Europe, China); and on the other hand, feudalism is actually a very stable and enduring system that has to be broken by outside influence (e.g. the near-apocalyptic depopulation of Europe in the 14th century, threat of foreign intervention in Japan). Do note that "feudalism" is also quite a specific term and does not refer simply to any government structure that happens to involve royalty or an aristocratic class. And there is nothing wrong at all with berating a feudal culture, because absolutely nothing changes the fact that it was oppressive, brutal, and unnecessary (the last one of which is in fact a theme of the film).
Also, keep in mind when comparing "western Realpolitik" to "Confucian Principles" is that in a LOT of ways, the latter were a great deal more guilty of "dubious ethics" than the former. Realpolitik- particularly as envisioned by lovely, lovely people like Bismarck- was certainly cutthroat and cruel, but it wasn't just about plain dog-kicking but pragmatism pace Machiavelli. Even Bismarck's foundation of a Welfare State tied into that (because it helped prevent the German worker from being pushed ot revolt and shored up his power and popularity), and most European powers were still nasty but generally didn't go as far as he did. In contrast, it's Japan's long medieval era where you *really* get fucked up in new and Darwinian ways that would've even shocked Renaissance Italy.
During the final battle, why do the government soldiers move in rectangular formations?
In the first battle, they use Civil War style tactics, forming defensive battle line to deliver maximum firepower against the attacking Samurai. This makes perfect sense given that they are using muzzle-loading muskets and are fighting in the forest. However, at the final battle, they have bolt-action rifles. Shouldn't they be abandoning massed formations altogether, or at least sticking to battle lines and columns rather than the bizarre "move as a column then form into a wider-than-deeper formation for actual fighting" thingy?
Tactics are always behind weaponry advancements (and they were using rifles, not muskets at first). That's part of the reason for the huge casualties of the Civil War: They were using Revolutionary Era tactics (massed firing groups to compensate for laughably inaccurate firearms) with Civil War era weapons (much more accurate, not needing massed firing to hit). Generally speaking, any new weapon will see its first use on the battlefield being used the same way as the previous weapon until people see what it does and figure it out.
Rifled muskets. But what really bugs me is that they don't even stick to the tactics they used at the beginning of the movie; they change, but they change BACKWARDS into massed infantry formations that are more fit for the revolutionary/Napoleonic period. If they hadn't changed at all that would make sense because, as you said, new weapons are often used with old battle doctrines until somebody can figure out more optimized ways to use them.
Because the samurai needed a way to actually survive for longer than it takes to pull a trigger so they could have a dramatic final charge.
As the Jacobite uprising in 1745 and the italian war of 1859 shows that meleetroops can be successful against troops armed with rifled muskets, the movie takes place in 1876 and the Brown Bess musket the brittish used in the Jacobite uprising in 1745 was used until 1838 so swordwielding samurai defeating a force of poorly trained and poorly led soldiers with muskets is not as much of a stretch as you might think.
The Jacobite Uprising of 1745? You mean the one that terminated in the Battle of Culloden, where broadsword wielding highlanders lost at least 1500 men to kill just fifty redcoats? How about you do some research before you try to make judgements on military history?
And the one that, before Culloden, involved Prestonpans (30 dead, 70 wounded, to kill 300, wound 400, and capture 1400+) and Falkirk Muir (50 dead, 80 wounded to kill or wound 350 and capture another 300-odd). And considering the Highlanders at Culloden attacked a prepared enemy over level open ground, your choice of examples is a little weak. How about you do more complete research before you try to make judgments on military history?
Because as is shown whenever he makes a decision Mr. Omura who is leading the governmental army is not a soldier and has little grasp of military tactics beyond run at them and see if they die.
Perhaps they've decided to use more remedial 'Formation' tactics as a way of keeping the conscripts under better control and giving the new officers a less confusing 'organic' deployment to manage?
From what I've seen, Bagley's plan was to send a battalion to either draw out the samurai or determinate their position (both would have worked) and then use the howitzers to massacre them from distance, with the gatlings and massed rifle fire finishing the survivors when they would launch the inevitable charge uphill (the only smart thing to do in such a situation: charge and hope the horses are fast enough to get you into melee range). Omura being an arrogant incompetent, Bagley had to send in the first battalion before the gatlings were in place and waste most of his reserve in a bayonet charge that the samurai defeated by countercharging, so when the samurai charged on horse he had to deploy his remaining infantry in a line to slow down the samurai (most of his troops were still regrouping, so he didn't have enough men for an infantry square that would have stopped the charge then and there), with the results we've seen: first battalion unable to disengage, both infantry battalions defeated with heavy losses, and the infantry line overran (Bagley fully expected this, it was his way to go out with a bang, possibly taking Katsumoto down before the gatlings) but earned enough time to bring the gatling guns in line and load them, at which point the samurai were massacred.
A White American is shown to the better at becoming a samurai than people born into and raised in the culture? Really?
Define "better samurai". I certainly didn't see anything that made Algren any better as a samurai than any of the others. He got to stand at Katsumoto's side because they'd gotten to be Heterosexual Life-Partners. And he helped plan the final attack because he understood what battle tactics Colonel Bagley would have taught the Imperial Army in his absence. His ability with languages was already established as a Chekhov's Skill earlier in the movie; likewise his skill as a swordsman, considering his ability with a cavalry saber. And for your accusations of racism to hold true, the native Japanese would have to be shown as inferior or lacking in some way, which is decidedly not true. In fact, quite the opposite is true, as the Samurai as a people are shown to be honorable, disciplined, and dedicated: All worthy qualities that Algren admires and hopes to emulate. There is even resistance from some, especially Ujio, about letting him be anything more than a glorified prisoner. It's only Katsumoto's insistence on letting him participate in village activities that even lets him get his foot in the door. On the whole, as a movie, it's considerably less racist and more convincing than others of its genre, like Dances with Wolves or Avatar.
Leaving aside cavalry saber skills and a gift for languages, this film is explicitly saying that Algren manages to learn (if not master) kenjutsu and karate when he's had no exposure to either system within a period of less than six months (assuming a full two seasons pass while he's still a captive there). And he learns it so well and so quickly that he can fight a samurai who's been training, fighting, and practicing kenjutsu for pretty well his entire life to a draw in a duel, and then take on six armed men with no weapons at all.Mighty Whitey aside, this is ... well, kind of bugging me, too.
Minor correction: The unarmed art would have been jiu-jutsu, not karate. Karate was developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present day Okinawa) and was not brought over to mainland Japan until shortly before World War II. It was never practiced by the samurai (and, for much of Japan's history, was looked down on as thuggish due to its peasant, distinctly non-samurai origins).
Prior to Algren's capture, he's already been shown as having quite a bit of badassery under his belt, especially considering the fact that he fended off a good number of samurai with a spear, not to mention killing several of them with his sword before that. This is less a case of Mighty Whitey and more a case of Algren being a Mighty Protagonist. (On the other hand, one assumes that skill with a cavalry sabre doesn't translate that quickly to skill in Japanese martial arts. Perhaps Charles Atlas Superpower should go on the tropes page, considering how quickly Algren picks up Japanese martial arts).
On the skill with a cavalry sabre thing: just because it doesn't have the sheer reputation of the katana does not mean a cavalry sabre is a useless decoration. 19th Century officers were required to be proficient with their swords because, let us not forget, these are battle-grade sabres. You need skill just to handle them without wounding yourself, let alone use them in battle. It's not somehow inferior or inefficient just because it's not a Japanese technique or weapon. That said, the style of cavalry sabre handling is sufficiently different from Japanese styles to make Algren's quick acquisition of the latter rather implausible.
Yes, one recalls that, especially during the Napoleonic wars, when push came to shove some soldiers could be absolute terrors with their swords; there was an account of a sergeant who held his company's standard against three separate attacks from individual soliders, which he ended in one stroke each. I can't recall his name (It was Ewing, or something; either way this was at Waterloo) but it was remarked that he was a reputed swordsman. And also had the advantage of sheer size. As I noted previously, Algren is frigging scary in the initial conflict with Katsumoto's Samurai - he's essentially very good at what he does, which is fighting, in particular, and war in general. It just so happens that he is white, considering that this movie was made by Americans, and specifically by John Logan, it's understandable that their protagonist be made relatable to them as a viewpoint character; Raymond Burr as Steve Martin in Godzilla pretty much illustrates this. Except he didn't pick up, I dunno, implausible reporting skills while there, I guess. So the main bone of contention here is the ease and speed with which Algren makes the transition from sabre, pistol, and carbine, to katana - essentially, over the course of six months, switching martial traditions entirely. Which, yes, is quite implausible, unless he's like, I dunno, an alcoholic death seeking Bruce Wayne sort of deal.
It takes roughly six months because the movie is trying to instill a sense of urgency to the whole thing... having Algren get captured, and emerge from the valley with grey in his hair and Katsumoto's nephews having grown to adulthood might have been an accurate reflection of the time it would take him to earn Katsumoto's trust and become a badass samurai-esque warrior, but it would put a severe damper on the whole "The arms deal that Omura is negotiating that will change Japanese culture is happening right now" aspect of the plot. So events happen and expertise is acquired in a very short amount of time, like many-to-most movies do. It's a common storytelling device, not prejudice.
Algren fights another samurai to a draw one time in a practice duel after having been soundly beaten several times in a row. And we have no reason to assume the large group of armed men who ambush him later in the movie were equally as skilled as the samurai in the village. Your argument is completely ridiculous. At no point is Algren ever shown to be anything more than roughly equal (if that) to any other samurai.
Agreed with the above. Algren is shown as 'getting it' a couple of times and tapping into the martial arts philosophy rather than simply becoming stronger or faster. He is never shown as becoming a one-man army of destruction or of having mastered these concepts.
The cavalry sabre and katana both operate on the same principle: concise, controlled cuts and slicing techniques meant to quickly incapacitate or kill your opponent. And Algren's shown to already have a decent understanding of the techniques necessary to wield a sabre proficiently, which can translate well into kenjutsu when one is able to break down their similarities.
The katana is a two-handed weapon designed to be powered mainly by the left hand, with hip and torso rotation providing most of the power. The sabre is one-handed, and although the katana can be used one-handed, it's optimized for two.
I think the above troper's point was that while the technique may be different it still provided Algren a common foundation on which to build his skills rather than starting from scratch.
It's also important to remember that aside from the hired goons (whose skill is dubious at best), and the sparring in the village, Algren does not fight any trained swordsmen in the latter half of the movie. He is fighting men with bayonets, who've had roughly as much time to train as he has with the katana. The difference is that Algren has been a soldier for years, on top of his katana and karate tutoring, while the army has had... Drilling and shooting and marching practice? Even if Algren was only average with a sword, it's no small wonder that he plows through the poor-to-below-average infantry.