for National Geographic News
Mythology colors all history. Sometimes, legend and lore merely embellish the past. Other times, mythology may actually devour history. Such is the case with the samurai, the military aristocracy of feudal Japan.
The samurai are known as strong and courageous warriors, schooled with swords. In reality, they were an elitist and (for two centuries) idle class that spent more time drinking and gambling than cutting down enemies on the battlefield.
But it's the ideals to which they aspireddiscipline, loyalty, and benevolencethat endured and shaped the romantic image of the samurai that is now ingrained in the Japanese cultural psyche.
That's in large part thanks to the movies. From Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Seven Samurai to the new Hollywood epic, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, the movie samurai are usually noble and heroic characters.
Ed Zwick, the cerebral director and co-writer of The Last Samurai, makes no apologies for embracing idealism over reality for his movie. He says each version has its uses in storytelling.
"It's as important to celebrate what's poetic and idealized as it is to understand the reality," Zwick said in a telephone interview. "We're inspired by the mythologizing of the samurai as heroes."
A Time of Transition
The Last Samurai is the fictional tale of a broken United States Civil War veteran (Cruise) who travels as a mercenary to Japan soon after the overthrow of the old Shogunate and the restoration of imperial rule in 1868. He ultimately rediscovers his honor by joining a samurai rebellion against the encroaching world of the West.
The dawn of what's known as the Meiji era was a time of change as Japan emerged from 200 years of self-imposed isolation and began to shed some of its traditions. The samurai had served as a standing army with no one to fight for the last 200 years. Now they represented the past.
"It's a country that tries to modernize itself in a hurry," said Harold Bolitho, a professor of Japanese history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It wants to get rid of a non-productive class of samurai to replace it with an effective fighting force. It wants to stand up as an independent nation and not be pushed around by Britain or the United States."
The movie rebellion is led by a samurai named Katsumoto, who is loosely based on the real-life samurai Takamori Saigo. Known for his obstinate conservatism, Saigo supported the Emperor in the Meiji coup, but then led an 1877 revolt against the government in which his followers were defeated by imperial troops drawn from the peasantry and equipped with modern arms. Saigo committed suicide.
Today, Saigo is a folk hero, a symbol of devotion to principle. In real life, he was also a pampered aristocrat bent on retaining his elitist standing.
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