Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What the Samurai can teach the world about a truly human ethos

What does it mean for a people, or a nation (the two are not necessarily synonymous) to have a fulfilling ethos? By ethos (on which I’ve written here before) I mean broadly the distinctive cultural and social character of a group of people as manifested in their collective and individual activities, which are therefore expressive of the beliefs which bestow on them such a recognisable cultural profile.

On the plane from France I recently viewed a film that brought home to me the differences between one ethos and another, in the process of replacing it, very powerfully. It was Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, which was led by samurai Saigo Takamori against the modernisation movement that comprised part of the Meiji-Restoration in 19th-century Japan.

Because I don’t really like Tom Cruise as an actor, I had avoided viewing the film before, but in the end I was grateful to have taken the opportunity to do so as an air travel captive. In fact, I found this epic saga very moving — partly because the honour-centred samurai values as presented in the film appeal to me, and partly because any human story involving great sacrifice for the sake of others is usually very moving, provided it is told well, as is the case here.

In brief, The Last Samurai is the story of an American army officer, Nathan Algren, who has turned to alcohol to escape from the nightmare killings of native Americans that he witnessed during the so-called Indian Wars. He is persuaded by Colonel Bagley (previously his superior officer), and a Japanese businessman, Mr Omura, to travel to Japan in order to train the Japanese Imperial Army in modern warfare. Because of Bagley’s role in the native Americans’ massacre, Algren despises him, but agrees to go anyway because of the attractive salary offered by Mr Omura.

Condensing relentlessly, Algren’s training has not progressed very far before news arrives that a group of samurai — a warrior class with a long history in Japan — under the leadership of a man called Katsumoto, has attacked a railroad owned by Mr Omura. Despite Algren’s objection, that the Japanese soldiers are not ready for a confrontation with the samurai, Bagley orders them to march on Katsumoto. Predictably, they are routed by the latter’s warriors in a misty forest, and Algren, who has fought valiantly against them, so impresses Katsumoto that he is taken prisoner instead of being killed.

In their village, Katsumoto instructs his sister, Kata, to care for Algren, and he is slowly nursed back to health by her, despite the fact that she knows that he killed her husband in battle. Algren is allowed to move about freely, and is engaged in English conversation by Katsumoto — for mutual understanding, as the latter explains to the American. As the latter, who spends the winter in the village, gets to know their ways better, he is deeply impressed by the simple beauty and self-discipline of the life lived by the samurai and their families. He slowly learns Japanese from Kata’s two boys and her brother, and although he is initially easily bested by the samurai warriors in their katana (sword) exercises, he improves to the point where the clinches a draw with their best fighter (excepting Katsumoto). When he apologizes to Kata for killing her husband, she is finally able to forgive him.

When spring comes, the emperor grants Katsumoto safe passage to Tokyo, with Algren and some of his samurai accompanying him. The emperor, who used to be taught by Katsumoto, invites him back on his council, but when Katsumoto appears there with his sword, Omura invokes the law against carrying arms, and Katsumoto is imprisoned. Algren and the samurai help Katsumoto escape, but not without the loss of his son, and they return to the village to await the inevitable attack by the imperial army, which has in the meantime been better trained and equipped (with Howitzers and Gatling machine guns).

Clad in her deceased husband’s armour, which Kata gave him to wear, Algren and Katsumoto, knowing that they face superior weaponry, plan a series of manoeuvres to inflict significant losses on the army. These do work out, before the Howitzer cannon and Gatling machine guns turn the tide decisively against the samurai. In the course of the battle Algren kills Bagley, and the battle culminates in Algren assisting Katsumoto performing seppuku, or honourable suicide with his sword.

At the crucial moment when the Emperor is about to agree to a far-reaching treaty between the United States and Japan, Algren appears on the scene and offers Katsumoto’s sword, rich in symbolism (“samurai” essentially means “to serve”), to the emperor. This sways Meiji’s mind, and he rejects the treaty, saying that Japan has to go her own way with modernization, not relinquishing her (by implication, samurai) traditions. Moreover, he decides to give Omura’s considerable assets to the people. The film ends with Algren returning to Kata and the samurai village, where he found something — an ethos — so compelling that it not only cured his alcoholism, but gave him a purpose in life.

The question therefore arises: what was it that the samurai ethos embodied, and instilled in its adherents, that “modern” (19th-, and one may add 20th – and 21st-century) America lacks? To be sure — and this is a philosophical question that cannot be pursued at length here — modernity does have a “legitimacy” of its own, which cannot be reduced to a mere secularisation of medieval theocratic thinking, as Hans Blumenberg has argued in his magisterial study, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

Confining oneself to the present frame of reference, it appears that what I referred to earlier, namely “honour” as a central value to the samurai, represents a watershed, not just between 19th-century, modernizing Japan and modern America, but between that Japan and the rest of the modern (and now postmodern) world. “Honour” can only operate as fundamental value in a true community, where every individual stands in a relation of reciprocal responsibility with every other member of this community.

Compare this with (post-)modern society, where a self- and technology-centred ethos prevails, to the degree that it has generated terms like “selfie”, and where more than one writer has commented on what is seen as a “cult of the self” that is said to be destroying America. The point is that, as technology has progressed, any sense of community — of human beings sharing a life oriented according to a set of truly civilizing values — has been incrementally eroded.

There are scene-sequences in the film that illustrate this perfectly. At one point, one witnesses a tranquil scene in the simple but integrated and beautiful samurai village, nestled among green hills, before the scene switches to Tokyo’s streets, with a maze of telephone lines and a chaos of overcrowded streets and buildings contrasting forcibly with the earlier scene. One cannot help thinking, here, of Gandhi’s belief, that the modern world should have chosen the path of village development, where people could become agriculturally self-sustaining.

The other scene is even more telling: upon returning from the samurai village, Algren is accosted by the officer he hates, Bagley, who did not hesitate to order the massacre of innocent native American women and children. On retorting that he “needs a bath”, Bagley responds by remarking that he is not surprised, given that Algren lived for so long “among savages”, and immediately pointing out to Algren the new Howitzers and Gatlings, which would soon “destroy” the samurai.

This epitomises the contrast between the samurai ethos and the modern (American) one: Bagley’s criterion for civilisation is a crude technological one, but Zwick has tellingly presented this against the backdrop of what one has witnessed in the samurai village, where a sense of honour impelled an initially unwilling woman, whose husband had been killed by an American (doing his “duty”, as she says), to nurse him back to health, and where Katsumoto taught Algren what civilised behaviour is by having conversations about the meaning of life with him, his “enemy”. It is therefore ironic that the name of Emperor Meiji is linked to “enlightenment”.

Small wonder Algren chooses to defend, and return to, that way of life in the end. As the hegemony of technology over human values is reinforced every day in the present world, we need to question the meaning of a truly civilised (and civilising) ethos anew. Although some may see it as hopelessly romantic, this film helps tremendously in the process.

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