In the year 1876, Captain Nathan Algren (played by Cruise) accepts a job to train the Imperial Army of Japan. Algren is a former participant of the American Indian Wars and continues to experience traumatic flashbacks of the massacres he had been involved in. As he trains new recruits in the Japanese army, a band of samurai attack a railroad owned by a Japanese businessman named Mr. Omura, who orders the soldiers to mobilize and defend the remaining roads.
The inexperienced soldiers are quickly routed and slaughtered by the samurai. Algren is captured and transported to their village. Despite his status as a prisoner, Algren is allowed to roam the village and meet its residents. He comes across the leader of the samurai band, Katsumoto Moritsugu (Watanabe). A mutual understanding grows between the two and Algren begins to appreciate the unique culture of the Japanese. He learns that Katsumoto’s rebellion is against the Westernization of Japan. Algren makes his new home with Katsumoto’s sister Taka, who is the wife of a man he had killed during the skirmish. He apologizes to her and the two eventually form a budding romance.
During his time in the village, Algren overcomes the specter of his past and decides to make a new name for himself. He travels to Tokyo with Katsumoto to meet with the Emperor. However, he finds out that the Emperor has a minimal amount of influence compared to the advisors, which includes the businessman Omura. Katsumoto is eventually arrested for carrying a sword. Hoping to make amends for his past, Algren orders the samurai rebellion to free their comrade.
Donning the armor of Taka’s late husband, Algren and the samurai lure the imperial soldiers into a close-range battle that leaves many on both sides dead. Before the army can launch their final assault, the samurai breaks through their lines using horseback tactics. The army uses their last resort, a Gatling gun, to stop the attack and gun down the remaining samurai.
Despite being seriously injured, Algren manages to save Katsumoto’s life from enemy fire. The samurai lord chooses to have an honorable death by committing seppuku, drawing admiration and respect from all combatants on the field, including the imperial soldiers.
A few days later, an injured Algren intrudes on a trade negotiation between Japan and the US to present the Emperor with Katumoto’s sword. The Emperor rejects the trade agreement, having realized that Japan must modernize through its own strength without sacrificing its culture. Omura’s possessions are returned to the citizens and Algren resumes his new life in Japan with Taka.
The story of The Last Samurai presents a portal into Meiji-era Japan, a time when policy changes would transform the country forever. The film will have viewers thinking about their nation’s identity in respect to their level of development. Cruise and Watanabe deliver an outstanding performance in their respective roles. This feature is a worthy addition to the viewing queue.