Takamori Saigo - the REAL Last Samurai
Just as the Shogun book by Clavell created a fictional Lord Toronaga to build a semi-real world around, director Ed Zwick chose to create Katsumoto for his story of late-1800s Japan. This allowed him to focus on the parts of the Japanese culture he loved, without having to stay true to life.
Takamori Saigo was born in 1827, 200 years after the last real wars took place that a samurai could take part in. By the 1800s, samurai were wealthy land owners who loved to drink and gamble. Takamori was born to a low level retainer of the Satsuma clan. He dove into politics and by the time he was 26 he was banished for his outspoken views. This came shortly after his lord, Shimazu Nariakira, died. Takamori attempted ritual suicide but failed.
In 1867, Takamori helped stage a revolution. With his assistance, the Emperor took control of Japan, taking it back from the "Shoguns" or military rulers who had maintained samurai power since the 1600s. This was the Meiji Restoration. Takamori joined with the Emperor's council and helped reform taxes and education.
It was not in fact the Emperor's western clothes wearing and firearm using desires that made Takamori upset, but his reluctance to invade Korea, that finally had Takamori storm off the cabinet. Takamori wanted to use the samurai might to take over neighboring countries. The other cabinet members, having visited Europe and seeing the vast gulf between European industry and Japan's, wanted to catch up or be left behind. Takamori returned home and drew other samurai to him who wanted the samurai to control Japan and not the Emperor's modernistic council.
In 1877, the samurai began attacking the Imperial army. This was called the "Satsuma Rebellion". After a few months, the samurai tried to retreat to their home. On September 14, 1877, they were killed almost in their own village. Takamori took his own life.
Even though Takamori had turned against the Emperor's modern desires in the end, the work he had done to help the Emperor up to that point is remembered with honor in Japanese culture. Many remember him for his desire to help the Emperor "see the truth", and see his rebellion in fact as his way of trying to help the emperor learn an important lesson about treasuring the past.
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