Introduction to “The Last Samurai” Edward Zwick, the director of “legend of the fall”, co-produced this 2003 war and drama film, based on a true story depicting honor and courage battling against corruption and greed. Nathan Algren (Tom cruise) is an American civil war veteran who carries moral scars of his victory against the native Indians. As he drowns his guilt in alcohol and performs acts at trade shows in San Francisco, his old commander drags him into meeting Prince Mitsui, a Japanese businessman who offers Algren a job as a military advisor, to train the Japanese government army.
At that time, Japan was lead by Emperor Meiji who had a vision of a modernized Japan and a wish to strengthen his army and update its performance through the latest fire-weapons and war strategies. This is where the conflict arises as the old Japanese samurai society stands against this rapid transformation. Lead by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) a few hundred samurai, rebel and hence are judged as traitors and ordered to be marginalized and eliminated.
This is where Algren comes into play to demonstrate the power of the rifle and allow American traders to sell weapons to the upgraded Japanese army to fight against those rebels.
During the first encounter between the unprepared Japanese regimens and the handful of brave samurai, Algren falls and is captured by the enemy. He is then taken to the samurai village up in the mountains where he learns to interact with them, discovers their culture and observes their fighting methods. During his “captivity”, a friendship is born between Algren and Katsumoto. They learn to understand each other’s cultural discrepancies and adapt to each other’s characters. He becomes so impregnated with the values that the samurai defend, that he practically becomes more than just one of them and ends up leading them along sides Katsumoto into battle facing his own battalion.
The main characters:
Two main protagonists can be discerned in the plot: Algren and Katsumoto. Both of them display different types of leaderships that might be correlated to their divergent cultural differences. American population tends to be more explicit in their modes of expression when Japanese might imply their messages in indirect forms. Algren’s fiery personality contrasts to Katsumoto’s reserved and introverted persona. When the samurai enjoys moments of silence, the captain is frustrated with his non-talkative guard. Other variation in behavior can be explained with regards to their conception of personal space, hierarchy contestation, tradition and elderly respect as well as individualistic to collective attitude. Even though, none of the styles can be judged to be better than the other, it is possible to confirm that Algren’s impulsive behavior sometimes drives him to make decisions that are not in his best interest. The time that Katsumoto takes to reflect on issues somehow delays the decision-making process but might translate into wiser and more rational judgment.
The spirituality of the Japanese culture as well as their values are omnipresent in all aspects of their lives. Algren is staggered with their devotion to the perfection of their everyday tasks and is intrigued with the spirituality that emanates from their beliefs. While he is living among them he surprisingly discovers the meaning of the word “samurai”: to serve. This is one of the major discrepancies between the two men and this is the aspect of leadership that Algren learns from Katsumoto. As the plot is occurring, the relationship between the two grows from enemies, prisoner and oppressor, teacher and student, partners with common interests, even reaching the friendship state. This infusion of values balances out the rapport between them to the point where we see for the first time an inverse situation with Algren attending Katsumoto’s weaknesses. In the scene preceding the final battle, Katsumoto confides in his friend seemingly afraid of the outcome. The emperor had previously refused to consider his proposal, which broke Katsumoto’s faith and hope for a common understanding. In this situation, Algren actively listens to the inner fears of the great leader and in a very directive way, attempts to motivate him and re-enforce hope and optimism “It’s not over yet” (Quoted from the film’s script).
The Leadership Analysis of Nathan Algren:
All through this movie, Algren displays attitudes of a charismatic leader that is not however always admired for his choices. Even in his moments of weakness, Captain Algren’s leading skills are still clearly embedded in his identity. As the character evolves, many facets of leadership can be observed through the ideals that he represents and live by. Firstly, honor is somehow the dominant value in the plot as it encompasses truth beyond practicality and efficiency. This is one of the concepts that Captain Algren learned during the time he spends with the samurai. In the plot, honor is frequently interlinked to courage and can be admired in the struggle of the warriors and their leaders as much in personal battles or field wars. As Algren is confronted to Katsumoto, he discovers a spirituality such that of the Bushido spirit consisting in loyalty, heroism, courage, justice, courtesy, compassion and sincerity. The following observation grid is a chronological overview description of some of the leadership traits that were revealed through Algren’s behavior and positions in different scenes. In each situation, the interaction between characters is explained and the aspects of leadership underlined.
Table – Leadership Analysis of Nathan Algren’s behavior in “The Last Samurai”
Oral Communication Skills:
Theatric performance, public speaking
Even in his worst shape (being drunk) Algren is capable of standing in front of the crowd and entertaining them. He attracts their attention and makes them laugh.
At a trade show, Algren displays a rifle show and tells tales about the war.
Enunciation, voice tone, volume, pace
Algren plays on the emotions of his audience, using a strong touching description of the scalping. The tone and volume of his voice drives the receptor to live the scene he is describing. He speaks slowly at times and then accelerates the sentences to create waves and keep the listener in active listening.
Algren explains how it would feel to scalp an Indian.
Punctuation of speech
In his tirade, Algren punctuates his sentences with silent “pit stops” during which the listener is drawn to the story and eager to unveil the end of it. He also pronounces words with intonations to emphasize them.
Eyes are a powerful tool that captivates listeners and implicates them into the issue at stake. The eye contact also establishes the nature of the relationship between the two players.
Algren explains how it would feel to scalp an Indian.
The emotions are revealed through the explicit facial expressions that also translate his mind state to the surrounding people. Especially during the battles, Algren always puts up a clam unruffled expression.
Body posture, personal space
The ability to drag the audience along the dialogue, Algren uses his body posture to imply intimidated, impressed and implicated reaction from the listener. At moments and to infer the emotions of the story, he violates the other person’s personal space to create tension and responsiveness.
Making direct clear and specific request with a persuasive attitude is the first counter reaction to the job offer. Algren’s power of negotiation gets the businessman to raise the offer and respond to the captain’s request
Algren is dragged to share a diner with Japanese business man that offers him a job of war consultant
Intelligence and experience
One important factor that promotes the credibility of the captain is his knowledge of the task that is required of him. His intelligence allows him to have a general perspective of the issue that pushes him to investigate further and dig the largest amount of information possible to build his attack strategy.
In the Japanese army training camp, Algren takes interest in the history of the Samurai
In this conversation, Algren reminds his colleague of a battle they fought side by side when they were given an order they did not concur with. When his colleague hid behind the hierarchy structure, Algren denounces the immoral decision and admits his obedience to be a mistake at that time
When Algren refuses the job offer, his old army colleague holds a private chat with him
Putting his life on the line to defend his point of view is one of the characteristics of Algren that builds the image of a confident leader that is conviction-driven.
To convince the Japanese businessman the army is not ready, Algren asks a soldier to fire at him
Even if the outcome of the fight is expected, Algren stands strong and fights against the warriors. Under the eyes of Katsumoto, Algren’s courage display reveals his perseverance and restless quest for success. This stand will be respected by Katsumoto who decides to spare his life.
At the end of the first battle against the samurai rebels, Algren falls and finds himself surrounded by 5 warriors
The creativity Algren has, allows him to find innovative solutions to establish a strong potential attack strategy. Thanks to his cunning intuition, the plan he sets thrives through and leads the rebels to a first victory.
When searching for an attack tactic, Algren relates to the Spartans wars
In that scene, Algren knows that the chances of victory let it be survival at least were very small. Despite being aware of the odds at stake, both leaders decide to continue the battle and fighting till the last breath.
Resource-less, Algren, Katsumoto and the battalion of rebels decide to fight fire arms with bare hands
If Algren’s first reaction is to protect his friend from making a mistake, he respects his desires and his decisions. He assists him in ending his life with his own hands, hence honoring his requests.
Katsumoto asks Algren to help him end his life in an act of Hara-Kiri
Interaction with others:
One specificity of Algren’s leadership shows through his direct implication by leading the battalion on the battle-field surely but also by personally implicating himself in the teaching process of soldiers. His physical presence and direct implication breaks the hierarchy barrier that is created by titles or positions and builds a trust relationship
During the training sessions, Algren personally attends the soldiers performance
This act of recognition further builds Algren’s image as a supportive leader who encourages followers to better perform. This is a strong motivator for the soldiers to make efforts towards improving their achievements.
After succeeding at hitting target, Algren taps on the soldier’s shoulder
Subsequently to this scene, Algren realizes that his action created disturbance (even if he was not directly confronted because of his mistakes) and he learned to adapt to a tradition he was not initially familiar with to better accommodate his hostess. In the next similar situation, we see Algren walking into the house barefoot.
The first time Algren walks into Taka’s house, he leaves mud traces on the floor
Algren proves to be an effective active listener. He first keeps quiet lets Katsumoto speak his fears out without jumping to assumptions and conclusions. Then instead of imposing his own opinion or attempting to counsel him on the issue, he uses questioning to direct him to reflect upon other perspectives that give back Katsumoto his confidence.
Around the fire, Katsumoto is pessimistic as to the battle outcome. Algren intervenes.
The feature that is on display in this scene might seem natural to show gratitude to a family who has cared for him. However, in the context of the movie, Algren (the prisoner) puts his life at stake to defend his persecutors.
When the samurai village is attacked, Algren finds himself defending Katsumoto’s family
All the traits that were listed and described in the above table further promote Algren’s image as a supportive leader who wisely uses his receptive capacities, his conceptual understanding talent and his innate initiative. Those characteristics re-enforce his credibility and respected figure.
A few quotes:
“What does it mean to be Samurai: To devote yourself utterly to a set of moral principles; to seek a stillness of your mind, and to master the way of the sword.” – Nathan Algren
“There is so much here I will never understand. I’ve never been a church going man, and what I’ve seen on the field of battle has led me to question God’s purpose. But there is indeed something spiritual in this place. And though it may forever be obscure to me, I cannot but be aware of its power.” – Nathan Algren
“Katsumoto: You believe a man can change his destiny?
Nathan Algren: I think a man does what he can, until his destiny is revealed.”
“Emperor Meiji: Tell me how he died.
Nathan Algren: I will tell you how he lived.”
This analysis portrays the characteristic traits that represent the leadership attitudes of Nathan Algren, the main actor in the synopsis. However, another character is worth being also studied in his positions, principles and uncommon behaviors. Katsumoto, the Samurai rebel, is the incarnation of a true leader whom followers respect and admire to the point where they would be willing to devote their lives for him out of conviction and affection. A relevant point to the interaction between the two types of leaders is one of the most important features of leadership perpetuity. That is one of the reasons that caught Katsumoto’s attention during his first encounter with Algren, watching him persevere in the fight till the end. Katsumoto saw in him the spirit of a leader, and the film’s plot witnesses the evolution of the link between the two men. When the relationship reaches a certain trust and maturity, Katsumoto’s attitude towards Algren become that of a teacher, a trainer, a guide. Katsumoto takes the responsibility of steering Algren and molding his character to conduct him to become his successor. This is how Algren himself becomes “The Last Samurai”.