Written by Old Bluffer 17th Jun 2005
Katsumoto is a multi-faceted character. Charismatic, a deadly swordsman, a proud father, a linguist and poet, and above all a samurai war leader who adheres absolutely to the honourable code of bushido.
He posesses fierce and total loyalty to the Emperor of Japan, who he taught as a child, but finds that he must now fight against the Imperial army, as he believes the Emperor is being manipulated by his advisors. He is a traditionalist and sees Japan's ready acceptance of the West's modern methods and values as harmful to the nation. It is a subtle point of honour, but at any point the Emperor could order Katsumoto to take his own life, and yet he does not, as he sympathises with the idealism shown by his old teacher.
Unfortunately for the samurai, the modernisation they seek to slow extends to the military, and they find themselves facing an army equipped with brand new firearms, reinforced with powerful artillery and trained in the latest techniques by veterans from wars in the West.
Katsumoto has led his forces to victory in several minor skirmishes, but he knows that they are all doomed when the army arrives in force. Knowledge of certain death won't stop the samurai though and they vigorously attack with arrow and sword. Katsumoto fights like a demon, slashing his katana through countless enemies, and shrugging off bayonet wounds as if they are just minor inconveniences.
Forcing a tactical withdrawal, the samurai have prevailed once more, but the bulk of the imperial army is still intact and their defeat is inevitable. With surrender an unthinkable option, the remaining samurai saddle up and perform a suicidal charge up the hill towards the waiting cannon and machine gun turrets.
The samurai are Japan's finest warriors, but that means nothing when faced with concentrated automatic fire, and they soon all lie dead or critically wounded.
Katsumoto is dying, but he wants to die as a samurai, and with the last of his strength he performs seppuku, with assistance from Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) acting as his kaishaku. By killing himself he is at once acknowledging his defeat and enhancing his own honour.
The scale of the bravery of the samurai during the course of the battle so affects the Imperial troops, that to a man they remove their headgear as a mark of respect and prostrate themselves to the fallen Katsumoto.
This was a sympathetically directed death, as it could so easily have ventured too far into the maudlin. Instead, it is hard not to feel moved at the passing of a character who has truly lost everything but his honour for the sake of his beliefs. Katsumoto's last thoughts are of the perfect beauty of the cherry blossoms he sees on the battlefield and, although this is an almost unforgivable Japanese cliche, Ken Watanabe manages to pull it off. In fact, Watanabe steals virtually every scene he is in, easily out-acting Cruise, who still manages an admirable performance.