The Last Samurai Chapter 2 (Re-loosely Interpreted)
Romanticized and Alienated
Bagley sat in a tense room, understanding what the failure of defeat meant, or so he thought he did. The room he sat in was diverging in two directions, reflecting the oscillating cultural allegiances of its decorator. A hybrid that failed to represent either.
“Losing the railroad was unacceptable,” Omura, the westernizing businessman railed on. “Our loss was an embarrassment to the emperor. You promised your guns and your formations would bring us victory, but we ran like dogs. ” Omura’s sentiments towards the loss were amusing, for a man who had sworn to throw away his honor, to differentiate himself from the samurai who had sworn to live their life honorably, blindingly so.
“Perhaps Algren was right,” Bagley suggested reluctantly, humiliated by the admittance. The remorseless colonel of the United States army had failed, even with his superiorly advanced weaponry and strategy. Though the advanced could only cower in fear towards the samurai who had honed their way of battle for centuries.
Bagley was stubborn, but not a stupid man. Even he felt the devil that Algren took residence with, but a guilty conscience went against his beliefs, so he convinced himself that the emotions that harbored the devil needed to be expunged. “Now that winter has arrived there will be time to prepare and train the army into a sharp, swift machine. We’ll cut away the useless. Their senseless charges will mean nothing to the power of our guns. And this time, we’ll take it to them across open plains, just like I did with the savages back home,” he explained.
“Do not boast now that you’ve already lost,” Omura chided. “The samurai are not without their own tricks. You cannot trust their honorable facades.”
“You’ll get your country handed to you on a platter. Worry about your schemes. I’ll worry about training your army,” Bagley suggested, irritated by Omura’s condescension.
“Perhaps their honor is actually protecting them,” Omura suggested quietly. Bagley scoffed at the notion, knowing that there was no honor in killing, that one had to fully accept and face its ugly, maligned head to reach a fragile inner peace. There were no heroes in war, only the victor that was left barely breathing. After both finishing their tea in the confused western-eastern room, Omura stood up, acknowledging the guard that stood near the door. “We’ll be seeing the emperor now, Colonel.”
Bagley dreaded the high strung customs of the archaic court. He thought that the exotic land was to modernize (westernize), they needed to cut the ties to their old customs, including the sacredness of their emperor god. Anything out of reach, out of his narrow set of eyes was deemed either useless or wasteful, was intolerable, though it could be argued that the revolver he fashioned was equally as useless. He followed Omura out of the room, through a convoluted network of screen doors and wooden paneled pathways, until they reached a room partially concealed by the naked branches of trees coiling through the sky. They entered with their heads lowered. Bagley looked up slightly, showing trivial amounts of defiance towards customs he couldn’t relate to.
The emperor stood, shrouded within the protection of a large silk tent with his attendants lined up rigidly, creating a pathway for Omura and Bagley. The elaborately subtle ritual that had become a daily routine behind the doors of the palace were alienating to Bagley, a man who only cared for the chain of command when it favored himself. Omura walked up just the right number of footsteps ahead of Bagley, conveying his order in hierarchy.
“I apologize for sending those men out there to die,” the emperor said quietly from behind the tent. “We should’ve listened to Captain Algren’s advice.”
“Oh.” Bagley could only sense the remorse, but the words fell on deaf ears.
“No need to apologize to the westerner. We won’t fail again, emperor,” Omura quickly said.
“This country needs to move forwards. Though I had previously hoped a peaceful resolution could’ve been reached between my teacher and I.” The emperor looked with mild regret out the framed window, staring out of a prison, one he was born into. “But we must move forwards,” he repeated to try and convince himself of that. Omura translated the words to Bagley, who could care less for the emperor’s emotional ties.
“We’ll take our leave now emperor,” Omura stated, bowing his head while forcing Bagley to do the same. Both of them left, scheming their next moves, but uncommunicative to each other. Bagley wanted to reclaim his battlefield pride, the pride that led him to savagely conduct the massacre of the Native Americans. Omura imagined the finished, undisturbed railroad that would cut through Japan, delivering him the wealth he had dreamed of.
Katsumoto and Nobutada led the samurai beyond the wintery peaks that protected them, into a village they had taken shelter in since the rebellion began. Nobutada called it home. Katsumoto saw it as his temporary shelter until his relationship with the emperor was smoothed out and the samurai could return honorably to the capital. Nobutada watched as the villagers he led immediately bowed to the passing samurai, a reaction of respect towards the revered warrior gods.
“Take the prisoner to Taka’s. He’ll need some tending to,” Katsumoto ordered. Algren felt a knawing ache beat at the very core of his bones.
“Yes father,” Nobutada complied reluctantly, leading Katsumoto’s horse away to the home he lived in. Taka was at the front door to greet Nobutada and the alienated soul.
“Welcome h…Who is he?” She asked reprehensively.
“Father’s prisoner,” Nobutada replied. “The man who killed your husband.” Nobutada waited for Taka to react, but she simply turned around, walking back inside the house. He pulled Algren up onto the thin platform, helping pull off his shoes, tossing them to the dirt on the ground. “This is just the beginning,” Nobutada whispered to Algren, knowing the two couldn’t understand each other. Although Nobutada only had inklings of where the grand architecture would lead to.
Algren collapsed onto a hard mat, inside, expecting a bed rather than the tatami mat. He looked up and saw a beautiful woman staring at him, though her image blurred and faded along with his consciousness.
“Who…are you?” He asked. Taka ignored his question, not knowing what the words meant. She continued to meticulously stitch Algren’s wounds, some that had accumulated and were left untended to over the course of Algren’s extensive war expeditions. There was a serenity in Algren’s new, unfamiliar surroundings, a quiet, calming feeling he had sought out countless times.
“I need your help, sister,” Nobutada whispered, keeping an eye on Algren.
“What is it? Why do I have to be the one that takes care of this mongrel?” Taka’s suppressed frustration had begun simmer. Emotions were not something she was used to displaying overtly, knowing that it was dishonorable to her family.
“I need you to keep taking care of him,” Nobutada pleaded.
“Get some other housewife to do this,” Taka retaliated loudly. Algren groaned as the two continued to converse, trying to piece together the sounds that made his isolated state feel even more present.
“We need him,” Nobutada whispered.
“Nobutada, are you really going to defy father now that he’s back?” Taka asked, surprised and worried for her brother’s seemingly rash decision making.
“Father reminiscences too much on his younger days when he was a glorious war leader,” Nobutada explained. Taka nodded meekly, suppressing her opinions about Nobutada’s recklessness. She decided to help her brother, hoping her involvment would save him from trouble.
Algren awoke the next morning, staring at the delicately cut, thin strips of wood that made up the ceiling. A sharp pain dug into his shoulder, and most of his body ached from the lack of maintainence. He knew where he was, though he couldn’t fathom why. At some moments of his waking hour, he entertained the notion of suicide, fearing the torture that would eventually lead to a slow death. A woman opened the sliding door gently, holding a tray with tea, setting it down in front of him.
“Who’re you?” He asked, knowing she wouldn’t understand. The woman, Taka, nodded, leaving the room immediately, uninterested in a conversation that would be meaningless, literally. Algren forced himself off the hard surface of the tatami mat, leaning against the wall to support himself. The alien world didn’t seem so savage. He followed Taka out of the room, into a larger one of similar appearance, with a low table at its center.
Nathan Algren wasn’t a man too familiar of the world, though arguably most men were not familiar with the world outside of range of their horses. He carefully stepped off a wooden paneled platform onto the dirt barefoot, stumbling down towards a narrow pathway which the presumed villagers used, carrying various sorts of objects up and down it. Flashes of nightmarish flames jolted his vision, with a field of dead bodies and tents burning. The peaceful village of the present and the ravaged tribe of the past superimposed scenes on each other.
“So you’re awake.” Katsumoto approached Algren, holding out his hand. “I believe this is how one greets another in your culture, no?”
“How do you know…”
“During my time in the capital, it was necessary to learn some english,” Katsumoto interrupted. “Though it may sound crude to you.”
“No…it’s just fine,” Algren noted. “Exceptionally so…” The two shook hands. Algren’s first healthy taste of the village was a familiar sound.
“For a savage?” Katsumoto asked. He turned away and walked back down the pathway towards a large wooden building, disappearing behind the columns. Algren began exploring the village on his own, muted by his language barrier. He was fascinated with the small nuances in the village that differed from the grimy, smog ridden cities and towns he had lived in, unkept, just like his own body. Despite the sharp pain in his shoulders, he felt surprisingly light, unburdened by his flask and heavy clothing. He looked behind and noticed a young man following him, the one he had fired upon.
Nobutada followed Algren from a distance, hoping the captive would come to appreciate what Nobutada had considered routine habits, maybe even fall in love with it. Algren kneeled down, examining the blacksmiths hammering away at the searingly hot blades, still malleable to the touch.
“What precision,” Algren whispered to himself. He stood up when he saw the young man standing in front of him.
“No-bu-ta-da,” Nobutada introduced himself as, slowly pronouncing each syllable for the prisoner. Algren extended his hand out, assuming Nobutada’s motive, but Nobutada didn’t meet his expectations, keeping his hands concealed under the billowing sleeves.
“It’s nice to meet you. The name’s Algren, Nathan Algren.” Algren returned his arm to his side.
“Algren,” Nobutada said, struggling to capture the sound accurately.
“Not bad,” Algren commented. Nobutada nodded and gestured with a head tilt, suggesting to Algren follow him. Nobutada wondered how the east and west would react under different circumstances, without their weapons and the context of war. He led Algren into the largest residence in the village, where Katsumoto stayed. Katsumoto was leaning against a railing, staring out towards the snowy mountains.
“You’re here,” Katsumoto said. Algren nodded in greeting. “You must be wondering why I brought you here.” Nobutada could only pick up inklings of the conversation, trying to piece together the words to form coherent sentences.
“I am,” Algren confirmed.
“Well, I was hoping to keep you here for the winter. We’ll be safe here until the snow passes. Until then, you may wander through our village as our guest. I hope you find what you are looking for. And perhaps somewhere between here and there, now and then, we can reach a cultural understanding.” Katsumoto faced Algren after finishing his thoughts.
“A cultural understanding?” Algren asked.
“You think of us as savages. We demonize the invaders from the west. Perhaps we can dispel those notions between two men on opposite sides of the tumultuous river of ignorance.”
“Is that why you didn’t kill me?” Algren asked.
“You fought bravely. I respect that,” Katsumoto pointed out. “Even as your comrades fled, you stayed the course. That is a fragment of the way of the samurai that you displayed. A fearlessness that I appreciate.” The three men stood quietly in the room, Algren feeling more comfortable in his temporary home than he did in his own country, Nobutada quietly plotting his next move, and Katsumoto reflecting on his hopes of the samurai’s future. “Nobutada, you will teach our guest how to use our swords,” Katsumoto proposed. He switched shortly after to English. “Algren, you will train under my son Nobutada, to learn the way of our life, the importance of our blades.” Algren nodded with the same abandoned attitude he always held, not caring what Katsumoto’s words meant, not worrying over what training entailed.
Nobutada led Algren back to their home. Taka had already made dinner, and sat in a rigid position on the wooden floor, ready to serve the two of them and her children, who had already taken their seats at the center table. Algren mimicked Nobutada’s mannerism as they both sat down. He cautiously made sure his movements were appropriate, or tried to.
“Why is he here?” Taka asked, offended.
“This is part of taking care of him,” Nobutada explained. “I’ll be here when he is.” Taka reluctantly agreed, unable to say more. She began the ritual of portioning bowls of rice for each of the boys and men. Nobutada suddenly broke her process as he stood up and walked over, taking the flat, wooden shamoji from her hand, helping her with the preparations.
“Does it matter who serves?” Nobutada brought the bowls over to the table, before returning to Taka and helping her with the dishes, neatly displayed.
“What’re you doing?”
“Breaking free,” Nobutada answered cryptically. The five quietly sat and ate dinner, with Algren struggling to pick up any of the food. Eventually one of Taka’s children began moving it to his plate for him, with the other laughing overtly at the scene. Taka stared disapprovingly at Algren, uncomfortably shifting her weight with each passing minute. This was no family dinner to be reminiscent of. She couldn’t even bring up the fonder memories of her dead husband, who sat where Algren did.
The next day, Algren and Nobutada began the training, with Algren learning the weight of a wooden blade, mimicking Nobutada’s routines as precisely as he could. Nobutada never said a word during the routines, watching as Algren mastered the static motions. The two began sparring a few weeks later, with Nobutada beating down on Algren, venting his frustration on him, until Algren eventually found the timing to react, barely deflecting the smoothlly dancing footwork and fluid swings of Nobutada’s wooden blade.
Meals had proceeded as they did before, eventually with Nobutada taking over serving duties as Taka would leave the room, unable to confine herself in the presence of Algren, who too had sensed her frustration, but was unsure why. Training had progressed and with each new improvement in Algren’s fighting repoitoire, another step was taken in Algren’s appreciation for the humble village. He sparred with different samurai under Nobutada’s supervision, eventually gaining the better of a few younger ones after a few months into the winter. With each early rise of the sun, he stepped outside for the morning routine with Nobutada and the other samurai.
Algren wrote in a journal, hoping to dispel the demons onto its pages, but miserably miring himself further into his own guilt. The more he described his nightmares, the more they were realized in hallucinations. He wondered if understanding his own shortcomings fully would really free him from his demons, or if the demons would entrench themselves deeper. More time had passed, and more entries had been written, the only improvement being the lack of his flask.
Nobutada watched as Algren was playing with the two children outside in the snow, with Taka supervising, seated next to him.
“When will he leave?” She asked.
“When the snow melts and the color of spring arrives.”
“What a pain,” she whispered to herself.
“Just a few more weeks,” Nobutada reassured. Taka nodded, reluctantly suppressing her frustrations once more. The winter continued to descend on the village. Nobutada sat facing the sunrise every morning now, mapping out what he thought was the right calculated move. He never wrote a word down, or spoke of anything. He needed more allies, and the samurai were not ready to face a truth other than his father’s absolute one.
There was a theatrical play set up as winter began to melt away, one that injected the nostalgia of the past, when the samurai had established themselves as the class of privilege. Algren sat with Katsumoto, Nobutada, Taka, and her children, watching masked men dance on stage. Algren watched intently, as if he was analyzing and attempting to understand, trying to learn the language through listening. Nobutada knew at that point that the first small, but significant step had come to full realization.
A rustle in the trees, and a subtle footstep caught Nobutada’s attention. He stood up, with his hand on the hilt of his blade. Katsumoto ignored his son’s paranoia, continuing to watch the play unfold, in a fond remembrance of a time his son could not understand. Nobutada heard another sound from the back of the audience, walking up towards the shadows of the forest’s edge. As he peered in, a hand reached out, grabbing onto his large sleeve and pulling him into the forest. The last words he heard were the shouts of Taka and Katsumoto, their footsteps disappearing as he became enveloped by the branches.
The blindfolds were pulled off a few minutes later, and ten young men and women, dressed in all black, covering everything except their eyes, stood before Nobutada.
“Were you sent by the imperial government?” Nobutada asked cautiously. No one answered him. None of the silhouettes moved. “Who’re you?” There was still no answer. Their gazes were steady, and Nobutada realized he was cornered against the trunk of a naked tree. One of them eventually walked up, pulling off the black mask.
“We are no one to be remembered,” a young man answered calmly. “We are the ones who will smite the oppressive ones and save the Japanese people. We are the Eleven Farmers.”
“Who’s the eleventh?” Nobutada asked.