Towards a Narratological Reading of Edward Zwick’s "The Last Samurai"

Essay, 2020

6 Pages, Grade: 14

Free online reading

Toward a Narratological Reading of Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai by the American director, Edward Zwick, is an historical film. It triggers off historical events that constitute the collective memory of both Japan and the United States of America exemplified by Tom Cruise as Nathan Algren and Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto. Other contributions of Zwick to this filmic genre include Glory as well as Legends of the Fall. The film has received a great deal of criticism. For instance, while reading reviews on the website of IMDb, critics from different journals including Rolling Stone, The Guardian and San Francisco Chronicle dwell heavily on themes such as representation, stereotyping, otherness and cross-cultural encounters. Therefore, it is useful to read the film from a narratological perspective. In fact, it is hard to break the whole narrative sequences of the film into unites as narratologists usually do. Thus, this paper puts into emphasis only the first sequence of the film, which starts from 00:20 to 01:50 sec and the last sequence, which also begins from 02:23:04 until the screen fades out. What makes both scenes significant is the character of Graham for the reason that the film starts and finishes by his voice. Narratively speaking, it is worth to apply some of the prominent theories of narratology mainly Roland Barthes’ five codes as well as Vladimir Propp’s seven spheres of action. In order to achieve a thorough analysis, the paper will adopt a comparative study of The Last Samurai in relation to a variety of literary and cinematic works particularly Dances with Wolves.

The first sequence opens with Graham, an English journalist whose thick voice is reminiscent of the king of voice-overs, Morgan Freeman. As in the plays of Shakespeare, Graham plays the role of the prologue. That is, he exposes the story for the audience by setting the place of the narrative. The myth says that Japan was made by a sword and the drops of the ocean became the Islands of Japan. Filmmakers usually use the technique of the voice-over to tell stories or rather to comment on a particular event. This technique is non-diegetic because the voice of Graham here does not take place in the narrative. The term diegesis stands for “the narrated world or storyworld. The adjective diegetic means ‘belonging to the narrated world’ (Schmid, p. 6). While Graham is speaking, the camera shifts its focus to the character of Katsumoto by zooming in. In this way, the lens of the camera moves from extreme long shots to mere extreme close ups. After the panoramic establishment of the setting, the camera zooms and delves into the depths of Katsomuto’s inner mind to foreshadow the coming of Algren through the narrative device of prolepsis. The filmmaker juxtaposes the eyes of the tiger with those of Katsumoto. This juxtaposition foretells Algren’s adoption of the samurai. The filmmaker makes use of close up shots while Katsumoto is in moments of meditation in order to highlight his spirituality and divinity. The first sequence brings into our minds the philosophy of transcendentalism particularly the volume of verse, Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. As Katsumoto, throughout the poem Song of Myself, Whitman celebrates his individuality in relation to God and nature (Whitman, 18). During the prolepsis, a change occurs at the level of visual effects. First, the filmmaker uses slow motion particularly when the Samurais surround the tiger who is a metaphor for Algren. Second, there is change of light to blue blurred with smoke in order to give the effect of anticipation and predicting the future as in Sci-Fi films. Concerning sound effects, the sequence starts by an asynchronous Japanese flute and finishes with the roar of the tiger to show the climactic and progressive nature of the narrative scheme throughout the whole film.

Before dealing with the last sequence, it is worth noting that the film includes multiple narratives. Unlike Graham, Algren is a homodiegetic narrator in the sense that he is the narrator and the protagonist at the same time. Thus, one of the significant voice-overs is that of Algren because it deconstructs those stereotypes drawn about the Japanese and the Far East as whole. In this vein, The Last Samurai is similar to Western revisionist films particularly Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch starring with Johnny Depp. Besides, The Last Samurai pastiches Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. There is a great deal of intertextuality between both films especially at the level of narration. For instance, the two protagonists end up by embracing the culture of the Other. Thus, they become as Victor Segalen puts it an exot. Segalen invented the term in order to refer to someone who undergoes the experience of diversity and exoticism. He also uses the term of “bovarysm” to illustrate how “diversity lies at the very core of the individual, who imagine himself as an other” (Segalen, p. 74). The motif of the notebook is a microcosmic metaphor of intertextuality between both films because it includes the same paintings of the Native Americans. Some people call them Red Indians since the term Native American is paradoxical in nature. A native is someone who is close to the state of nature while America symbolizes civilization. The American literary canon including Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Hemingway’s Indian Camp have also a great influence on the imagination of Zwick particularly in shaping the title and themes as death and life.

The last sequence is very significant because the film reaches the dénouement. Graham appears in a middle shot denouncing the end of the story “and so the days of the Samurai had ended” (Zwick, 02:23:00). However, Graham is not the godlike narrator who knows everything because at one stage he himself declares, “no one knows what became of him” (Zwick, 02:23:16). In this way, the third omniscient narrator will interfere and give the film its missing piece by showing the return of Algren to the village of the Samurai.

Any particular text be it a novel, poem, film or a song has a plot and a narrative structure. The literary critic, Frank Kermode suggests that even the ticking of the clock has a begging and an end. That is, the tick and the tock (Kermode quoted by Culler, p. 83). Although some critics believe that narratology is a branch of structuralism, it is as old as history itself. It dates back to the Greek philosopher and the first literary critic, Aristotle, who set up the main foundations of the dramatic plot in his seminal book, Poetics. This will lead us to one of the earliest Russian formalist narratologists, Vladimir Propp. Russian Formalism is a literary school of criticism, which appeared in Russia. It came as a reaction against other schools of criticism such as Marxism, which focuses mainly on the biographical and socioeconomic background of the text. Thus, just like structuralism, Russian Formalist sheds light on literariness that is what makes a literary text a piece of literature. Vladimir Propp was neglected for a long time. However, Claude Levi Strauss rediscovered Propp particularly his book, The Morphology of the Folktale, in which Propp breaks down Russian folktales into seven spheres of action, which are as the following: The villain, the donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero (Barry, p. 226-28). The application of Propp’s seven spheres of action to The Last Samurai is ambivalent in the sense that the villain may turn out to be the helper at the end. For instance, in the beginning of the film, Algren falls as a captive in the hands of the enemy. However, later on, we figure out that the real villain is the American army. In other words, it was the American colonel, the dispatcher, who sent the hero for a long journey to modernize the Japanese army. The helper and the donor are exemplified in the character of Katsumoto since he helped Algren to recover and restore his strength. In the last sequence, Omura is revealed to be the false hero of the narrative through his discussion with the emperor. Then, the hero goes back to the village where he left his princess.

Barthes’ theory of the five codes appeared in in his S/Z. This book discusses Balzac’s short story, Sarrasine, in more than two hundred pages. First, the hermeneutic code of Barthes lies in the way the writer of a narrative delay the answer to a later stage (Barthes quoted by Graham, p86). This code works better with detective stories. Yet, the title of the film is itself enigmatic. The question of who is the last samurai is left open for interpretations. Second, the proairetic code is about actions and their effects (Graham, p87). The catalyst event of the film is the first encounter of the imperial Japanese army with the Samurai when Algren is taken as a captive. This event gives rise to a chain of enigmas and actions in motion. Besides, both codes are about the narrative device of suspense. Therefore, it is worth to include the subplot, which revolves around the characters of Algren and Taka. The development of the love relationship between both characters tantalizes suspense of the audience up until the end of the film when Algren comes back to the village. The three remaining codes tackle mainly the problematic of meaning inside the text. The symbolic code highlights all the oppositional and antithetical items including themes and characterization. The semic code is concerned with connotations and the development of characters and ultimately comes the cultural code, which evokes the cultural background of all what is a common knowledge (Graham; 87). The majority of themes in the film are based on antagonism such as the dichotomy of death and life, tradition and modernity, East and West. The semic code is about detonation and connotation. In other words, the surface and the underlying meaning. Sinking deep into the unconscious of the film, we conclude that modernity should not be a break from tradition. On the contrary, modernity must build its tenets on tradition as it is written on the motif of the sword “I belong to the warrior in whom the old ways have joined the new” (Zwick, 01:52:10).

The Last Samurai is a complex film for what it holds of connotations. It is not only about action and war. The film transcends itself to what is cultural. Besides, the film is significant when it comes to narratology. Obviously, Zwick had been influenced by a variety of films as well as literary works before his The Last Samurai came into existence. For instance, the character of Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances with Wolves follows the same narrative scheme of Algren. Besides, Zwick draws an analogy between the experience of the Japanese and that of the Red Indians. Moreover, the character of Graham grants the film the narrative dimension of storytelling. As readers, we understand that the journal Algren gave to Graham is what makes the story. Ultimately, the ambivalence of narrators gives more suspense to the film. While dealing with Propp’s seven spheres of action and Barthes’s five codes, it becomes apparent that the film is not set in a forward narrative. Thus, it becomes hard to decide which is which and who is who.

Work Cited

Barry Peter, Beginning Theory. Manchester UK. Manchester University Press. 2002

Costner, Kevin. Dances with Wolves. Tig Productions. 1990

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York. Oxford University Press. 1997.

The Last Samurai. IMDb. < >. Accessed: 23/12/2019

Graham Allen. Roland Barthes. New York. Routledge. 2003

Schmid, Wolf. Narratology: An Introduction. Berlin. De Gruyter. 2010

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, N.Y. Rosing Digital Publication. 1855

Zwick, Edward. The Last Samurai. Warner Bros. 2003


6 of 6 pages


Towards a Narratological Reading of Edward Zwick’s "The Last Samurai"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
towards, narratological, reading, edward, zwick’s, last, samurai
Quote paper
Issam El Masmodi (Author), 2020, Towards a Narratological Reading of Edward Zwick’s "The Last Samurai", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Towards a Narratological Reading of Edward Zwick’s "The Last Samurai"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free