Jules Brunet: The Real-Life Hero Who Inspired ‘The Last Samurai’

September 29, 2020Matt Fratus
Coffee or Die Photo

The Last Samurai hit the box office in 2003 and grabbed the attention of both movie critics and historians. The film was nominated for four Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Its story follows Capt. Nathan Algren, an American Civil War cavalry officer who was sent to the Empire of Japan to provide Western tactics and training to the Imperial Japanese Army. Played by Tom Cruise, Algren instead is forced to side with the armies of the shogunate in the rebellion against the emperor’s modern forces.

Although the premise for The Last Samurai is historical fiction, the likeness of Algren was based on a real French officer named Jules Brunet

The artillery expert had received the Légion d’Honneur — France’s highest military award for valor — during the French Intervention of Mexico between 1862 and 1864. Napoleon III trusted Brunet to lead a group of French military advisers to Japan in 1867. Their purpose was to help modernize the army of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu

Brunet and another Frenchman named Capt. André Cazeneuve joined Tokugawa at a palace in Japan’s capital city of Kyōto in January 1868. The Satsuma and Chōshū clans, two powerful and radical groups of samurai, however, blocked their path and announced an imperial restoration in favor of the “restored” Meiji Emperor. The Satsuma-Chōshū samurai had influenced the emperor to join their cause with the belief the shogun had mishandled international trading settlements and allied with Western philosophies that affected the local economy.

Jules Brunet coffee or die
The French military mission before its departure to Japan. Jules Brunet is seated in front, second from right, 1866. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Initially the shogun accepted the coup d’état, but the French advisers refused to swallow their challenge without a fight. 

For the next four days the shogun’s estimated 15,000-strong army was decimated during the bloody Battle of Fushimi Toba (also known as the Battle of Toba Fushimi). The first of many battles of the rebellion during the Boshin War saw the Satsuma-Chōshū — numerically inferior in the size of their 5,000-man force — overcome the shogun’s outdated weaponry with valued military equipment. 

The French military advisers had limited supplies, but they were battle-hardened and gained respect for the samurai code under which the shogun’s army operated. Still foreign to the technological advancements of the 19th-century industrial West, the shogunate forces relied on traditional weapons and tactics. These were supported by the French implementations of trained rifle brigades. Some of the French advisers adopted samurai attire, including Eugène Collache, a naval officer who went AWOL to support the rebellion.

Starting at 5 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1868, the shogun’s swordsmen and pikemen were fired upon from American- and French-made rifles. Throughout the battle they braced accurate fire from cannons, howitzers, and even Gatling guns. 

Jules Brunet coffee or die
A painting by Jules Brunet depicting Japanese Bakufu Infantry, April 29, 1867. The soldier is named “Ootsuka Tsukataroo.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An imperial decree ordered the French advisers to return home from Japan. Brunet refused the order, resigned from his position in the French army, and fled to the north to rejoin shogunate forces. 

“A revolution is forcing the Military Mission to return to France,” Brunet wrote Napoleon III. “Alone I stay, alone I wish to continue, under new conditions, the results obtained by the Mission, together with the Party of the North, which is the party favorable to France in Japan. Soon a reaction will take place, and the Daimyos of the North have offered me to be its soul. I have accepted, because with the help of one thousand Japanese officers and non-commissioned officers, our students, I can direct the 50,000 men of the Confederation.” 

His vision would not materialize, as the shogun’s forces were no match for the new imperial government. Brunet returned to France, later served in the Franco-Prussian War where he was taken prisoner in 1870, and rose to the rank of general and chief of staff of the French minister of war in 1898. Jules Brunet’s military service career might have inspired a movie, but his artwork depicting the battles he fought in captured the essence of the modern samurai.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved