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.
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Boshin War saw the Satsuma-Chōshū — numerically inferior in the size of their 5,000-man force — overcome the shogun’s outdated weaponry with valued military equipment.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.
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.