Title: Watching The End of an Era
Fandom: The Last Samurai
Summary: Simon Graham's thoughts on Captain Algren and the events of his return. Something of a stream of conciousness piece. One shot.
Disclaimer: The Last Samurai belongs to Warner Brothers studios and also to the actors who made the characters come alive.
The first warning I had that something was happening were the screams as everybody, including the two geishas I was photographing scrambled to clear the middle of the road and a hush fell while everybody stood there, silently bowing. Then I saw them. Samurai. Something I hadn't seen in Tokyo for a long time. Coming down the center of the road. Expecting everybody to clear the road for them. They were still too distant for me to clearly make out any individual faces, but there was a flashing appearance of one in a brief gap, familiar, then gone again, hidden behind the bulk of the other riders. Was it? Could it be? No.
He was dead. He had to be. His body was never found, although his sword was, lying abandoned and trampled in the dirt near several enemy bodies. Not like the body of the General, found beheaded some distance away. Nothing was said officially, but the rumors suggested that his death had been some sort of a ritual. Knowing that the General himself was samurai, and knowing what I have translated, I suspect that there was indeed truth in the rumors so often denied. And, that the beheading had been a mercy. Within minutes the group was close enough that I could see that the familiar figure was indeed that of Captain Algren, dressed in his uniform, just as I had last seen him. That alone made him stand out from the others – all wearing the traditional Japanese dress. Not to mention the two swords of the Samurai. Two swords that it has since been made illegal to wear in the streets. And yet, somehow in that brief moment, it seemed to me as if he belonged there among them.
After that ill-fated, foggy autumn morning was over, I never expected to see the Captain again. My last sight of him that day was looking back briefly as he ordered the terrified troops into place for the battle to come. Surely he was going to join us at the rear momentarily. That was what the Captain had been ordered to do after all. But he never did.
Now he is here again, dismounting in the streets of Tokyo as if nothing had happened to him at all, much less an entire season's captivity. I am glad to see the Captain – unpredictable as ever in proving to be alive when everybody believed him to be dead. But, he seems to be almost friendly with his escort – an escort that I now recognized to be Katsumoto himself, the leader of the rebel Samurai. Someone I should have recognized before. What ever happened to Captain Algren over the winter? Probably I shall never know. I doubt I will ever ask, despite my curiosity. Not like that evening which I blame on the sake. Then, the Captain terrified me himself with that knife. The next day simply confirmed his unpredictability. Standing there, in front of the soldiers, ordering them to shoot at him! Oh, he quite made his point that they weren't ready, but the risk to himself, even given how terrible their shooting was... I wonder if that was what he wanted?
I didn't have a chance to say anything to the Captain then on his return as he rightfully had other things to do in order to sort out a life that everybody else had believed over, nor really, the next time I saw him as he left the office of Minister Omura in some kind of a fury. That time we started to talk when circumstances interrupted us. A group of army soldiers had come upon a Samurai wearing both the top-knot and his swords in violation of the new laws. Laws I suspect he might not have even known of. Captain Algren proved himself then to be just as unpredictable as I had remembered him to be. Where most people would have stood aside, myself included, he pushed himself into the middle of the situation, I think, in hopes of defusing it, which shouldn't have been possible once the Samurai had begun to draw his sword. Offended at the actions of the soldiers around him, I rather guess. They are a proud and touchy lot. Unpredictable themselves, going by the books I've read and translated.
No western man should have been able to prevent the massacre about to happen in the street before my eyes, and yet somehow, the Captain managed it. The Samurai in blue didn't resist the soldiers actions – some of which, frankly, I found myself horrified by. They may have been right in the eyes of the law, but the way they went about it...kicking and shoving their victim. I wonder if he was somebody the Captain knew from the winter? Although why he'd listen to somebody who'd been his prisoner, I don't know. I had to turn away and leave...
The next time I saw Captain Algren was late that same evening. Dirty, wary, and clutching several of the Samurai blades as though he knew how to use them, but uninjured. During our talk then, I was able to find out just what had happened to the man to put him in that state. A fight. One where he'd been surrounded by a group of armed men while he himself was unarmed. And yet, he'd managed to first arm himself by taking the weapons, and then defend himself successfully. To be honest, my mind still shies away from the truth of that night: that he defended himself by killing them all – even their leader, who I recognized from the Captain's description as being one of Minister Omura's men, which chilled me to the bone. I know Captain Algren recognized him too, because as he said, the two had shared the shipboard journey from America. That birthmark was rather distinctive. The whole thing sounded like a passage from one of the old Japanese tales rather than anything one would expect from modern times.
I'm beginning to wonder just who the enemy really is here: Katsumoto, the leader of the rebels, or Omura, Minister to the Emperor. Or, is it both of them? From the things I've seen and heard on my own, confirmed by what Captain Algren says, it sounds as though it might just be Omura. Apparently, Captain Algren was told by his superior officer that "Katsumoto's been arrested, and Omura won't let him last the night". Not the Emperor, Omura. And Omura sent men to murder Captain Algren – somebody I know that the Emperor holds an interest in. It was to him that that revered man spoke that first day, and not any of the others. And, he spoke in English – at least a bit. Although, his last words were more likely directed at the whole group.
Or, perhaps it might be better to ask who's on each of the two sides. Omura is the one who had Katsumoto arrested earlier, according to the gossip I've heard. The Emperor didn't say a word either way. Omura is the one the American Ambassador has been talking to in the treaty negotiations. Omura is in charge of the new army. Perhaps it's not the Emperor the Samurai are rebelling against, and instead it's Omura and his commands.
I'm still not sure how I ended up helping Captain Algren break Katsumoto out of his imprisonment. Some fast talking on the Captain's part, for the most part, I think. That and shock at what had happened to him. Beyond that, my memory's a bit foggy. But, it proved something that I was definitely beginning to suspect: that the Captain had been more than a prisoner in Katsumoto's stronghold.
No sooner had he gathered my agreement with his plan then Captain Algren hustled me off with him to find some allies. That alone would have proved to me that he had become friendly at the least with his captors, had I not already been certain of it, for it took only a very short time for the man to find the samurai who the solders had earlier victimized, his hair still straggling loose around his face, and with him, three others who were still fully armed. Clearly, he had known where they were. But then, as I watched, he conversed with the four just outside of my hearing range for several minutes. Although I couldn't hear the words enough to make them out, I could tell that he was speaking Japanese. Just as his subordinate and friend, Gant had predicted he would be all those months ago.
A moment later, he was back, bringing me into the group where he explained the plan they had come up with. One, I was frankly doubtful would work as they said it would. For one thing, I was expected to get them and their weapons past the guards on the way in without anyone becoming suspicious, and then the six of them would fight us out.
What if one of the guards recognizes Captain Algren? I could probably bluff my way in, and the plan counted on my being recognized as a photographer and translator, but Algren needed to be unrecognized. That alone would blow the whole plan. Either way, it only took a few minutes for the group to be ready to go – costumed as rickshaw drivers, complete with two stolen rickshaws, it was doubtful that anyone would recognize them at a glance! The hats alone made it almost impossible to see their faces, and hid any visible signs of their Samurai status such as the now-forbidden top-knot. It was also quite simple, though nerve-wracking to hide their weapons – bows, arrows and swords, including some of the 'extras' the Captain had acquired amongst my cameras, tripods and equipment. Those drew no little comment from the disguised Samurai, in both English and Japanese – presumably to make it easier for the Captain to understand them. But none of it was disapproval for his actions. I'm sure I heard one of them – the one who he'd tried to help earlier today, express his approval at how well their 'prisoner' had learned while living in the village. I get the feeling that tonight may not have been the first time he's fought with their swords. If it hadn't already been clear that the Captain had been more than a prisoner, it would have been so then. Valued friend might be closer to what he'd become. I'd like to find out the whole story one day. I doubt I ever will though.
Then came the most terrifying moment of my life to that point: getting the Captain and the others past the guards. I've come close to battles before, but never been involved with something so important that hinged on my actions alone. The plan worked to get us in, much to my surprise, even with the 'mistake' I made. At least, that's what I told the Captain had happened, though it was actually intentional. I needed to make him out to be somebody that was too important to be stopped. I'm a bit surprised that the Captain understood me, even though he clearly spoke some Japanese. It took me several years to become as fluent as I am now, and I still miss some of the subtleties sometimes. Captain Algren has only had a season to learn.
Katsumoto was certainly willing to escape with us. I think he knew his fate otherwise. I saw the dagger lying in front of the kneeling man briefly when we first entered, before he made it vanish. Something that Captain Algren was completely aware of as well, I believe, given his determination to get there as soon as possible this evening. Still, he observed the proper courtesies, even given the Captain's casualness. Something I could never have even approximated, given the differences in their station. Not that it surprised the Samurai leader one bit that I could tell. His invitation to me to photograph the village crystallized something for me that I really hadn't considered though with my actions – that I had now, apparently, thrown in my lot with the rebels and essentially had nowhere else to go.
I'm not sure how to describe the next series of events. I've never been in any fights at all, so to me the whole thing was an endless series of smoke, noise and screams in the darkness. I could see the young Samurai the Captain had been with earlier in the day firing off arrows into the darkness, and I knew there had to be one more of them somewhere nearby. I just couldn't see him anywhere.
Just how real the danger was in our venture came when that same young man was wounded. Until then, it seemed as though we were all going to make it out safely. The wound was obviously bad, but he kept crawling along the bridge towards us, even though it was clear that he'd never make it. From the way Katsumoto had to be held back from returning for him, he clearly was somebody important to him. I only found out later that Nobutata, as the young samurai was named, was Katsumoto's son. Captain Algren was able to bring the man back to us though, but it was obvious, at least to them that he was dying. It felt wrong to be watching the scene unraveling before me, the one that was their farewell, and yet I couldn't turn away. The Samurai can seem so stoic and emotionless, but clearly that is not so. Nothing was said aloud, but everyone could see how this turn of events grieved them both.
Even dying, Katsumoto's son was able to hold them off long enough for us to get away, though I believe the Captain stayed behind for a minute or two. Perhaps to make sure we made it out, or perhaps for some other reason. Either way, he came running up after us as we gathered outside the property.
The next night, and each thereafter on the journey, the Captain and Katsumoto shared a fire. Perhaps talking, perhaps planning, or maybe just sitting in silence. Yet, where I was an outsider and knew it, the Captain fit right in with them, even, as I thought last time I saw him with them, in his western clothes. Throughout that trip I had little time to talk with him, and none of the others had the time to talk either. We were, I think, all very aware of the army that was mobilizing behind us. That was something I have to admit that I was trying very hard not to think about.
It was those last days in the village that really proved to me just how much one of them Captain Algren had become. Where I remained in the clothes I had worn ever since I helped them break Katsumoto free – they were all I had with me, the Captain was soon wearing native dress. Of course he must have over the winter before, but I just hadn't realized. And one time, I came across him just sitting, the way they do, with his eyes closed. He didn't look foolish at all, either. He seemed to be as much a leader there as Katsumoto himself in that last day or so under the shadow of the army outside the village.
Again, we had no time to talk – not even in the evenings. Where the Captain was living with a woman with two young children, obviously of rank in the village, I had been quartered with another family. It was only later that I found out that the family Captain Algren was living with was that of Katsumoto's sister-in-law. And, more shockingly, that he'd killed her husband in that battle where we thought he'd been killed. And yet, somehow, he'd become friendly with both her and the children.
During the day, Captain Algren was busy planning their defenses with Katsumoto and the Samurai he had with him. They knew. They knew just as he did something that was making itself clear to me as I watched: that they were doomed. Bows, arrows and swords against rifles and cannon. They knew that there was no way they could win this, and yet they planned the fight anyway.
I did just what Katsumoto had invited me to do: photograph the village and the people living there. I could be no help with the planning, although once or twice, Katsumoto or one of the other men in the village did ask me to translate or clarify something with Captain Algren where their English and his Japanese weren't clear enough. The rest of the time I photographed the Samurai and their families. People who were soon going to be dead, the last of their kind. Whether or not that invitation had just been a courtesy, a cover for a necesity because I'd have had to have come along anyway, I took it seriously and did my best to make a record of their final preparations and dying way of life for the future. At the same time, I began to see perhaps, what it was that had drawn the Captain to them.
That last morning before the battle began, the Captain surprised more than me, I think, coming out in Samurai armor, but they approved. I hesitate to think what the Captain's friend Gant would have said, given the way he'd mocked their armor and customs that day before he died and the Captain was captured. Probably he wouldn't have understood at all. I don't fully understand myself, and yet it seems "right".
Then, Katsumoto gave the sword he was holding to the Captain. "Gave" isn't the right word at all, presented might be a better one, there was more going on there than that, but there was no ceremony to it at all. I couldn't make out what they said, but Captain Algren bowed in return as he took it.
With that, they rode out to their chosen field of battle, Katsumoto and Captain Algren at the head of the party. I rode with them, though much farther back. It was the first time I've been a part of something like that that I've read about, and even seen – when I saw them ride into the city with the Captain before all this happened. The villagers all lined the road and bowed as we galloped past.
The ride wasn't long at all. Maybe a half an hour at most before whe drew up to a halt behind some hills. About half of the group, myself included continued past those hills to where they'd set up some kind of wooden barricades. From there I could clearly see the army facing us across the field, standing in neat rows in their black or navy uniforms. I couldn't clearly make out the colours, but I could see just how badly they outnumbered us. By comparison, Katsumoto's forces appeared to be a disorganized rabble, but as Captain Algren had once said, they were a people who had spent the last thousand years studying war, warfare and their chosen weapons of sword, spear and bow. Still, the odds of many of them surviving this were very tiny.
While I had been standing there, a bit like a fool, I guess, Katsumoto and the Captain had ridden out to the middle of the field to meet their opposing numbers, the leaders of the Imperial army. They weren't there long before riding back, so I guess neither side had much to say. We all knew why we were here, after all. On Captain Algren's return he sought me out to give me a bundle, part of which was contained in a beaded leather bag, but the rest was bound together on top – papers and books for the most part. He said it might be useful for my book. Amazing that he remembered my comment from so many months ago, really. As he turned to go, I wished him good luck. I think he knew what I was really saying, however, which was more of a "goodbye". I didn't really expect him to live through the battle. Something I think he didn't expect either, nor any of the Samurai in the group. Katusmoto had suggested a place I might view the battle from in moderate safety: a nearby hilltop, so I made my way there, rather than risk being caught up in the confusion. I made it to the top in time to see the final preparations.
It was only after that that the battle began. The whole thing was a chaotic mass of noise and smoke: booms and thuds from the cannon, screams from the injured, and it looked as if the battle was going to be over with just the one exchange, but no, that was something they'd planned I guess.
At times over the next hours, I thought they might even be able to win, from what I could see under the pall of smoke, but then the army would bring up more men, or new guns. That last charge was something. Maybe fifty of them were still alive, a hundred at most, and they lined up under the heavy smoke covering the battlefield to charge the enemy's ground. They made it through the army, and the way seemed clear, but then it was almost as though they ran into an invisible wall. Horses, riders, and running men all started to jerk and tumble to the ground. None made it beyond that point. It must have been the new guns the Americans have.
Then the guns fell silent, and I thought everyone had been killed. Looking more carefully, I could see that there were two figures there still alive, one of whom was wearing the red armor of Captain Algren. The other must have been Katsumoto. They were kneeling, I think, leaning on one another, most likely unable to move any further. Then the second figure jerked twice before slowly collapsing, dead. But, the advancing spots that were all I could see of the Japanese army surrounding them stopped, and, I think, bowed to the two. Not the bow you see in everyday activities, a greeting and acknowledgment, but a full bow: kneeling with the head to the ground. The kind of bow depicted in the ancient paintings of the Emperor, or other great persons. One of greatest respect.
That was when it struck me what I must have been seeing. As a Samurai would when defeated, he had committed seppuku, their ritualized suicide, although not in the normal form, with Captain Algren acting as his second. To the Japanese, even with the outlawing of the Samurai, that was an act of greatest honor both to participate in and to witness. I can't help but wonder what the Captain knows about it, but I'll never know for sure. I suspect he was badly wounded there too, and even if the wounds themselves weren't enough to kill him, I doubt that the army will let him live – especially if Omura himself is in charge of it.
Now, standing in the formal chamber in front of the Emperor again, I'm still not sure how the Captain survived both the army and his wounds, although I suspect it has a great deal to do with the junior officer there – the one the Captain had trained himself so long ago.
He's nowhere near fully healed either, but the Captain felt that now was the only time he could do this, before the treaty is signed – whatever it is that he intends. He hasn't shared his plans with me, and I haven't asked. And so, dressed in his full dress uniform as an American Army Captain, but carrying Katsumoto's sword in a ceremonial cloth bag, Captain Algren made his way slowly past the rows of standing dignitaries to stand in front of the Emperor. The only sign of his injuries on that walk is a pronounced limp, but they show through again in his next actions, when he fumbled a bit as he dropped into a kneeling position, and then a full, Japanese bow, the way the soldiers had for Katsumoto on the battlefield.
The Captain's speech reached my emotions, and even from the far end of the room, I could see that he was affecting the Emperor as he presented him with his teacher's sword, even with the interruptions being made by Minister Omura, who had made it back from the battlefield completely unscathed.
In the near-complete silence of the chamber, I could, with difficulty make out what Captain Algren and the Emperor were saying, and it shocked me deeply – although I now wonder why. For, the Captain had followed Samurai tradition from the start of this encounter and was now offering the Emperor his own life. An offer that the Emperor clearly chose not to take. Even in the drama of the moment, I found myself wondering where and how the Captain had found out about the etiquette he was now following, much less how much he actually knew about it. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would have come up in the village normally, which is where I believe he learned most of everything else about Japanese culture.
Instead, the Emperor took full control of the meeting, something almost unheard of, and ended the treaty negotiations abruptly. The American ambassador stormed out, completely ignoring all the rules of protocol, and more or less, offending everybody in the room.
Omura was, I suspect, arguing against that decision, although at first I couldn't make out what he and the Emperor were saying to each other. Only a minute or two later though, they were shouting rapidly in Japanese, again something unheard of. From the back of the room, I couldn't catch all of what they said; something about confiscating all of Omura's properties for the people, and a protest in return.
However, the Emperor's actions needed no translation whatsoever, when he offered Omura Katsumoto's sword. That was an invitation for the man to do exactly what the Captain, still kneeling impasively below, had offered to do before: take his life in the manner of a Samurai who felt himself to be dishonored. It was an invitation that the Minister turned down, proving what kind of a person he was by their culture.
With that, the most powerful man in the room turned back to the Captain and quietly asked him another question, and the focus of the room turned away from the disgraced Minister. I don't think we are through with him though. All in the room have become his enemies, just by virtue of being there to see his disgrace and shame, for I believe Omura to be a proud man. I think I will be watching my back for a while, as well as keeping an eye on the Captain to see what he does next. For now, though, he has the attention of the Emperor, which should be enough to keep him safe until he is healed fully.