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The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori Paperback – February 7, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Within the complicated chronology of the Tokugawa shogunate's fall and succession by a modernizing monarchy, the so-called Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 is clearly the definitive last stand of Japanese feudalism. For that reason, the life of Saigo Takamori, who headed that rebellion, has acquired a romantic aura that doesn't strictly withstand Ravina's historical scrutiny; nevertheless, what survives the author's inspection contributes to an interesting portrait of a samurai in interesting times. Saigo rose from the bottom tiers of the warrior class, eventually leading the armies supporting the emperor against those of the shogun. His ascent was hardly smooth, though, entailing two exiles, a suicide pact that he survived, and three marriages. Ravina recounts the tumults that resulted in Saigo's acquiescence in revolt, capturing the protagonist's struggle with loyalty and showing American readers the quality of enigmatic nobility that makes Saigo a well-known historical figure in Japan. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“In a pacy narrative that reads like a thriller, Ravina follows Takamori through his last battle…” (Good Book Guide, April 2005)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (February 7, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471705373
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471705376
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,860 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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68 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Nick Jamilla on December 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Ravina's The Last Samurai is an excellent study high on specifics in an academic subject which is often superficial and generalized. It's not a book about generals, tactics, and weapons, but a look at an idealistic and passionate man who also happened to be a samurai.
Casual readers should know right from the start that this book is an academic text with extensive annotations and a large bibliography. It is not a difficult book to read, but a fuller knowledge of Japanese history would give the book a richer historical context in which Saigo Takamori lived. With that said, I only wish Ravina had included a substantive biographical glossary of the people with whom Saigo lived and communicated. The importance of people like Okubo, Kido, and Itagaki are far understated in the text. A minor peeve are the date notations which can be confusing at times, but it reflects Ravina's conscious decision to put accuracy at the forefront of his research. Historical method is certainly the defining characteristic which makes The Last Samurai a definitive text in English (as well as in Japanese, when and if it ever gets translated).
One would have wished for a more complete examination of the alleged assassination attempt on Saigo's life for it is offered as a critical pretext for his revolt against the Meiji government. If the conspiracy to take his life were conclusively true, then Saigo could be seen as reacting in self-defense to preserve not only the independence of the Satsuma fief, but also his personal honor. If untrue, Saigo could just as easily be accused of supporting an opportunistic rebellion.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By C. Middleton on October 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"Where is Saigo Takamori's head?"

Thus begins Mark Ravina's intriguing and amazingly detailed historical narrative of Japan's enduring hero of its traditional cultural ways, the way of the Samurai. As Ravina ponders, why did finding Takamori's head matter: because it represented one of the oldest traditions of the warrior class. At the final battle between the rebel forces against the Meiji state on the morning of September 24, 1877, in which the rebel forces were defeated, by presenting the severed head of this legendary defeated warrior, it displayed honour, and offering the head to the lord as tribute, this showed great respect for the Samurai class as a whole. (This was a contradiction, as the Meniji state had been suppressing the Samurai tradition for some time) It was highly symbolic that Takamori's head could not be found, which the author exams with great erudition and depth.

Saigo Takamori continues to be revered in Japan because he has come to represent the true Japan, medieval Japan, before the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rise of the Meiji state, which ironically, Saigo Takamori played a major role that contributed to their rise and fall, respectively. Takamori was at once a great traditionalist and reformer. He practiced the old ways and believed passionately in the basic virtues of the Samurai, though at the same time realised the great need for his country to reform. In the end, he knew that Japan had to retain its cultural heritage, all that was good and positive, but he also realized the need to move with the west. He believed the west was advanced in many ways, politically, yet cultural anomalies such as ballroom dancing, he utterly appalled. In effect, he desired everything good from both cultures.

In fact this entire story is a paradox.
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35 of 42 people found the following review helpful By George R Dekle on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The Tom Cruise movie, "The Last Samurai" depicts Saigo Takamori as a reactionary who rejected everything Western and died valiantly waving a samurai sword as he rode into the murderous fire of gatling guns. Well, he did die valiantly (or quixotically) as a medieval samurai charging on horseback into gunfire, but he wasn't a reactionary. He was a little bit more complicated than that.

Instead of being the movie's staunch defender of the status quo, Takamori was instrumental in dismantling Japanese feudalism and bringing Japan into the 19th Century. He embraced Western technology and admired some aspects of Western government. Fierce in battle, compassionate in victory, loyal to a fault, tortured by his perception of himself as a failure, eager to embrace death before dishonor, this was a man who commanded such respect that he endangered the Meijin government by simply refusing to participate in it.

How could one of the greatest supporters of the Meijin emperor rebel against his sovereign? How could one of the main architects of the moderinzation of Japan wind up charging on horseback into the murderous gunfire of the modern Japanese army? How could he in death be transformed into a hero of mythic proportions? Read the book and find out.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By "steveintexasusa" on April 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As someone who has strong personal connections to Japan, I was drawn to this title as a means of understanding the real story behind the movie. I was rewarded with a readable, apparently accurate review of one of the great men of the Meiji Restoration period of Japan. Saigo was a man of the era, first arriving in Edo at the same time as Perry's Black Ships, and fulminating what could arguably be the final resistance to the cataclysmic changes of that era in Japan.
One's understanding of the book would be enhanced, however, with some better understanding of the political institutions of the period, and broader knowledge of the part that various people played in the same historical context. Especially difficult are references to now-archaic regions in feudal Japan, regions which were expressly deconstructed by the new Meiji Government to cause their loss of significance in political affairs. For example, Saigo was from Satsuma, which is Southern Kyushu. But Tosa is a major player in the book, and I am still unsure of where that domain was.
What impressed me was Mr. Ravina's insight into the ambivalence and moral contradictions of the social, political, technological, and economic changes forced on Japan after 250 years of isolation. Only once does the author allude to the parallels to the modern-day situation in the Middle East, but the comparison is apt. I think this is an excellent book to gain some understanding of why the Islamic world has trouble with the West, and in doing so, the book could help the West formulate more appropriate responses to the Middle East's problems.
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