First off: This is a scholarly text and not a spinoff from the Hollywood movie. The choice of title (the book appeared in 2004, the movie in 2003) was clearly motivated by commercial concerns and not by historical considerations, but the extensive research that went into this text was begun many years before the movie was released and the book comes complete with all the standard academic apparatus. Moreover, most of the sources used by the author, a professor of Japanese history at Emory University, are Japanese, including primary literature and not just secondary literature.
Just in case you are interested, as enjoyable as it was, the movie bears little resemblance to the actual events, and Tom Cruise's character did not exist.
So, with that out of the way, what about the content of the book, which has provided an excellent supplement to my readings on the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu and the beginnings of the Meiji Restoration?
Saigo Takamori (1827 - 1877) was born the son of a minor samurai in the employ of the Shimazu daimyo, ruler of the domain of Satsuma on Kyushu, the southernmost main island of the Japanese archipelago. His life was a roller coaster ride of success and defeat, repeated again and again. But because he met both with the same kind of quiet and consistent integrity, and because he had an imposing presence (see above - the man was six feet tall in 19th century Japan!), he became a legendary figure. He became one of those heroes who are not really dead but are waiting to come back to save the country from the evil doers; so much so that the military government later had to rehabilitate him for their purposes. There are memorials to him all over Japan, including a statue in Ueno park in Tokyo:
In the chapter on Saigo's childhood, Ravina has provided a fascinating look at the education of samurai boys in one of the some 300 domains Tokugawa Japan was divided into, indicating which aspects were fairly widespread through Japan and which were particular to Satsuma. I had previously not run across such detailed information, and it truly provides concrete insight into the indoctrination and formation of young samurai.
In 1854, for the first time, Saigo accompanied his daimyo on the latter's biannual pilgrimage to Edo as one of the lord's personal advisors. (All daimyo were required to spend every other year in Edo; their families were required to live there all of the time, essentially as hostages to assure the good behavior of the lords.) On the way he caught sight of Perry's "black fleet," which had just returned on their second visit expecting an answer to the ultimatum presented the year before and was undelicately placing the last straw on the Bakufu's back.
In Edo, Saigo became enthused with a current of thought known as "Mito learning." This mystical and xenophobic ideology tried to found the entire social structure of Tokugawa Japan on the basis of the divine emperor in order to bolster the increasingly spindly legged Bakufu. Concomitant was a hate of foreigners who were held to be a source of "spiritual contamination to Japan's purity." In a letter home Saigo wrote "I am such an ardent follower of Nariaki [the Mito daimyo] that if his lordship were to crack his whip and lead the way against the foreigners, I would rush in without hesitation."(*) He also was drawn to Wang Yangming's alternative to Zhi Xi's canonized neo-Confucianism
which emphasized instinct over reason and valued action above contemplation.
By 1856 Saigo had made the transition from being a vassal of a provincial daimyo to a fervent citizen of the "land of the gods" and was fully prepared to act. He became his lord's representative in Edo but had already modified his personal loyalties significantly. Fortunately, his wishes coincided temporarily with those of the daimyo, but his lord died suddenly in 1858, probably poisoned by relatives who had been outmaneuvered by him in order to become daimyo of Satsuma in the first place.
Almost immediately thereafter came the Ansei purge, when Bakufu conservatives cleaned up their opposition through murder, execution and banishment. The primary mover in this purge was Ii Naosuke, who also put an end to Yoshinobu's first attempt to become shogun. Now Saigo was a wanted man because he was one of Yoshinobu's loudest proponents. A failed double suicide of Saigo and the famous monk and poet Gessho (Gessho died, Saigo survived) gave the Satsuma domain opportunity to claim to the shogunal authorities that both men had died. Saigo went into hiding for three years on one of the small and extremely backward islands between Kyushu and Okinawa - islands which were nominally under Japan's rule but were culturally quite foreign. Ravina provides a glimpse into the culture and customs of the Amami islanders which was all completely new to me.
This was just the beginning of Saigo's henceforth stormy and eventful life and of Ravina's fascinating investigation of its context. Saigo was reprieved and then quickly condemned to hard time on an even smaller island, then reprieved again after 18 months to take over one of the domain's most important military commands. And so it went - up and down.
It was 1864 when Saigo took command of the important contingent of Satsuma samurai "protecting" the imperial court in Kyoto. The shogunate was significantly weakened, but the effete and ignorant officials of the court and the parochial daimyo were in no position to take up the slack - foreign and domestic policy were forgotten in favor of personal or ideological agendas. And the swords were coming out of their sheaths after two and a half centuries of pax Tokugawa.
The story gets quite complicated, and Saigo is in the middle of things, winning and losing, riding high and then scraping the bottom. It's quite a story.
The closing act was Saigo leading the Satsuma rebellion against the young Meiji government (with some 30,000 men under his command - not quite like the movie presented it; and they used rifles and cannon, but were soon out of ammunition and had no source of supply up in their hills), a government in which he had had an influential voice. Somewhat like the movie, when his army had been whittled down to a few hundred, he led a suicide charge, was disabled by a ball through the hip and requested a faithful friend to "act as a second" - to behead him. Saigo's head was whisked away so that the government could not display it.
(*) This stream of thought fed directly into the ideology of the militarists who guided Japan into Manchuria, China and ultimately the Second World War. Of further note is the fact that the last Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu, was the son of the Mito daimyo that Saigo so admired. Shiba Ryotaro makes the case in his The Last Shogun
that because Yoshinobu was so infused with Mito learning he could not bear to be known as an opponent of the emperor and thus, though he knew perfectly well that the young emperor was being manipulated by opportunists for their own ends, stepped aside quietly when the imperial rescript demanding the return of all political power to the emperor arrived.