Nutrition, Rituals, Spirituality, And Health Care Practices of the Samurai Culture, As Depicted Within the Movie The Last Samurai
According to Tom Stovall and Dustin Granger, "The ancient Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi wrote in his "Book of Five Rings,": "It will be difficult for you to succeed unless you look at things on a large scale'" (PharmaCafe). Similarly, within the movie The Last Samurai (2003), director Edward Zwick shows various ways in which the Japanese Samurai of the late 19th century looked at and holistically practice nutrition; prayer, war, and death rituals; spirituality, and health care practices, all on a scale with nature. These holistic practices, in turn, promoted the Samurai's own inner harmony: mentally, physically, and spiritually. For example, The Last Samurai depicted various nutritional practices, prayer, pre-war, death and other rituals; attitudes about spirituality and the meaning of life, and medicinal philosophies and practices within the Samurai culture. All of these were always natural, profound, and in harmony with the external forces of nature. Several of these practices of the Samurai came into focus within the film, after the capture, by the Samurai, of Captain Nathan Ahlgren.
The first of these natural practices that became apparent were the healing and recovery practices of the Samurai from war. Within the film, women, and one woman in particular, the widow of the Samurai killed in battle by Nathan Ahlgren, took responsibility for tending to Ahlgren's battle wounds and recovery. She was shown sewing stitches in his shoulder, apparently with only the aid of some sort of balm or ointment. Interestingly, Ahlgren seemed not to be at all in pain during this procedure. In terms of pain sick roles, the role of the healer is to promote natural healing. The role of the healing individual is to endure what pain and suffering are necessary, in order to be restored, in a natural way, to purity of physical and mental health. There were no shortcuts, anesthesia, or "quick fixes" of any kind within the Samurai healing process: one must endure pain and suffering, i.e., feel one's sickness, in order to truly become healed or cured, that is, feel one's wellness.
The woman who cared for Ahlgren when he first came to live with the Samurai also would not give in to Ahlgren's alcoholic requests for more and more sake (Japanese wine made from rice) once she realized he was an alcoholic, even though this meant that he experienced painful withdrawal symptoms during his recovery. She said at one point, to her nephew, who favored giving Ahlgren sake whenever he asked for it, that she would not do this within her home. Consequently, Ahlgren was forced to get alcohol out of his system, and was never again shown, when he was with the Samurai, drinking anything alcoholic, not even sake. After he returned from captivity, he at first refused all alcohol even back in Tokyo, but then started drinking again when he became stressed about the emperor's rejection of the Samurai, and also once he was away from the direct influence of the Samurai. This says something, I believe, about the Samurai lifestyle as healthy, wholesome, devoid of the stresses of Westernized existence (except in war), and attuned to nature, and the natural rhythms and phenomena of the universe, in ways that Western civilization is not. Essentially, life among the Samurai cured Ahlgren's chronic alcoholism and allowed him to live authentically again, without the crutch of alcohol, for the first time in many years. It is that that convinced him, I believe, even this is never stated in the film, that the Samurai way of life was qualitatively better than the "modernization" the Japanese now so desired, and that he himself had been brought to Japan to fight for. This, the film implies, is perhaps the main reason that Ahlgren himself turned toward the Samurai way of life, and away from modern life, the way he had lived it in the United States and the way the non-Samurai Japanese now wanted to begin living it. He knew, perhaps better than anyone else in the film, the inherent dangers, and personal stress, brought about by modern Westernized living.
From the film, it was a bit more difficult to discern much about nutritional practices of the Samurai. Eating together as a family group, however, was clearly a ritual. Food was always prepared and served by the women. When Ahlgren is invited to eat with the family of the woman caring for him, after first being shut out by them, it is a sign that the family, and the Samurai as a group, have begun to accept him.
We also know (from Ahlgren's pleas for sake during his recovery period) that the Samurai did drink the Japanese wine, sake, made from rice kernels, but only occasionally with meals, and always in moderation and in balance with other foods and drinks. From a mental health perspective, the implication of this is that the Samurai believed mental health must come from inside oneself, not from consuming addictive substances. (Within this film, the Samurai also have nothing else within their diet, e.g., caffeine, sugar, simple carbohydrates, that could be considered addictive.) By not allowing Ahlgren to drink sake on demand, the Samurai woman who cares for Ahlgren effectively restores him to mental health. This alcohol addiction recovery process causes Ahlgren great pain and misery as it is occurring, but once alcohol is out of Ahlgren's system for good, he can begin to think clearly, for the first time in years. It is also significant that Ahlgren never again asks the Samurai for sake; at one meal where he is shown with the family, he specifically requests tea, when he is given the choice of either tea or sake. This is a powerful turning point in Ahlgren's physical as well as mental health, and one that likely would never have been achieved by him without the help of the Samurai.
However, there are also some mental health barriers in the film. Since inner strength and self-control are so extremely important to the Samurai, the two small sons of the Samurai warrior killed by Ahlgren in battle are not shown grieving for their father, and are likely discouraged from doing so. When Ahlgren himself tells these children good-bye, as he goes off to the final Samurai battle, with their uncle, the Samurai leader, Ahlgren is seen hugging the older child, who starts to cry, for the first time ever in the movie. His mother, the young widow who has herself come now to love Ahlgren, also has tears welling up in her eyes when she says good-bye to him. She even allows Ahlgren to kiss her. In this way, the movie implies that some of the psychological openness of the Western world, which is arguably better for mental health in some ways, has had a positive influence on those with whom Ahlgren has interacted most.
The meaning of food within this movie is for nourishment, but also for family bonding and community. To be invited to eat with a Samurai family, as Ahlgren eventually is in the film, is to be symbolically accepted as one of them. Common foods are rice and tea, and these are, in fact, the only ones the Samurai are even actually shown eating. The young woman who nurses Ahlgren back to health and her two small sons are also shown several times sharing meals with Ahlgren, but all they are eating, as far as one can tell, is rice and soup. The soup is drunk directly from a small bowl, and the rice is eaten, with chopsticks, from a larger bowl. At the very end of the film, when the voice-over narration speculates on what may have become of Captain Ahlgren after the Japanese refuse to sign the treaty with the Americans, it shows Ahlgren (as a possibility of what might have happened to him at the end of his service to the Japanese) back with the Samurai. These final shots of the movie also show the Samurai women tending to vegetable crops and raising chickens, presumably for their food. Chickens are also shown, briefly, in an earlier part of the film, but the Samurai are never shown actually eating them.
Three things noticeably absent from the Samurai diet, however, at least based on this movie, are food substances that cause many health problems in Western society, such as obesity and/or physical sluggishness or weakness, which are entirely absent within the Samurai culture. These are red meat; fats (like butter or substances made from it), and sugary or sugary sweets or pastries. The Samurai seem also not to drink (at least within the movie) milk or milk products, but instead always drink tea, which is known to be healthier to drink than are milk or milk-based products. Even the very young children in the movie only drink tea, never milk.
Within The Last Samurai, also, spiritual attitudes and practices are extremely important to the Samurai; in fact…