Tom Cruise narrowly escaped potentially fatal injuries after a sword was swung within one inch of his neck while filming. He and his co-star Hiroyuki Sanada were acting out a sword fight scene when the incident happened. Sanada swung a sword at Cruise who was on an off-camera mechanical horse at the time. But the machine reportedly malfunctioned and failed to duck at the right moment. Sanada stopped the blade just one inch from his neck.
First feature to use the new Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 film stock - the successor of the previous Vision 500T 5279. However, it was released later than Seabiscuit which uses the same film stock but at a later date.
When Taka starts to undress for Capt. Algren there is a shot with her clothes slightly below her shoulders looking backwards over her shoulder. This is a homage to the Hishikawa Moronobu's ukiyo-e painting "backwards beauty"
Contrary to popular conception, the title of the film does not refer to Nathan Algren as the Last Samurai. The word "Samurai" here is in its plural form and is actually referring to Katsumoto's clan as a whole.
This film was inspired by a project developed by writer and director Vincent Ward. Ward became executive producer on the film - working in development on it for nearly four years and after approaching several directors (Coppola, Weir), he interested Edward Zwick. The film went ahead with Zwick and was shot in Ward's native New Zealand.
Japan's first Caucasian samurai was actually an Englishman named William Adams, born in 1564 in Gillingham, Kent, UK. He was a sailor and fought the Spanish Armada not long before he left for the far East when he eventually was taken by Samurai and refused to leave Japan because of his ship making qualities. Lord Ieyasu gave him two swords, the trade mark of a samurai because he was of great asset to Ieyasu.
Historically, the only westerners fighting in the Japanese civil war were French military advisers under Jules Brunet who joined the Shogun's army. Even if most of them were fighting with French equipment, some did wear the samurai attire (like Eugene Collache).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The real-life counterpart to Katsumoto (played by 'Ken Watanabe') is Takamori Saigo, who led a samurai rebellion in 1877. As in the movie, Saigo ended up committing suicide in September 1877 after defeat in battle. The Emperor's attitude in the film toward Katsumoto's struggle and death reflects actual Japanese popular sentiment toward Saigo, who though defeated, was regarded as a hero; a statue of Saigo was erected shortly after his death, and can today be seen in Ueno, in northeast Tokyo.
At the beginning of the movie the Japanese soldiers that are trained by the Americans are using American made Model 1861 Springfield rifle muskets and British made Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle muskets, no doubt surplus from the American Civil War (which ended 11 years before the beginning of the movie). At the final battle however, the now better trained and better equipped army can be seen using Prussian made Gewehr 1871 bolt action Mausers, a single shot bolt action black powder cartridge rifle. This rifle, unlike modern bolt action rifles, had no magazine (The Model 1871/84 would add a tubular magazine). This equipment update is also reflected in the dress of the Japanese soldiers, which abandon the American 1870s look of the first part of the movie and adopt a stern, militaristic Prussian look (dark blue blouse, white gaiters, the more military style cap of a professional army instead of a French style kepi then used by the United States). This is because the elite Japanese units during this time were trained by Prussia, and the Model 1871 Mauser was widely exported during the 1870s-1880s, and was not fully replaced even in Prussian/German service until 1889.