Spent the afternoon watching The Last Samurai yesterday. When I first saw the preview for it last summer, I groaned, “Oh God, no, not another epic movie about some white guy becoming a downtrodden and less enlightened people’s icon, who saves them for their own good!” After hearing good reviews about it from the Japanese press, though, and getting some thumbs up from a few of my students, I decided to give it a try.
I stumbled back to the train station afterwards, roiling with conflicting feelings and with a lot of questions and reactions.
It is a beautiful movie, that much must be said. The grand vistas of the mountains, the rural scenes, the replica of the port town, even the fencing sequences and moments in the temples were exquisitely and accurately done. The movie gave quite a sense of what life must have been like right at the beginning of the Meiji Era, the last days of the samurai.
And some of the acting was unforgettable. Ken Watanabe, I think, stole the show with his powerful portrayal of a warrior lord, and Koyuki (which means “Little Snow”) left the whole theater of Japanese moviegoers weeping behind their handkerchiefs with her dignified and subtle portrayal of a woman whose husband is killed by Tom Cruise’s character. Even Tom Cruise does a good job both in portraying the true awkwardness of a foreigner attempting to speak Japanese and in learning the moves of Japanese society. I liked some of the contrasts that were sensitively incorporated, showing how differently Japanese and Americans think.
Perhaps because I’ve lived here in Japan all my life and traveled throughout the country, including more walks in the mountains than I can remember, I also noticed a lot of glaring problems. First, the landscape. One quick glance at the mountains and I knew immediately that it wasn’t Japan )most of the film was filmed in New Zealand). Japan’s slopes are steeper and come together, usually, with more angles. The flat bottomed valley of the rural village was too flatly abrupt, with few of the village houses nested on the steep hillsides, as would be characteristic of Japanese mountain villages. The vegetation on the mountainsides was all wrong… a pallor of green that doesn’t exist in Japan, where it tends to be much more emerald in quality, due to the warmer climate here. The way the soil clodded up wasn’t characteristic of Japan. The presence of palm trees and giant ferns, on both the slopes and in the forests, gave away New Zealand’s identity… in the area where this story takes place there wouldn’t have been any palm trees or giant ferns lurking in the backgrounds of the battle scenes. And worst of all was the supposed form of Mt. Fuji, which has a huge crater in the side facing the ocean approach to the port town and which would not have appeared so large in the sky from what I suppose was supposed to be Edo (the old name of Tokyo). Mt. Fuji is 150 kilometers away from Tokyo. For me, but probably not for most people, the whole movie environment felt wrong, not Japanese.
Because a lot of the behavior of the Japanese characters was closely discussed with the Japanese actors, the feel of their gestures, voices, pronunciation, and dialogue, felt very natural. The interaction between the Japanese characters worked, too, unlike in such movies as “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (a Japanese general in real life would never have given in the way the general did in the movie) or “Black Rain”. However, there were moments when things just didn’t come across as authentic. When Tom Cruise’s character leans over to hug Koyuki’s character’s boy, there is no surprise on the part of any of the Japanese. But this would have been scandalous behavior, especially for a man to show to a samurai boy… the boy would have been shocked, as would the onlooking man in the garden, and certainly Koyuki’s character would have stopped dead in her tracks. Such behavior between men and their children is still not often practiced even today, let alone back in the period of this movie. And I had trouble with Ken Watanabe’s last scene when he ends by speaking to Tom Cruise in English. For someone trying to hold on with his last breath to all aspects of his culture, it seemed peculiarly uncharacteristic of him to resort to English.
In spite of these faults, the story was well-written and the transformation of Tom Cruise’s character quite believable. The gentleness and devotion of the movie to the human heart left me quite deeply moved by end of the show.
What disturbed me in profound ways, however, were the images and emotional reactions I had to the battle scenes: I couldn’t stop thinking about Bush and America’s Year of War last year. The more I watched those hundreds of soldiers falling in the movie, the more angry I became and the more uncontrollably grief stricken at the thought of all that has been forced on all of us over the last two and a half years. War, war, war, war, war! I was just totally exhausted with thinking about it and at times in the movie I could barely keep my eyes upon the scenes so close to weeping I was. It finally all came cascading out in that one, brief view of the entire battlefield with all those thousands of dead. One more crack of a gun. One more horse gutted. One more young man shot to pieces… I wanted to stand up in the theater, raise my fists, and shout my fury at Bush.
Instead I just sat and watched, looking for the entertainment value.
Fine movie that it was, it ignores the truth of the samurai: that they were very often brutal oppressors and caused untold hardship for the majority of the Japanese people who mostly lived on farms and were not allowed to carry weapons. All the glory of samurai chivalry is all very nice, but what was depicted is not an accurate picture of Japan’s history… which has always been fraught with bloody wars. The Meiji Restoration did a lot more good than bad for Japanese culture and people live a lot more at peace these days than back then. I can’t imagine very many Japanese would want to go back to those “good ole days”.
But still, the movie’s call for people of different cultures to hold on to who they are is an important one. It can certainly provide reflection to people around the world today who are beleaguered by American’s push to render all lands and people in their image. Fingerprints be damned! Brazil has the right attitude. Let Americans be fingerprinted all around the world in retaliation. They deserve just as much humiliation as anyone else, no?
I’m not sure The Last Samurai taught me anything at all about Japan. It just seemed a reiteration of what I already knew and a refute of what the West thinks it knows about Asia. But worth a looksee.