Visually, The Last Samurai was done realistically and beautifully as I mentioned yesterday. However, there were some minor flaws and one major one for me. As a movie, it was great. As a story, it was moving and exciting. I read a review somewhere that criticized the movie as another PC attempt to recast western (American) eyes to cultures different than our own. It was a kind of East Asian version of Dances With Wolves: former Civil War soldier is disillusioned with his current life as a soldier in the west killing Indians, is caught by his “enemies,” comes to understand and appreciate their way of life, and ultimately sides with them against the evil that is the modernizing West. Personally, I can see the correlation between the two movies, but I think that overlooks the reality of influence in all literary (textual) endeavors. These guys should read Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and get a clue. I think that there are enough differences–particularly in the content of the “enemy”–to warrant a story from another aspect of “understanding other cultures.” Unfortunately, there is a problem with this “understanding” of this other culture. For me, the representation of the samurai was over-romanticized–honor, loyalty, dedication: an image that any Japanese would love to present to a western audience–and ulitmately detracts from a true understanding of what Japan was all about in the Edo period.
But first, let me pick a couple of the technical nits. I read somewhere–I don’t remember where–the comment that there were palm trees in the background and that there were no palm trees in Japan. Since I read this before I saw the movie, I made it a point to watch for it… And indeed, there it was, in plain site. At first, I thought it might be the basho (left)–a kind of banana plant, the one from which the famous haiku poet took his name. But the more I looked at it, the more it looked like a palm tree. And then I recognized it. It WAS a palm tree. No, not the one’s that grow in the tropics like Okinawa, but a hardier breed that’s been in Japan for a millenia, the Shuro. This particular photo was taken in Osaka. Is it a recent migrant from some foreign country? No, it has been here for a long time. Indeed, fossils have been found in Kobe that date back much much further than the end of the Edo period. I recognized them cuz I had seen them in Wakayama when I went to Katsuura to visit Kumano Taisha, a major shrine where the Ex-Emperor Gotoba (ca. 12th cen.)–a famous poet as well–went on pilgrimages. I had asked locals if these were recent imports, but they just shrugged and said it had been a part of the scenery for as long as they could remember. So where is Kumano Taisha? Just south of Yoshino. Doh!
Another problem addressed by reviewers was the appropriateness of Tom Cruise: He is too modern. Huh? This remark suggests that Erol Flynn would fit in perfectly with 13th cen. England as Robin of Nottingham and Charleton Heston is suited for the 1st century as Ben Hur, despite his American accent, but Tom Cruise is out of place in the 19th century? If this is so, then so is Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada. In general, Japanese back then were pretty small and scrawny. During the Edo period, the average height for the Japanese male was 156 cm. (5’1.5″). Look at the archers here. They look pretty scrawny, no? So how big are Watanabe, Sanada, and most of the male actors? Probably bigger than 156cm. But then, if they wanted to be historically true, they would have had to have hired actors like Downtown’s Hamada Masatoshi and 99’s Okamura Takashi. But who would have gone to see THAT movie? Cruise and Okamura! Hahahahahaha.
However, I did have a problem with the dock at Yokohama harbor. The movie shows Algren and company disembarking their steam boat right next to the bustling streets of Yokohama, but I doubt that a boat could dock right next to land. Indeed, the photo to the left is one of Yokohama at the beginning of the Meiji period. The narrow stretch of land is landfill, but you’ll notice the boats are anchored away from land. To dock a boat next to land, they would have had to dredge up and support much of the bay to make it deep enough for a boat large and sturdy enough to cross the Pacific to dock next to a street! Even photos of Nagasaki (right), where trade with the West had been active throughout the Edo period, show boats anchored in the harbor, as people arrived on smaller vessels. But again, like the choice of actors, this is a minor flaw, given the genuineness of the feel of the setting.
The only issue I have with this movie is it’s depiction of samurai as mighty warriors. Yes, they were of the warrior class, and certainly there were those who dedicated themselves to the way of the Bushi, as the archers above suggest. But in reality, the great majority were no longer “warriors”. For over 200 years during the Edo period, Japan lived in peace–albeit under the stern hand of the Tokugawa regime–and with no battles to be fought, samurai became the administrators of their daimyo’s (lord) province. They became the magistrates and accountants and tax collectors. They spent more time learning math and the legal system than they did practicing their swordsmanship. This, of course, is not a knock on the spirit of the samurai. Indeed, without this group of loyal, dedicated technocrats, Japan’s society would never have modernized so quickly during the Meiji period. But the idea that the samurai woke up in the morning and began their training, meditated at noon, and then practiced some more in the afternoon as depicted in the movie is the romanticized version of the warrior class. This is not the image I want westerners to have of Japan. The movie–if the attempt was to allow western audiences to “discover” another culture–should have provided suggestions of the other side of the samurai class. Alas, there were none.
Now, I know that the final samurai of the old regime portrayed themselves as true warriors, and the final stand of the Matsudaira of the Aizu district (Fukushima) in NE Japan is well documented. However, like this movie, there is a museum dedicated to their final stand against the Meiji government, and it is incredibly romanticized. Indeed, the entire era is romanticized as even the manga, Rorouni Kanshin, suggests. I think a better film is Samurai Fiction, a movie depicting samurai as bureacrats and weak fighters when confronted with a powerful one. I will review this soon, as well.
In any event, the movie did not portray the samurai as I believe they should have, but that is not to say that I did not like the movie. I did. It was epic and beautifully photographed. And the story–as a story–is interesting. If you haven’t seen it yet, I think it is well worth the price of admission. The battle scenes alone are worth the price of admission, and Sanada Hiroyuki is just too cool…