Chivalry On Cherry Blossoms

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Morning after a blizzard, Odell Lake, Oregon, 1984.

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.

13 Responses

  1. I just watched Shogun on DVD. Interesting comments by actors directors. All the emphasis on trying to work around cultural differences.

    You talk about inaccuraccies — well, it’s a movie, not a documentary. (In Shogun they had a Japanese costume designer who tried for verisimilitude with mixed success — the demand of the film for viewing audiences required samurai armies to wear uniforms, which was not a custom of the time. In one scene, an imprisoned Franciscan friar wore a robe that zipped up the front with the zipper teeth showing clearly.)

  2. Yes, it is a movie and of course one should take that into account, but you have to remember this is an international movie, not just something that American audiences (unaware of the inaccuracies) are watching. The movie was first screened here in Japan and the Japanese reaction to a movie made of their own culture is just as important as that of American audiences (finance wise, if not culturally, since the Japanese are the second-largest number of movie goers in the world). Every Japanese I’ve spoken to who’s seen the movie, though they all enjoyed the story and liked it, commented that there were too many things which didn’t reflect their culture and landscape accurately. To put it into perspective, just imagine a cowboy movie in which the men walk about holding hands and kissing each other, step outside onto a prairie dotted with baobab trees, and the dying hero gunslinger lies in the dust speaking Chinese with his newly befriended Chinese underling: hard to imagine isn’t it? Sounds like fantasy. That’s how “The Last Samurai” appears to Japanese, especially older Japanese (who are going to the movie in record numbers because they are curious about how their culture is being represented, and because most of the Japanese actors are as famous here in Japan as Cruise is in the States).

  3. P.S. Not to sound derrogatory about you personally, and not to dismiss it with arrogance, since movies are just movies, but no Japanese will ever take “Shogun” seriously, neither the book nor the movie. If not derided mercilessly, at the very least it is written off as a joke. What you see there is simply not Japan. It is a complete fantasy. That would be fine if the literature about the movie didn’t tout it as “historical”. Tarantino’s recent “Kill Bill” was welcomed by the Japanese and the silly reflection of Western views of Japanese culture tolerated because the Japanese knew very well that Tarantino was using tongue in cheek (No Japanese will ever believe that Lucy Liu’s character is Japanese… she doesn’t move, talk, react like a Japanese, and in many ways not even like a Chinese from China… she’s just too American).

    I believe that it is very important to get a culture, its mores, and its habits right so that you accurately understand the people you are watching. If people in the west comprehended the people of the Middle east better (and vice versa) I think much of the bloodshed over the years could have been avoided.

  4. My husband & I also saw “The Last Samurai,” and like you we enjoyed it with mixed feelings. The reservations you note in your first paragraph are exactly what we talked about after seeing the film. We joked, in fact, that the film should have been titled “Dances with Braveheart” because of certain similarities to those wildly popular films with Kevin Costner & Mel Gibson. I think this says more about Hollywood than about American attitudes toward Japan, per se: Hollywood has learned that it’s lucrative to follow the patterns of past blockbusters. Even parts of “Return of the King” made me groan, “It’s Braveheart in Middle Earth!”

  5. That was an exceptional movie review, and I think you’re entitled to the “purist” perspective. It is true, however, that movies are entertainment and good movie makers (like all artists) take a lot of creative freedom to tell a story that will truly entertain as many viewers as possible. Your reaction against the battle scenes is universal and true to our humanity. Wars are often fought to “free people for oppression.” It’s a horrible thing, more awful than any movie can depict, and both soldiers and civilians die. Sometimes these wars fail and it’s a shameful piece of history, but the sobering fact is that sometimes it does allow people to live free.

  6. Dances With Braveheart perfectly sums up my response on hearing that Tom Cruise was starring in a film about samurai.

    I know it’s only a movie, but it’s a movie with a decent budget and many of the environment problems you note were things they could have done better if they had cared to. The shape, the lines of the land, they might not have been able to recreate in NZ, but they could have moved houses onto the slopes, for instance.

    And Mt. Fuji is a famous mountain– one wouldn’t film Baker and expect people to believe it was Everest.

    Glitches of that sort throw one’s audience out of the story. They must be avoided as much as possible; one “sore thumb” scene will overshadow all the good, and there’s everyone’s hard work frittered away in a moment.

    Excellently written review!

  7. What a great review … full of the good, the bad, AND the ugly. I believe in excellence, and even though (being from America) I wouldn’t have known to notice the lack of authenticity in some of the scenes or how characters react, I invariably pick up on some little something somewhere that doesn’t quite fit. Nothing disappoints me more than to know that it could have been done better, and someone made the (marketing, etc) decision to take the easier path.

    I usually don’t comment on war and politics, but would like to say that, as an American, I’m not so sure I feel any safer as a result of this continuing war. Today isn’t Sept 12th, that’s for sure. But it also isn’t necessarily a better place to be. One thing I am sure I feel is an eroding of my tolerance for believing in peace between nations, although I still hold out hope that our world leaders will wake up and find solutions that remember the only rule that counts. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

    Fingerprinting and otherwise.

  8. Excellent review – thanks. I’m sorry I didn’t go to see it now. Not sure when it’s being released in the UK. And good point about holding on to one’s culture. Five months in Bosnia put western excesses in stark relief.

  9. My first alien card from Japan had a fingerprint on it. It was placed in a place where the plastic cover would hide it, but the print was on file… Many people voiced outrage at this, and, over time it was abolished.
    Now America is doing it- but in my opinion it has had a few good reasons to be cautious.

  10. This wasn’t on my list of movies to see, especially after seeing Tom Cruise in his promotional appearances. They made me a bit queasy at the thought of seeing a big Hollywood spectacle, I tend to only see one or two carefully chosen Hollywood movies a year as it is. And since you left the theater “roiling with conflicting feelings” I think I’ll stay with my initial instincts and skip this one. I worry enough about whether I’m getting an accurate picture of life in Japan when I see Japanese movies — such as two of my favorite movies of last year, Aiki and Ping Pong. But maybe that’s a topic for another time.

  11. Funny how when we try hardest to justify and protect our way of life, and extend it to others, we create the most animosity in others. A recipe for further terrorism if you ask me.
    It also strikes me as interesting that we don’t see any real need to be truthful in our portrayal of other cultures or even our own. I remember traveling to Asia a little over 10 years ago when it became apparent that what the US had most successfully exported was the television show “Dallas.”
    I commented in my blog last night about a conversation with an ex-serviceman about how the only crime he saw in Japan during his stay was that which his fellow US troops had committed. I wonder what your impressions have been over the years about the ongoing export of “westernization” (in reality americanization” and if you think it destructive there?

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