Sunday, December 14, 2003

Last Samurai
I saw "The last Samurai" this weekend, which is yet another Hollywood film dealing with Japan. Since I wrote at length about "Kill Bill" in this regard, I feel I would be somewhat inconsistent if I didn't put down a few thoughts about "The Last Samurai".
Those of you who read my posting on "Kill Bill" will recall I at first wrote about how there was curiously very little "Buzz" about the movie. Given Japan's love affair with American movies, and given that "Kill Bill" was a big blockbuster American movie that dealt with Japan, I expected more of a "buzz". And then you'll recall I updated myself a couple days later and said that I was perhaps mistaken, and that perhaps I had just been oblivious to "The buzz". (Perhaps I'm slowly loosing my command of the English language, as I'm using "buzz" here for lack of a better word, but I trust everyone knows what I mean.)
Anyway, this was not the case with "The Last Samurai", as this movie was clearly aggressively marketed to the Japanese audience. There were posters and advertisements everywhere. Most of my Japanese friends have seen it or are planning on seeing it, so I imagine the movie must be making a lot of money in Japan. The advertisements in Japan also feature the Japanese cast on equal billing with Tom Cruise, as the movie contains several actors who are domestically quite well known.
I don't know how many people know this, but the movie was filmed in New Zealand, not Japan. Fair enough as New Zealand is a very scenic area, and seems to be a popular place to film movies recently. However the tragic fact is that it is more than just a case of New Zealand being more scenic. This movie could not have been filmed in Japan, as there are virtually no untouched natural areas left.
Alexander Kerr has written about this problem at length in his book, "Dogs and Demons", which is recommend reading for anyone interested in modern Japan. Although Alex Kerr should be taken with a grain of salt, because reading his book one gets the impression that there are absolutely no beautiful places left in Japan. And in fact the country side where I live is still very beautiful. BUT, Kerr is right when he says there is almost nowhere you can go where you don't see some sort of eyesore of modernization: a telephone poll, power lines sticking out, some pointless road somewhere.
As Kerr mentions in his book, this is a problem for the Japanese film industry, and they usually have to resort to either fake indoor sets, or just hope the viewer will bear with the anachronisms of power lines being visible in the background of Samurai movies.
Now, as to the historical accuracy of the movie:
The Japanese friend I saw the movie with said it was very strange for Ken Watanabe's character to be speaking English, because at that time Samurai lords did not study such things, and it was the work of people beneath them to deal with translating. Also the Emperor would not have spoken English during that time. Although you could argue that this is nit-picking....
So on to the bigger problem of the Meiji Restoration and it's depiction in this movie:
I'll try not to go on too long about this because #1) people much smarter than me have already written about this movie and it's accuracy (or lack there of) in depicting the Meiji Restoration and the Samurai Rebellion. (For instance check out Tom from Guam's post here. He's a fellow history buff and has some thoughts on this movie)
and #2) The Meiji Restoration is very complicated, and I'm no expert. In fact all my knowledge is based on a couple courses I took at University, which I'm doing my best to remember now. But these disclaimers aside, here are my thoughts:
The Meiji Restoration was undoubtedly a mixed bag. It brought some good things, and it brought some bad things, and some of Japan's culture was lost during it and of course this is always a tragic thing. You could also argue that the Meiji Restoration was responsible for the rise of Fascism in Japan (as Mr. Tom from Guam hints at). Personally I think this is unfair, just as it would be unfair to say that the advocates of a unified Germany in the 19th Century were responsible for Hitler in the 20th Century.
Lenin wrote about the Meiji Revolution, and compared it to the French Revolution in Europe, and I think some of the comparisons he made were accurate. Like the French Revolution, the Meiji Revolution was primarily a bourgeois Revolution, and it furthered the interest of the bourgeois class. And so we should have no disillusions that, as the movie shows, the Meiji revolution was primarily in the interest of the capitalists. But as any good Marxist knows, the conditions of the proletariat improve under the bourgeois revolution, because a modern capitalist state is still an improvement over feudalism. Lenin wrote that the Meiji Revolution showed Japan's revolutionary potential, and that the groundwork for becoming a socialist state had been created during the Meiji period.
It is easy to romanticize the Samurai, but during Japan's feudal period the lives of the common people were worthless, and the Samurai could kill them at will. The class system in ancient Japan also was extremely rigid, and the lowest class, "The Burakumin", were comparable to "The untouchables" in India. They did the most dirty work, and had absolutely no rights. There was no hope of advancement.
In short, Hollywood aside, no Japanese person wants to go back to the pre-Meiji feudal system. Although the code of the Samurai was lost during the Meiji restoration, a new value of equality replaced the rigid feudal class system. I think Tom Cruise was fighting on the wrong side of history in the movie.
And so far all the Japanese people I've talked to share this view. But perhaps the film makers were counting on the fact that the average American viewer would be unfamiliar with Japanese history, and could be persuaded to sympathize with the Samurai rebellion.
As we left the movie theater, I asked my Japanese friend what she thought about the movies depiction of Japanese history. She answered that of course the movie was from the Samurai's point of view, and glossed over the reality of the actual Samurai feudal system. But it was possible to enjoy the movie by forgetting about history, and pretending to sympathize with the Samurai. And that is the key to enjoying the movie I think.

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