Monday, December 08, 2003

The Last Samurai
On Saturday, I got to see The Last Samurai. When I saw the trailers for it in Japan, I had my doubts. It looked like a movie with huge potential for being screwed up, like some bad movie take on Sho-Gun. I say unto you now, it was not. It was, in fact, amazing.

As frequently happens with movies that I don't think will be good, and then it turns out they are, it's because the trailers incredibly simplified what the movie was going to be about, reducing it down to the thing they think is going to sell the most tickets. While this is certainly an understandable strategy, it often has a reverse effect on me. Another issue with this particular movie is that Mark has started kendo classes, and his instructor said that the way Tom Cruise is weilding a sword in one of the trailers is bad enough form he'd be lucky to cut the guy's shirt, let alone do any damage to the opponent's body. As it turns out, that was an anomalous shot, and the various swordplay critics I saw the movie with were all pleased.

While war and battle strategy is certainly central to this movie, since that is why Capt. Algren is brought to Japan to advise the troops, that isn't really the focus of the movie at all. The true focus is cultural collisions, as seen within Meiji-era Japan, certainly, but even more strikingly within the various characters themselves. The emperor is building his own modern army to put down the samurai rebels trying to make felt the equal importance of Japan's traditional past. The emperor's advisors all urge for Westernization, as is emphasized by their clothing and manner. They are the ones responsible for bringing over the American military advisors.

It is with Tom Cruise's character, Capt. Algren, that the story really starts, though. He has spent his life in the US military, fighting the Native Americans. He won fame by providing detailed accounts of the Native American cultures, which led to more effective fighting strategies to be used against them, but he feels only shame in what he has done. He admired the people he studied and their culture, and then he was ordered to destroy it. Arriving in Japan, he finds himself in strikingly similar circumstances.

It is when he is captured by the samurai in the first battle that things begin to change for him. The leader of the rebellion, Katsumoto, admires his fighting ability and decides to keep him alive, after soundly defeating Algren's unprepared troops. In Katsumoto there lies an amazingly complex mixture of cultures. He is a traditional samurai, following Zen, heading an anachronistic rebellion, living in a traditional isolated village in the hills. He is also an erstwhile advisor to the emperor, fluent in written and spoken English, and more open to a meld of cultures than any of the staunch Westernists currently counselling the emperor. He reads Algren's diaries from his time in the US army to gain knowledge and understanding of a man from such a foreign culture. He refuses to let the others around him reject Algren completely, but instead enforces their tolerance, which of course eventually turns to acceptance.

Through his "good conversations" with Katsumoto, Algren also gains insight into the samurai culture, which eventually leads him to make peace with himself. He rediscovers what it is to act in a way he feels honorable. He finds a middle ground between being American, being an admirer of Native American cultures, and being an honorary samurai. In some ways, he is every Westerner who has become enthralled with orientalism, every gaikokujin who has decided to stay in the homogenous society of Japan despite obviously not fitting in, every foreigner who found something in Japanese society that made them fell they fit in better there than at "home." When Algren returns to Tokyo after wintering in the mountains with Katsumoto, his colonel asks him, "What is it about your own people that you hate so much?" Algren doesn't answer, which is no doubt one of the most effective answers he could have given, as it forces Bagley, and the audience, to try to answer it for themselves.

In the end, Algren helps lead the rebels with Katsumoto, "to make the emperor hear" their voices. He tells the story of the soldiers at Thermopoli, 211 men who held off the Persian army long enough for the army to become so demoralized it was soon easily defeated by their next foes. Just before the samurai attack the Imperial Army, Katsumoto asks what happened to those soldiers. "Dead to the last man," replies Algren, and they grin as they storm over the hill. In the end, Algren appears before the Emperor, a Western man bearing the blade of the last great samurai, whose final wish was that the Emperor remember his ancestors, as well as considering the future. As unsure as the young emperor had been before that, he takes courage from this amazing act to stand up and say extreme Westernization is not right for his country at this time.

I cried at this movie. I never cry at movies. Ever. But I cried at this one. While the audience knows that the Meiji era was the end of the historically traditional, pre-Western Japan, it is still very powerful to watch the effects that such a period of change can have on the people living in it. All the characters realize that change is inevitable, but some of them are more concerned with making sure those changes also preserve the good elements of the past, as opposed to obliterating it all in the name of progress. It is, indeed, in keeping with the previous cycle of Japanese history, to incorporate elements of other cultures, but still keep a sense of what was actually Japanese, and in the end change the new things into elements that melded into the overall cohesion of Japanese culture. Had the Meiji emperor not managed to continue that tradition, Japan today might be a very different place. As it is, it shows itself to still be striving toward Katsumoto's perfection, with willingness to understand and change, but holding strongly to its roots as well.

In the end, that's all any society today can hope for. Global, but unique at the same time.

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