They all look the same...

Kerim Yasar kerimyasar at
Tue Aug 31 00:14:27 EDT 2004

> But the long thread on Last Samurai on KineJapan was
> all about Japanese 
> audiences being deeply moved by the film, and
> feeling that it took 
> Hollywood to get the jidai-geki right. Unless I'm
> wrong, the discussion 
> was at least implicitly arguing that it hit in Japan
> for precisely 
> these reasons. It's this formula that does not seem
> to have weighed 
> heavily on the box office calculation here. Curious.
> Markus

Isn't that sort of a chicken-and-egg question, though?
 A generation of Japanese reared on Hollywood fare is
liable to think that Hollywood "gets it right",
whatever "it" may happen to be.  Japan, like every
other culture in the world today, is a hybrid, and it
is impossible (to say nothing of tedious) to try to
unravel which responses are conditioned by something
we might, for convenience's sake, refer to as
"indigenous" culture and which by the stream of global
cultural commodities.  Does the average Japanese
moviegoer have an accurate understanding of bushido or
the samurai code?  Does ANY living human being,
Japanese or otherwise, have an accurate, experiential
understanding of an ideology and its attendant way of
life which are dead and highly prone to
romanticization?  Now, I'm not saying that I have any
particular insight into bushido (far from it--I
despise the idea) but it seems to me that the vision
presented in the Last Samurai is very, very American
and very, very Hollywood--the individual (or band of
individuals), standing up against authority, for some
"cause"--in this case, the preservation of traditions
and historical lifeways.  Throw in some good
old-fashioned Japanese suicidal self-sacrifice and the
brew is finished.

If I'm not mistaken, the historical reality was just
the opposite.  The samurai, like all elites, had a
very keen nose for self-preservation and
self-advancement and were very swift to ascend to the
top of the Meiji Restoration heap once they sensed
which way the wind was blowing.  They were also
hard-headed and realistic enough to realize that the
feudal battles of the past were an anachronism and
that the new arena in which to test their mettle as
men and, in a sense, as samurai, was that of
international competition.  Japan would not be saved
from the colonial fate that befell China with samurai
swords.  The "Last Samurai" of the film are children
clinging to a fantasy, oblivious to the very real
dangers facing Japan at the time.  The real samurai
were adults, very cunning ones, who realized their
duty to protect their country from predatory Western
empires.  I think one would learn more about the
samurai in all their pragmatism by watching a B-grade
yakuza film than by watching the Last Samurai.

But of course this reality, while far more complex and
interesting, is not as *inspiring* as riding your
horse into a stream of Gatling gun fire and then
staring at the cherry blossoms as you expire.  The
success of TLS I think just demonstrates that the
Japanese are A) as foggy on historical fact as
Americans, and B) as prone to the intoxication of
self-aggrandizing fantasy as Americans.  As long as
"Memoirs" is sufficiently flattering to the Japanese,
authentic or no, and as long as it includes some
cherry blossoms or autumn koyo (filming in November,
it surely will) I think it'll pack 'em in.

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