They all look the same...

Aaron Gerow aaron.gerow
Tue Aug 31 09:51:53 EDT 2004

There are several issues here that need to be distinguished.

>  A generation of Japanese reared on Hollywood fare is
> liable to think that Hollywood "gets it right",
> whatever "it" may happen to be.

Yes, it is true that we cannot count on many Japanese spectators to be 
knowledgeable about historical facts and their perceptions of the world 
may in fact be influenced by years of watching Hollywood films. This is 
certainly one factor behind the popularity of Last Samurai, but it is 
also nothing new. One can argue that the jidaigeki emerged in the 1920s 
from the kyugeki precisely by passing through the gendaigeki influenced 
by American cinema, as well as under the influence of Hollywood 
Westerns. As many have noted, such hybridities complicate claims of 

But we should not ignore the fact that there is a discourse of 
authenticity and it was quite prominent at the time of Last Samurai. 
Just look at the message board on Yahoo Japan for Last Samurai and you 
will find many people pointing out inaccuracies in that film. But, and 
this gets back to points made by the two Marks, there was also a lot of 
discourse basically of this kind: Hollywood has long gotten Japan 
wrong, but this time they have--at least in spirit--gotten it right. We 
cannot ignore these discourses and the distinctions they make in 
Hollywood's representations of Japan.

Next, as my first paragraph already implies, we should remember that 
the issue is often not whether a film is accurate to history, but 
whether it accords with the version of history that audiences desire or 
are accustomed to. Remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, the dominant 
image of the samurai in Japanese cinema was of a corrupt, power-hungry 
tyrant, with films often focusing on the hypocrisies and ironies of 
bushido. Heroes were marginal samurai (loners) or non-samurai, and 
cynicism or self-parody abounded. One has to tie that version of 
history in with those times. I think we cannot escape the fact that the 
contemporary vision of Japanese history among audiences is far more 
conservative, if not nationalistic. The success of Last Samurai in 
Japan, then, has as much to do with the rise of right-wing 
neo-nationalism in Japan--and their version of history--as it does with 
the influence of Hollywood. We should thus temper our claims of 
hybridity with a thorough consideration of persistent nationalism in 
Japan. That nationalism itself, quite ironically, may be deconstructed 
as really hybrid, but nationalism and hybridity are not always 
opposites, especially in Japan.

Aaron Gerow
Assistant Professor
Film Studies Program/East Asian Languages and Literatures
Yale University
53 Wall Street, Room 316
PO Box 208363
New Haven, CT 06520-8363
Phone: 1-203-432-7082
Fax: 1-203-432-6764
e-mail: aaron.gerow at

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