#539: The Last Samurai
Initial release: November 20, 2003
Director: Edward Zwick
Hollywood (and indeed, film industries throughout the first world) has something of a complex relationship with foreign — and indigenous — cultures. From just plain insensitive depictions of indigenous folk as spear-throwing savages to casting white actors as inscrutable Asian stereotypes to stories of a heroic white man (and it’s always a man) showing these “dirty savages” how to do stuff, let’s just say that there have been some concerns over the last few decades. 1990’s Kevin Costner vehicle Dances With Wolves features a US Army officer who befriends a Sioux tribe and is instrumental in helping them fight off enemies. 1997’s Amistad centers John Quincy Adams as the man who defends a group of African slaves who fought for their right to freedom.
Then there’s Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai. Often derided as a Japanophilic take on Dances With Wolves, it certainly is that, to some extent — perhaps not nearly as egregious an example, but it still possesses the kernel of that core trope.
Let’s start from the beginning. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise, looking way more likeable with a beard) is an embittered alcoholic veteran of the American Indian Wars, which were part of the slow genocide of the indigenous people living in the American west. Sick and self-hating due to the atrocities he’s committed, he’s given the opportunity to train the newly-minted Japanese Imperial Army. Despite his best efforts, he’s forced to lead the freshly conscripted recruits, barely trained, into a confrontation with a group of renegade samurai who oppose the rapid progress Japan has been making over the past few years. Things naturally go pear-shaped, but his ferocious will to live impresses rebel leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) who takes him home and has his wounds tended to. Algren is told that he has the run of the village, as it’s quite isolated and the roads are blocked in the winter, so it’s not like he can leave. Over time Algren gets to know his ostensible captors and their language and culture, kicks his booze habit, finds a sort of inner peace, and ultimately comes to identify with the samurai and their traditionalist way of life. In the end, when the samurai come to a final confrontation with the Imperial Army, Algren sides with the samurai, offering them tactical advice. (They lose anyway.)
On a purely technical level, this film is unimpeachable. It’s a masterpiece of cinematography and score and set design. The costumes are immaculate, Cruise is a convincing drunken wreck (say what you will about the man, he can act) and Ken Watanabe elevates any movie he’s in. Hans Zimmer’s score is frequently fantastic, and never boring or misplaced. It’s a visual feast that blends jidai-geki aesthetics with a western (the genre, not the geographic/cultural concept) touch provided by Algren, who swaps between his original clothes and a traditional Japanese kimono and haori.
But man, that story. The script and dialogue are quite good — the interplay between Katsumoto and Algren is the driving focus of the film as they both come to understand each other; but the core of the plot rests on a tired, and tiresome white savior trope. Sure, there’s arguments to be made here that the film is a less egregious example — after all, Algren is a loser who is looking for absolution from his guilt, and though he teaches the village children baseball (which isn’t as anachronistic as you’d think — I checked) he ultimately assimilates to the traditional Japanese way of life. But there’s an Orientalist vibe to it as, in narrated journal entries, he describes how he’s felt more at peace in this little village than he has in years. He uses the traditionalist Japanese village as a stand-in for the indigenous people he slaughtered. Nevermind that these people aren’t actually indigenous (that would be the Ainu people of northern Japan, who possess a distinct culture) but are merely led by samurai who oppose Japan’s rapid pace of progress, and the loss of status that social reforms lead to; despite being a rebel leader, Katsumoto still has the Emperor’s ear — a far cry from the Native Americans who even today have little to no voice in Washington.
The entire struggle of the samurai, culminating in a fictional battle in which the charging samurai are slaughtered en masse by gatling guns, seems to be loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion, but otherwise bears little resemblance to it. A claim early on that the samurai eschew firearms is horseshit — firearms had been in use in Japan for centuries. But putting all this aside, it’s ultimately a story about a group of traditionalists who couldn’t assimilate to the new order; the film frames these people as inherently noble, and the Japanese businessman who seems to be the mastermind behind this attempted extermination of samurai is shown as cowardly and corrupt, manipulating the Emperor to his own financial ends.
Produced as it was in the early post-9/11 years, the film seems to be screenwriter John Logan using Meiji-era Japan as an allegory for his own misgivings about American consumerism and the rapid societal change of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s hard to describe how I feel about that; on the one hand, there are parallels to be found between the two periods, but you can find parallels like that all over history. On the other hand, the film isn’t really about Japan’s ideological internal struggle. What it’s about is a white guy — who, I must remind you, is expressly depicted as a loser — learning to forgive himself for crimes he committed against people who never actually show up in the film. The film centers him and his grief, his guilt, his experiences, and how living in Japan affects all that.
It’s not quite the white savior trope — it’s the going native trope, with all the attendant Orientalism.
At least it’s pretty.