- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003


Hollywood’s perennial punching bags, dead white men, come in for a one-sided pummeling in “The Last Samurai,” an otherwise beautifully staged historical drama from director Edward Zwick, who pummeled them before in “Glory” and “Legends of the Fall.”

Exquisitely attentive to modern sensibilities, “Samurai,” opening today in area theaters, is a two-pronged attack on DWM, fingering their treatment of both American Indians and the Japanese.

Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a Civil War veteran who, when we first meet him, is in a state of drunken disillusionment over his country’s genocidal campaign against the Indians.

An assignment to help modernize Japan’s army gives Algren a chance for redemption. Like Kevin Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar in “Dances With Wolves,” Algren switches allegiance, coming in this case to the defense of samurai fighters in danger of being wiped out by a regime under the sway of Western Europeans and Americans.

Japan’s elite samurai caste is thus depicted, misleadingly, as an aboriginal people whose position is analogous to American Indians.

Aside from that false parallel, the trouble with “Samurai’s” demonization of DWM is that, on the flip-side of the coin, there’s the romanticization of dead nonwhite men.

Adhering to the Manichaean demands of popular drama, “Samurai” paints white men as rapacious, greedy and operationally racist.

A fearsome but honorable warrior class, the samurai are principled, loyal, unblinkingly brave and, at least as far as their leader Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) is concerned, open to new cultures.

Promoting the movie in Beverly Hills recently, Mr. Zwick says the Katsumoto character was inspired by Ivan Morris’ book, “The Nobility of Failure,” the story of Saigo Takamori, a samurai who in 1867 led an effort to prop up the Japanese emperor in a period dubbed the Meiji Restoration.

Left out of “Samurai” is Takamori’s militaristic temperament. In 1873, for example, he advised the emperor to wage imperial war against Korea.

It was during the Meiji period, too, that Japan began fusing Western-style industrialization to its own belligerent ultranationalism, leading to war with Russia in 1904-5 and culminating in World War II.

None of this is even hinted at in “The Last Samurai”; it needed good guys and bad guys, and that was that.

Mr. Zwick insists his goal was “not to polemicize” either side of the issue, and he makes no claim to total historical accuracy. “There was not an American who got involved in samurai culture,” he concedes. “I thought I could create historical fiction.”

He puts it another way: “‘Hamlet’ is great drama and bad Danish history.”

Mr. Cruise is just as guarded. “If [audiences] understand history, they’ll look at it metaphorically,” he says. “People will take away from it what they want.

“Ultimately,” Mr. Cruise adds, “the film is about a man who wanted to die and, when faced with death, wanted to live because of another culture.”

Tony Goldwyn, who plays Col. Bagley, Algren’s bigoted nemesis, says we can’t easily project today’s standards on figures from the past.

“This character represented the mainstream of that time,” Mr. Goldwyn says. “The idea of preserving an indigenous people didn’t make sense. It’s a modern concept.”

Bagley at one point puts this question to Algren, providing the moral fulcrum of the movie: “Why do you hate your own people so much?”

For Marshall Herskovitz, who co-wrote the movie with Mr. Zwick and John Logan (“Gladiator”), that question both misses and makes “Samurai’s” point.

“He doesn’t hate his own people; he hates that aspect of his culture that’s unable to put itself in others’ shoes,” Mr. Herskovitz says.

The great irony of “The Last Samurai” — and the thing multiculturalists can never quite get their heads around — is that it’s been left to Hollywood to explore how modern society cleaved Japan from its old mores.

Today, Japan is so thoroughly Westernized that it has cut itself off from its own history, according to two of the Japanese actors who appear in “Samurai.”

“The young generation doesn’t learn their own culture,” says Hiroyuki Sanada, a star in his own right but unknown to American audiences.

Mr. Sanada says that outside of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary director who died in 1998, Japanese filmmakers “could never have made a film like this.”

Mr. Watanabe agrees. “Japan’s young don’t know the history,” he says.

However, he’s under no illusions that “The Last Samurai” is a substitute for cracking the books and actually learning history.

When asked if it were remotely possible that someone like Katsumoto — whose overarching goal in life was to shut off Japan from competing values — would have taken an American soldier under his wing, Mr. Watanabe turns to an assistant, who relays the question in Japanese.

The pause for translation sets up the perfect comic moment. He nods his head and deadpans, “This is a Hollywood movie.”

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