Honor among thieves

The Hollywood machine chews up Japanese history and spits out colonialist fantasy.

by Tom Horgen

Near the end of “The Last Samurai,” as our heroes prepare for their last battle, Tom Cruise, now an honorary swordsman, finally dons the blood-red, full-bodied warrior armor that you’ve seen in all the movie ads. It’s a moment that illustrates the film’s sheer vanity – the allure of seeing a white face in such an exotic setting – and also the length it will go to in order to render a foreign culture safe for U.S. consumption.

This is a movie so obsessed with chasing Japanese mythology – honor above everything – that it’s blind to the political and social concerns that are implied by such a single-minded fascination. “The Last Samurai” is yet another Hollywood spectacle in the business of exploring non-Western cultures through takeover. While we’ve recently had a rash of U.S. films utilizing Eastern aesthetics – the “Matrix” and “Kill Bill” – “The Last Samurai” is a little different. Not only is the film entranced by Asian themes, but it dares to tinker with the history of the country it is commandeering.

“The Last Samurai” takes place in 1876, during a period of intense change in Japan. The small country is in the midst of transforming itself from a feudal samurai state into a modern, Westernized superpower. In the film, Tom Cruise, playing a Civil War veteran, is hired by the Japanese government to train its novice Western-style military so that it may crush a samurai rebellion. But after Cruise is captured by the samurai, he switches sides, having realized that the new, capitalist heart of modern Japan and the corruption it entails reminds him too much of his own country.

With that, Cruise becomes our guide through director Edward Zwick’s vision of the honor-obsessed samurai. This tendency for Hollywood to only explore nonwhite cultures with the safety of a white tour guide is always disconcerting. But with “The Last Samurai,” the situation becomes almost unbearable as Cruise is actually posited as the last living member of this warrior code. There’s something disturbing about a U.S. movie so drunk with admiration for another culture that it’s willing to reshape what it adores in its own image.

Of course, this is the same director who told the story of an all-black regiment in the Civil War through the eyes of Matthew Broderick. That movie, 1989’s “Glory,” would have retained its fervor and even increased its validity had Denzel Washington, the soul of the movie, taken center stage.

Zwick must have known some filmgoers would question his politics in “The Last Samurai.” He attempts to quell any rumblings by adding torment to the conscience of Cruise’s cultural explorer. Cruise’s character spilled so much blood while wiping out the American Indian tribes in the United States that he now has nightmares about his past deeds. He feels burdened by his role as conqueror, so much he sympathizes with the rebel samurai who have no chance against the might of a rifle-toting modern Japanese military. This burden of guilt Cruise wears like a ball and chain is so see-through that it doesn’t work to mask the film’s naivety, but instead helps to expose its fragile political foundation.

Without giving too much away, the end of the film, where Cruise is crowned the last samurai, is also where the film’s infatuation with Japan’s mythological honor goes too far. The boy emperor, having reluctantly defeated the samurai and having brought his country into modern times, proclaims that Japan will not forget where it came from.

It will not forget such wholesome attributes as honor and dignity, as it embarks on a modernized journey into the 20th century. This posturing is unfortunately misleading, because the Japanese empire wound up becoming a feared imperialist superpower. And within 50 years, Japan had plundered much of eastern Asia. When movies play with historical events in such a casual way, they risk clouding passages of history that are already foggy, especially when it’s history that doesn’t have much resonance for most Westerners.

It is commendable when Hollywood takes an interest in other cultures. But when it inserts itself, takes over and assimilates those cultures, the U.S. movie machine carries out a program of cultural imperialism. “The Last Samurai” does not recite history. Rather, it uses history as a playground for a familiar white face to take filmgoers on a safe, vicarious journey through samurai showdowns and debates about honor.