Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
What does the Japanese audience have to say about the new samurai epic, “The Last Samurai”?
Translation by Fumie Nakamura
The latest film by director Edward Zwick (director of Glory and producer Traffic and I Am Sam) is a two-and-a-half hour period epic romanticizing samurai and mourning their demise during the mid-19th century. It features Tom Cruise, the international star. The $140 million film came in first at the weekend box office in the states upon its release on December 5, 2003, earning $24.4 million in national ticket sales, the worst opening record for a Cruise feature but far from a let-down according to Warner Bros. The Last Samurai was simultaneously released in Japan and brought in a staggering $8.4 million in its opening weekend, marking Warner Bros.' sixth-biggest all-time opening in the market.
While the movie has obviously garnered tremendous amount of attention both statewide and overseas, The Last Samurai may literally hit closer to home for Japanese viewers for several reasons. The film, though highly fictionalized, is set in mid-19th century Japan when the country opened up to the West and began shedding feudal traditions while adopting imported technological advances. Among the most drastic transformations during this era (known as the Meiji Restoration for the emperor in whose name the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown) occurred in the military. The emperor and his advisors (most of whom were relatively young samurai) revoked the privileged class status and powers of the samurai. They were declared emblematic of the now discredited feudal order. The new regime declared the samurai obsolete and forbade their use of traditional weapons, transferring military power to a modern conscript army (which included peasants and artisans and others heretofore prohibited from taking up arms). This army had foreign advisors and used modern weaponry. The Japanese audience understandably may become more involved as it is based on the history of their ancestors, their land and their culture, even though the story is told through Cruise's character, Civil War veteran, Captain Algren Nathan.
The mixture of flattery, national pride and sentiment seems to have aroused many Japanese to watch The Last Samurai, possibly overriding even Tom Cruise as box office bait. Japan doesn't need an international movie star to invest concern in the story of their bushido tradition, and though there is an obvious reminiscence to the 1990 film, Dances With Wolves, this prototype is about one very important chapter in the history of Japan. For America, Cruise may be its biggest asset in selling The Last Samurai whereas the international celebrity is just icing on the cake for Japan – the cake being an idealized yet positive and historically inspired epic starring the country's own silver screen talents; Ken Watanabe (Katsumoto), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Masato Harada (Omura), Koyuki (Taka), Shun Sugata (Nakao) and Seizo Fukumoto (The Silent Samurai).
JAPANESE REVIEWS OF THE LAST SAMURAI
Goo online's review briefly confronts the issue of positive representation of Japan in western film and interprets the samurai as the heroes of the story. It also highlights the performances of the Japanese actors and notes the positive aspect of the film's "Americanized" directing.
"Hollywood has always depicted Japan as something strange and peculiar, the unknown aliens, and I, as Japanese, have always felt uncomfortable with this created image of Japan. Captain Algren Nathan, swayed by the waves of transition during the Civil War, has hardly any honor and self-dignity left but regains the spirit he once lost by absorbing the values cherished by the samurai in a foreign country far across the sea. There, Nathan is the alien, and the samurai folk that he encounters are illustrated as the heroes unlike many other (Hollywood) movies."
"Ken Watanabe's powerful performance as Katsumoto easily matches up to the fine acting of Tom Cruise. Other experienced actors, such as Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Masato Harada (Omura), and Seizo Fukumoto (The Silent Samurai), give stunning and outstanding performances, showing the core essence of the Japanese way of acting created by Japanese actors and crews. Some aspects of the film's directing still seem very "Americanized," but Hollywood's passion toward making the film as real as possible beautifully contrasts the two cultures. The film turns out to be a convincing, powerful, and an enjoyable monumental work."
By Tomomi Katsuta
Tomomi Katsuta of Mainichi Shinbun gives a fair overview of the film, appreciating certain historical accuracies as well as pointing out why the illustrated perception of the samurai can be misleading.
"Over time, Americans, whose historical background as a nation is relatively short compared to other countries in the world, have repetitively depicted a story in which an American encounters a different culture and traditions cherished by a people and becomes deeply touched and inspired by their values. "The Last Samurai" shows the director's understanding of bushido, the samurai's code of honor, through an accurate illustration of the somber atmosphere of the samurai village at the time. The film also takes great advantage of the use of Hollywood sensationalism used especially in the battle scenes."
"However, the film sends a certain negative message that the Japanese lost values and loyalty as a result of putting an end to the age of the samurai, which can be misleading. Even the samurai had some vulgar attributes. Overall, the film may not be a story of the samurai based on complete historical truth; it is rather a story of an "Americanized" or idealized version of the samurai, a story of a utopia to Americans."
Additional Note by Yutaka Takahashi
Yutaka Takahashi also notes the impressive detailing of the samurai village in the film, confirming its historical realism but is well aware of its heavy romanticism and questions the final battle scene where the samurai are slaughtered by modern firearms.
"The breath-taking and eye-catching battle scenes convincingly prove that "The Last Samurai" is one of Hollywood's most spectacular films, and it is apparent in every scene (such as the set up of the samurai village) that the director and his crew thoroughly researched Japan's past culture before filming. However, it is slightly conflicting that after all of the "conversations" that Katsumoto and Nathan shared, they still went ahead and fought the imperial army, in which they were guaranteed to be defeated… Overall, the film focuses on Tom Cruise as Nathan, whose dignity is crushed after massacring the Indians under General Custer, then travels across the seas and encounters the country of the samurai; it is rather a glorified story of the samurai through the eyes of Nathan."
By Yoshinobu Takebe
Yoshinobu Takebe takes a nostalgic approach in reviewing the film, noting missing samurai values in modern society. In contrast to Takashi's review, Takebe fully acknowledges the inevitable consequences of the final battle scene from a morally inspired point of view.
"What is missing in Japanese people today seems to be gracefulness. In other words, people today in general are not brave, courageous, or confident in themselves. We also tend to get caught up in our own small perceptions. In contrast, samurai in the past had all of these attributes that we are losing today. I wonder if what we truly are missing in ourselves today is that samurai spirit."
"In the Meiji era, practices, customs, and traditions from the previous Edo era were disposed as things of the past due to the transition toward a more westernized nation that the Japanese government aspired."
"It's an interesting thought to present the samurai as still in existence ten years after the beginning of the Meiji era. The head of the samurai group in the film is Katsumoto, who has once worked for the Emperor, values bushido more than anything. To the new Meiji government, Katsumoto and his followers are the biggest burdens that halt the completion of Japan's modernization."
'Would a Hollywood actor fully understand such things as the samurai spirit?'
"This was the thought that kept occupying my mind until I saw the actual film. However, the film did an unexpectedly better job at comprehending the spirit from a foreign perspective and visualizing it in the film."
"The crew must have researched Japan's historical details exceedingly well. Therefore, the film was not disappointing at all compared to others in the past."
"One of the things that I paid close attention to was Tom Cruise's sword skills because it could have easily been delivered as just a flashy presentation of unsophisticated toy sword-like fighting. Despite my initial concern, I was mesmerized by breath-taking scenes and was fully convinced that Cruise had gone through very intense training."
"The last fight scene is of the type that has not occurred in movies of recent years: the first after the film, 'Brave Heart.'"
"The scenes in which the outnumbered samurai proceed to fight the enemy and their modern firearms with only their swords were very touching. What drove these samurai soldiers to die like this? Japan no longer saw any use in the existence of the samurai, so the only alternative left for the obsolete warriors was to end the era in a gallant manner with honor."
"The final battle scenes beautifully visualized this transition in history. In spite of the bewildering and rapidly changing early Meiji era, I found it somewhat refreshing to see how the samurai stayed faithful to traditional values and spirit and boldly acted upon them."
Date Posted: 1/9/2004