Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Samurai Parade

Samurai Parade

Samurai Parade (2003)

I guess this event took place before Tom Cruise became the last one.

And just how true to the historical record was that film? Well, what does your inner Thetan tell you?

From Jonathan Dresner at the History News Network:

From the opening voiceover and title to the final scene, The Last Samurai is an historical disaster. I expected it to be bad, based on early reviews. This isn't surprising, of course: popular representations of historical circumstances are often badly done. But this is distinctively and truly awful. There was real drama and adventure in late nineteenth century Japan that could have been even more powerful, but instead we get a pastiche of Dances With Wolves, Karate Kid, Kagemusha and Shogun.

...and real samurai don't take Prozac...

Go figure. He's all action.

[Doll seen at ToyMangler]


  • Most samurai lived in large urban areas, though low-ranking Satsuma samurai were some of the few who lived in the country and also farmed. Even then, nobody lived in the mountains if they could avoid it.

  • The method of "no mind" is not "The Force" -- simply a matter of clearing one's mind of distractions and then the right thing will happen. It is a Daoist concept, originally, which became part of the martial arts tradition in China , then in Japan and elsewhere. It is a function of training constantly (certainly over more than four months) so that one can react instinctively, automatically, to a rapidly developing situation. Effortlessness comes after lots of hard work. The Karate Kid got that part right, actually.

  • The notion that the samurai have been "protectors of the nation" for nine hundred or a thousand years (and Katsumoto uses both figures) is absurd: the samurai began as rent collectors and estate protectors for the Kyoto nobility, and evolved into an aristocracy in their own right. Only against the Mongols (1274, 1281) can they be considered protectors of Japan ; it's highly unlikely that Katsumoto's clan was in one place that entire time; very few samurai clans survived the century-long civil war (15-16c) and most of those were relocated in the late 1500s. The Shimazu family which ruled Satsuma did originate in the 11th or 12th century, but Saigo Takamori wasn't a Shimazu. Like most samurai, his family attained warrior status in the 1500s and were unremarkable low-ranking retainers until Saigo.

  • Taka, attempting to refuse Algren's help with housework, says that "Japanese men don't do that." But many Japanese men did a great deal around the house, just not samurai. The Japanese very rarely referred to themselves as a collective, particularly on cultural matters, as early as 1876-77.

  • When they eat, they are consistently shown eating fluffy white rice, but only the wealthiest Japanese ate that regularly, and certainly rural samurai would have been more likely to eat rice gruel and other grains like barley and millet and buckwheat, either as gruel or as noodles, that grow better in upland conditions. And the movie glosses over Algren's introduction to chopsticks, which is not an insignificant event in acculturation.

  • By 1877, very few Japanese would have been particularly frightened of samurai, even samurai as backwards as Katsumoto's band, nor would they have bowed en masse. Urban Japanese had gotten over treating common samurai like daimyo lords a long time before.

  • Even allowing for Algren's remarkable immersion in Japanese language and culture, the likelihood is pretty small that he'd have run across the Japanese term for "President" in a rural samurai village, but that doesn't stop him from understanding the term when it comes up in a crisis.

  • Algren's first experience with armor on the day of the climactic battle is pretty implausible. Even allowing for superior physical conditioning and excellent training and the fact that Japanese armor is light and flexible relative to its Western analogues, there's almost no way he wears it as comfortably as he is shown.

  • The samurai warrior-cherry blossom (sakura) motif is so clich├ęd that I was surprised that it came up at all, and nearly laughed out loud when it came back just in time for Katsumoto's death. Judging by color, the blossoms were plum, not cherry.

Does it matter? Perhaps not. Perhaps it's too much to expect that our entertainments have a factual basis. But now I have to deal with the aftermath, with students who will think that all samurai (all five hundred of them, instead of nearly two million) were pure warriors who lived in the mountains, instead of as underemployed urbanite bureaucrats. I have to explain how rare seppuku (ritual suicide, also known as hara-kiri) was, how tenuous the samurai sense of loyalty, how the Japanese did not "Americanize," and I have to hope that my careful deconstruction can make some dent in the technicolor, surroundsound, adrenaline-enhanced images in their minds. The Meiji transformation of Japan is one of the most dramatic social and economic periods in modern history, and it ties directly to some of the most important turning points and processes of the twentieth century and present. But instead, The Last Samurai is another barrier to understanding, a step backwards in our collective education.

I like samurai movies, and recently watched two very good ones: Kazuo Karoki's Ronin Gai and Yoji Yamada's The Twilight Samurai. But no amount of couch jumping in ritual armor will have Cruise making the cut as a samurai.

But I do think he is a shoo-in for another role in quasi-Japanese cinema. Remember the brief "love scene" Gogo has in Kill Bill? Where she asks a Japanese businessman if he wants to "penetrate her" before squeezing his balls like kiwi fruit and penetrating him with her sword? Well, I like to think of Cruise as born to play that guy...

...and then, suddenly, the historical record seems more elegantly balanced.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Back in the days of the movie codes where everything had to be squeaky clean and upbeat, movies got the reputation for being unrealistic and fanciful; but I think that reputation is still valid today, just in a different way, as you've pointed out here.

Bridge Over the River Kwai is one that really bugs me. My Grandfather was a Japanese POW for almost the whole war and neither his experience nor that of any other POW was as civilized as that which was depicted in the movie.

I think the movie genre is handicapped by the high cost of production; movies have to make a lot of money, which means having popular appeal and that usual means becoming a circus of entertainment.

I find if I want to really learn about something I have to go to a book.

Isn't it sad how much money goes into movies like this? Think of the great cultural projects that could of been realized with all that.

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