The Last Samurai

Hollywood has given us a run of surprisingly good movies recently.
By ‘surprisingly good‘ I mean that they’re rather better
than one might expect from their genre. Loony Toons: Back In
Action
, for example, could have been a mere merchandising
vehicle, a repetition of clichés and tired sight gags. Instead
it was a wickedly funny combination of Animaniac edginess with classic
Warner Brothers wackiness. It has a few moments of true brilliance
— the sequence in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through
Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (think of melting clocks)
is jaw-droppingly wonderful, sublime art.

Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World was
also a surprising treat. I’ve read all 20 of the Aubrey/Maturin
novels. The movie doesn’t capture their texture and depth —
that would be impossible, they are deeply literary works — but
as an adventure movie that refers to the books without insulting the
reader’s intelligence it works quite well.

The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter
movies are so good that hard-core fans of their respective books are
still pinching themselves, wondering when they’re going to wake up to
the discovery that they’re actually watching the usual dumbed-down
Hollywood crap. (I say this as a Tolkien fan so hard-core that I was
able to catch nuances of the spoken Elvish that weren’t in the
subtitles.)

Of course there have been dreadful turkeys where we expected
better, as well. The third Matrix movie and Star
Wars: Attack of the Clones
leap to mind. But dreadful turkeys
are part of the normal scene; what’s abnormal is that New
Line gave Peter Jackson the money and freedom to make
Rings movies that, while rushed and not without the
occasional compromise, are almost achingly good.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that (a) was
a book adaptation faithful enough for the fans to cheer it, (b) got
great reviews from movie critics, and (c) was boffo box office? Just
counting the Rings and Potter movies and Master & Commander,
we’ve now had five of these in relatively quick succession. Something
is going on here. Can it be that Hollywood is having an attack of
intelligence and taste?

(My wife Cathy suggests Saving Private Ryan as a
precursor of the trend.)

The movie that pushed me to think about this as a pattern, rather
than a series of isolated incidents, is The Last Samurai.
I’d been wanting to see this one since the first trailers six months
ago, but was braced for a disappointment on the scale of Pearl
Harbor
. Hollywood’s record on wide-screen historicals is
dreadful; they tend to be laughably ahistorical — either
mindless spectacles or video sermonettes for whatever form of
political correctness was in vogue the week they were made. Remarkably,
The Last Samurai almost completely avoids these flaws.

I said “almost completely”. The movie is not without
flaws. But even the flaws are interesting. They illustrate the ways
in which Hollywood’s metric for a good (or at least successful) movie
is changing.

Let’s start with the bad stuff. First, way too much camera time
that could have been better employed gets spent on emotive closeups of
the lead’s phiz (a misfeature The Last Samurai shares with the first two Ring
movies and I am thus beginning to think of as ‘the Frodo
flaw’). But this is Hollywood and it’s Tom Cruise and one
supposes such excess is inevitable.

Secondly, the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we
are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the
use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms
and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse
archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before
Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from
the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were
actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.

But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are
intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone
other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had
to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice
thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.

Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are
given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored
using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a
generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a
separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end
of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on
samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and
elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most
exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).

In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat
training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets
and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the
swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this
attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of
these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to
meet their expectations.

One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai
ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand
sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real
samurai delvered the coup de grace by decapitating their
opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.

No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was
a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on
a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name
and rank would be displayed to best advantage.

While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the
wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the
behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that
‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to
serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of
“protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not
part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the
people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the
Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.

Now for some of the good stuff. It begins with an amazingly strong
performance by Ken Watanabe as the rebel daimyo Katsumoto. From the
first moment that you see him, you believe him; there are no moments
of hey-I’m-Tom-Cruise to mar his immersion in the character, for
which excellent reason he actually upstages Cruise at several key points.

Through Katsumoto and the other Japanese characters, we are made to
see the intertwined quests for perfection of both technique and self
that was so central to the samurai warrior-mystic. Indeed, there are
points at which the filmmakers have some subtle fun with the fact that
Americans of our day, having successfully naturalized Japanese martial
arts into our own culture, have learned to understand that path rather
better than Cruise’s Captain Algren does. I’m thinking especially of
the point at which a bystander watching Algren lose at sword practice
tells him he has “too many minds”. The viewer probably knows what
he is driving at even if Algren does not.

Better: the movie is properly respectful of Japanese virtues
without crossing the line into supine multiculturalism. Captain
Algren appreciates and accepts the best of an alien culture
without renouncing his identity as a Westerner, an officer,
and a gentleman. There is a telling scene after Algren has been
accepted into the life of his Japanese hosts in which he takes a heavy
load from Taka (the female lead), who protests that Japanese men never
help with such things.

Algren replies that he is not a Japanese man. In this and other
ways he refutes an already-standard knock on the movie, which is to
refer to it as “Dances with Samurai”. But this movie,
despite the flaws I’ve pointed out, is more honest and far less
sentimental about the samurai than Dances With Wolves was
about its Sioux. This is progress of a sort.

Algren’s romance with Taka is also handled with a degree of
restraint that is appropriate but surprising. We get no sexual
cheap thrills; instead, we get subtle but extremely powerful
eroticism, notably in the scene where Taka dresses Algren in her
dead husband’s armor just before the final battle.

The film is visually quite beautiful. The details of costume,
weapons, armor, and the simple artifacts of Japanese village life are
meticulously and correctly rendered. In fact there are a number of
points at which the setting is stronger than the script and carries
one through places where the plotting is a bit implausible.

This contrast is an illustration of the uneven way in which
standards have risen. The Last Samurai, the Rings
movies, Master & Commander, and the Harry Potter movies
all have vastly better production values than (I think) they would
have had even ten years ago — perhaps the huge advances in
special-effects technology have created a sort of upward pressure on
the quality of movies’ depictions of reality. On the other hand,
downright silly plot twists are still acceptable and the conventions
of the star-vehicle film remain firmly in place.

One gets ahistorical howlers and (in fiction) violations of the
spirit of the original work, but fewer than formerly. In all these
movies, you can see where they were trimmed to fit Hollywood’s
marketing needs, but the trimming is done with a lot more sensitivity
and taste than it used to be. Occasionally one even sees outright
improvements — the moment in Peter Jackson’s version of
Boromir’s death scene in which the fallen Gondorian hails Aragorn as
his king, for example, achieves more power and poignancy than
Tolkien’s original.

I like this trend a lot, but I’m not sure I understand it. The
Hollywood establishment is in business to make money, but the link
between market demand and the quality of films has always been
tenuous at best. It would be nice to think that film audiences
have required filmmakers to exhibit better taste by developing
better taste themselves, but in the face of all the awful schlock
that still gets churned out and makes money, this is a difficult
case to sustain in general.

It feels to me more as though some balance of power within the
system has shifted and, for whatever reason, creative artists
have gained power at the expense of the marketeers. Thus, for
example, Rowling had more than somewhat to do with the casting
of the Harry Potter movies, and Peter Jackson’s films display
a nearly obsessive concern with getting the look of Middle-Earth
right that could hardly be shared by a typical studio exec.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad of the trend. I spend a lot more
time in movie theaters than I use to — and that’s the
message Hollywood wants to hear.

33 thoughts on “The Last Samurai

  1. I’m curious about one samurai detail, regarding their use of guns. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond writes that there was initial enthusiasm for guns in Japan (1543 to c. 1600), but eventually the samurai-controlled government gradually regulated guns almost out of existence (pp. 257-258). The problem, it seems, was that guns threatened the ritual speech-making and sword-fighting of the samurai, since any peasant with a gun could intervene with lethal effect.

    Is Diamond’s account right? If it is, then perhaps the anti-gun spin in The Last Samurai isn’t (only) the result of the Hollywood left’s anti-gun bias, but rather reflects a real historical backlash against guns after an initial burst of enthusiasm.

  2. I knew that judo originated in Okinawa but thought it spread from there to China for some unknown reason. Interesting. “Judo” per se of course isn’t a “self defense” discipline but is intended purely for recreational purposes, i.e., it’s a “sport.”

    Didn’t like Lord of the Rings I. Fell asleep. Costumes and story line seemed phony to me. Yes, know am in minority. Need to check out “The Last Samarai.”

    PS: I like to think that when Hollywood makes good movies they do so because they will make more money that way. Sadly there are too many bad money makers for my thought to fly.

  3. I’m gonna try and say this without descending into Geek Power mindlessness, but is it possible that the rise of the ‘net has at least something to do with this? Pre-net, people who would notice the blatant ahistorical elements or the places where the screenplay had nothing to do with the source material were a) few, b) not in contact with each other, and c) not in contact with the general public.
    Now, they may still be relatively few, but they’re in regular contact with each other and they have forums they can use to get the word out to the interested-but-ignorant. Thus, by getting things right, Hollywood cuts way down on grassroots badmouthing of their products.
    It further occurs to me that Hollywood may be recognizing geeks (and by this I mean any sort of geek, not just the computer sort) as a good market. If you correctly depict someone’s obsession, odds are they’re going to want to see that depiction over and over (and then buy the Special Edition DVD).

  4. I think one thing that is taking effect on Hollywood is the speed at which bombs are found out. There was an article (/Dot I think) about how Hollywood used to not worry too much about bad films because they had about 3 or 4 days of box office before word would get around about how bad it was. Now with sms and the net the word is getting around in 3 or 4 hours and Hollywood is worried that it is loosing money because of it. I’m wondering if this (hopefully perminant) upgrade in film quality is part of a response to this and feedback from the public saying we are smarter than you think and want at least semi-intelligent movies.
    I do wonder though at the costs of making a movie. Sometimes it hard to see how they can spend $300 million in six months.

  5. While it may be true that the samurai did not exactly disdain firearms, it is also untrue to claim that they embraced them with gusto. Even up through the Meiji Restoration and beyond battles were invariably expected to proceed along traditional lines, with archery duels followed by personal combat. The firearm was used by the lowest-ranking bushi and not those of higher rank, who relied almost exclusively upon their considerable swordsmanship. Since these men were the driving force of strategy, the gun – despite its efficacy – was underused.

    Additionally, unarmed combat was indeed not commonly used by the samurai, but it was quite well developed at that time by the downtrodden peasants, who, when forbidden to carry weapons, sought other methods of defense.

  6. haven’t worked out if tofubar is complimenting you or not.
    One of things with the Hollywood star factory – One of the reasons we see a ‘hey-I’m-Tom-Cruise’ moment is that the star transcends the character rather than vice-versa. This will always happen more when the star is a celebrity (ala Tom or Rusell Crowe), rather than a Hugo Weaving (Matrix) or a Paul Bettany (Master & Commander).

  7. It’s my understanding that judo was formulated by Jigoro Kana as a synthesis of three styles of jujitsu, which is what the samurai practiced. Granted, the weapons were the primary focus of their training, but they hardly neglected unarmed training. The kito school, for example, flourished prior to the Meiji Restoration.

  8. Two comments:

    1. Spider-Man is another example; Ten years ago, no self-respecting Hollywood marketroid would have let Peter Parker not get the girl at the end of the movie.

    2. Spider-Man and Harry Potter do, however share the same flaw; the CGI characters are still noticeably CGI. Watching those movies I’m always thinking “Wow, that’s pretty good CGI…” Watching Gollumn, I’m just thinking “Wow!”

  9. Oh yeah, another thing. My understanding is that when O-Sensei was learning Daito-Ryu Aiki-Jutsu, it had been around in the Daito family for quite awhile. On the other hand, quelle suprise, many movements from Daito-Ryu and Aikido come from kenjutsu…

  10. Shaun is correct. Although several Japanese martial arts styles are Okinawan (peasant arts as you referred to them) Samurai did have unarmed combat training which is where modern jiu-jitsu comes from. Bot Aikido and Judo are devrived from Jiu-Jitsu and are not “Okinawan” . “Okinawan” styles are primarily forms of Karate (Goju Ryu for example).

  11. Shaun:
    Yes Jigoro Kano was the orginator of Judo, and yes it was based on a combination of existing jujutsu styles of the time. Until Kano, the fighting arts tended to be taught with in families and not shared with the public (by family I mean household, as retainers, etc. would have been taught the ‘family style’.)

    Also I beg to differ with the author about open hand fighting. Historically the various households/families taught a comprehensive system of weapons and open hand, and even in some areas, how to swim in your armor.

    Schools like Daito-ryu jujutsu descend from this sort of background, not from Okinawa.

    If memory serve the linage is that various individuals were exposed to Chinese Kung Fu styles, brought it back to Japan and then continued to develop it into there own, now unique style. Same thing happend in Okinawa (in that case being a mix of both Japanese and Chinese influence.)

    Sorry, but peasents don’t traditionally develop fighting styles and whole martial systems, they generally don’t have the time.

  12. “The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies are so good that hard-core fans of their respective books are still pinching themselves, wondering when they’re going to wake up to the discovery that they’re actually watching the usual dumbed-down Hollywood crap.”

    YES. That’s it precisely.

  13. Two quick comments:

    First, while a decent movie, it is completely ahistorical in one major area: The troops training the Japanese were NOT American, they were French! The Japanese specifically wanted to base their empire on the European model, not the American model, so they used European advisors.

    Second, regarding the concept of unarmed martial arts not being practiced in Japan until after the Restoration, this is completely untrue. Not only did the Samurai practice Aikijujutsu (the combat precursor to modern Aikido’s “way of life”), but this came from much earlier forms of armored grappling known as kumi uchi, essentially a loose collection of techniques and styles designed for the armored samurai to engage in close-quarters combat with bare hands or improvised weapons (such as the butt-end of the sword as it is drawn from the sheath, etc). Kumi-uchi styles and techniques are documented back some 500-600 years in Japan, and there are bits and pieces of information in various texts going back more than a thousand years.

    To further illustrate this connection, you must realize that the reason Aikijujutsu (and thus, Aikido — Ueshiba killed a lot of people in Korea with Aikijujutsu before his “epiphany”) techniques look similar to sword techniques is that they were done that way by design, so that the practitioner only had to learn a single set of movements that fed into both armed and unarmed styles.

    So when you watch Tom Cruise in the alley battle, notice how he shifts his feet apart and his right rear foot slightly points outward — he is adopting an Aikijujutsu, and therefore sword, stance.

    The techniques used were the real deal.

  14. When you talk about “armored grappling”, you’re sort of making my point for me. What I originally wrote is that unarmed combat did not emerge as a separate discipline with its own forms and schools until after 1877. So, while a scene of armored samurai practicing throws would have been historical, what we actually got in the movie (modern-looking practice by un-armored samurai) was not.

    I’m an aikidoka myself. It is telling that O-Sensei did not found his school until after 1900.

  15. “there are no moments of hey-I’m-Tom-Cruise to mar his immersion in the character…” Sometime in the next 20 to 50 years, it will become possible to replace live actors with fully realistic CGI avatars. This will relieve the viewer of having to pretend that the familiar face on the screen is really the character and not a well-known actor. After this happens, all live-actor films may become quaint antiques, like silent films.

  16. Ummm… In response to esr, I meant unarmored grappling too… Yes the current school system is really thanks to Mr. Kano (one of his inovations was that anyone could lear Judo, you didn’t have to be part of the family/house first.) Historically Japanese martial arts are seperated into two periods… the old schoold bujutsu that can be traced back to some family or clan (e.g. Daito-ryu, now a school is traceable to Takeda-ryu back into the Takeda family) versus ‘modern’ arts like Judo or Aikido.

    I realize this is kinda on the anal side, but there’s a lot of confusion about the overall history of martial arts and a lot of romanticism abou their origin.

    So in summary, yes the modern school systems you see today, that allow anyone to join are a post 1800 invention. But there are styles of open hand, unarmed fighting that predate the 1800′s (again Takeda-ryu, and other family styles as an example.) It is not logical, in my opinion, that one who is training in various weapons and use of armor, would just skip the idea of unarmored combat. A side example would be… iaijutsu, the art of drawing and cutting, was considered dishonorable at one time. One was supposed to annouce one’s name, etc. not just cut a guy down. This did not prevent many families (now iai schools) to come up with techniques and codify them… never know when it will be usfull.

  17. I’m glad you liked the movie, but your thoughts on gun history aren’t backed by the facts. While it’s true gun-armed peasants played a role in the establishment of the Shogunate in the late 1500s, the victors Hideyoshi and Ieyasu disarmed the peasantry, and their successors shut down the gun industry. Almost no new firearms were made or imported into Japan between 1609 and Perry’s arrival in 1853: the arriving Americans commented on the near-total lack of firearms in the country. The samurai who rebelled in the 1870s also explicitly rejected the use of imported firearms. The movie gets it right. See http://www.guncite.com/journals/dkjgc.html.

  18. PS: The Meiji army wasn’t organized on French lines but on Prussian ones. You just have to look at the uniforms to see that. French military prowess wasn’t widely respected in the years right after their 1870 defeat. The Meiji army reforms didn’t kick in until 1878, though, a year after The Last Samurai is apparently set, so it’s not impossible there were American military advisors in the very early stages, as well.

  19. Can you send me any one of the samurai fighting style on my e-mail address. It should contain more than 5 or 6 lines.

  20. Here, this is what happened during that time, Satsuma Takamori created the army that they fought against, the only reason why he left his postion in the army was because of the fact that Kido Koin and Okubo Toshimichi Opposed to his idea about invading Korea! Then that is when the Satsuma rebellion began!

    Jim Howard, P.H.d

  21. If I am not mistaken, unarmed martial arts have existed long prior to the 19th century… for exmaple, Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu emerged around the 10th or 11th century… and in a similar way, jujitsu emerged around the 17th century (if not way earlier)… just a thought.

  22. I swear yall need to realize that not everything has to be about taking guns out of the hands of citizens you bunch of tards. The Last Samuria is a film about bravery courage and love for ones country. It may be hard for some you to believe this but other countries can be patriotic to. American’s have been ass since we came into existince always rape ing and pillaging other nations that didn’t stand a chance against us. We have lost honor in that we haven’t fought an enemy with our hearts and our souls only our technology which is exactly what the movie is trying to say. That there is more to war than a winner there is also how you fought the war. Try reading a story like Beowulf sometime maybe then you would understand.

  23. Also I beg to differ with the author about open hand fighting. Historically the various households/families taught a comprehensive system of weapons and open hand, and even in some areas, how to swim in your armor

  24. DUde, I wanna thank you so much, we had to write a 5 paragraph essay on whether or not the last samurai was historically inaccurate or accurate and this is just wat i needed to ge tme strted, thanks a bunch man and keep on writing! im now an avid reader of yur blog lol =) Great Job !

  25. The last samurai to me is the formost amazing film in history, while depicting the falws in the western culture and emphasising the beauty of eastern traditions. At the time when the last samurai came out to theatres i didnt give it a second thought, because like ever i was on the lord of the rings band wagon. But seeing it on DVD i was sad that i had missed it, its portrayel of the Samurai was an insperation to me and has imprinted the idea of perfection in my mind. I have because of this movie changed my attitude towards certain aspects of my life, i have joined an Aikido class, bought swords and bows, practice as often as i can and have taken more steps towards my dream of becoming a proffessional stage combat performer since i have seen the movie than i ever did in my life. Thankyou Edward Zwick, Tom cruise, Ken Wanatebe and especially Hiroyuki Sanada for your awe inspiring role as the fearless Ujio, along with all the other actors, stunt performers, cast and all the ohter behind the camera staff for changinig my life. If on the off chance anyone from the creation or anyone invloved with the project of the Last Samurai read this let me know if hteir is any way to show my apreciation.

  26. I hated “The Last Samurai”.

    Shame on Hans Zimmer for the most stupid soundtrack ever.

    My friend Herbert summed it up best: The Japanese can’t even have the last samurai anymore… it must be an american… tsc tsc

    It is also frightening to see the same formula all over the place. Dances with Wolves, The Patriot, whatever…

  27. >The Japanese can’t even have the last samurai anymore… it must be an american… tsc tsc

    Your friend is an idiot. The “last samurai” of the title wasn’t the American, it was Katsumoto.

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