Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 06, 2003 5:54 pm 
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Be kind to your feudal friends

It's easy enough to trash Edward Zwick's new movie. You can say it's just another silly story of a white boy condescending to 'natives' -- one that's all too similar to Kevin Costner's slightly embarrassing and very much over-praised 1990 Dancing with Wolves. The odyssey of Captain Nathan Algren is both idealized and preposterous. It can be seen as insulting, if you think all those Asians are just dying onscreen to make Tom Cruise look like a hero. It's awfully convenient that the main Japanese character is quite fluent in English even though he's a samurai warlord living in a remote village in the 1870's. It's easy to argue that this is all ridiculous wish-fulfillment stuff; that it not so much tells a story as manipulates images and emotions, pursuing its fantasy of nobility in the face of modern, urban, westernized corruption. It's utopian racism, exalting an outmoded, aristocratic feudal code that was already long bankrupt by the time Algren came to it, and suggesting that Japan ought to have stayed out of the twentieth century.

It's also easy to point out that Tom Cruise is unimpressive in physique and stature and lacks emotional power onscreen. Indeed he's unconvincing as the drunken, burnt-out soldier he's supposed to be at the outset.

But those who dismiss Tom Cruise in this role forget that he's Tom Cruise. Not only do millions of people go to see his movies, but his is a personality that exudes drive and charisma, while we either sense or actually know that there's something a bit empty and needy at the core of the man, and it's not just a question of missing Nicole. It's therefore very believable that he would have the dedication to master sword fighting, gain his captor's respect, and embrace the Bushido; and that he'd be entranced with Japanese culture, with its emphasis on excelling at everything – and on hiding emotions! Anyone has to admit that Cruise is more than adequate at the technical, physical side of his part -- he not only does his own sword fighting and stunts, but also does them sharply. This isn't a movie that cheats the way Gladiator did: in hand-to-hand combat, you see all the moves. There's a logic to the physical action in every Last Samurai battle, large or small, practice or to-the-death, that's very satisfying. The Last Samurai contains some of the best fight scenes ever. Yes, Tom works a little too hard, but it pays off in the fights.

To condemn The Last Samurai's gaijin ethno-centrism is to overlook the fact that in its somewhat simplistic way it pays homage to the most essential aspects of Japanese culture. Its depiction of the samurai reveals such centrally important Japanese values as face, honor, duty, politeness and the Bushido tradition that the samurai 'shows no sign of joy or anger.' Algren is a visitor in a foreign world, one which he comes to admire deeply. We aren't told much about that culture, but we're shown people and an environment of great beauty. The ironies of Kurosawa's samurai are missing, but the look of them is splendidly captured. Thanks to Lilly Kilvert's designs, Ngila Dickson's costumes, and John Toll's cinematography (not to mention Zwick's orchestration of the great battles), this movie has fantastic production values. Scene after scene, shot after shot, it never ceases to be a real aesthetic pleasure to look at. Sure, it's a bit adolescent to imagine a white man at the center of all this (it's a boy's fantasy), but the Japanese people aren't condescended to. And how else would you lure a western audience in to get a glimpse of this moment in Japanese history? The whole presence of Algren -- who, by the way, is never referred to as a 'samurai' in the picture -- is a cinematic device that allows a depiction of the encounters between America and Japan at the time of the Satsuma rebellion when the emperor Meiji was young. The focus of the story on the last few members of a warrior clan is a very literary one. It's as elegiac as an Anglo-Saxon lament. It's the celebration of a lost world that holds disappearing values to be superior to anything in the new world. Is that wrong? Is it false? I confess to feeling a resurgence of my deepest Luddite sentiments while watching the Gatling guns being cranked around and mowing down armored samurai on horseback, faring forth in their last charge, destroyed as if being fed into a meat grinder. It's as good an indictment of modern technology as has been seen for many a reel.

Last Samurai is also a depiction of an American who goes to battle against Americans in a foreign land, a theme so daring in these times that US critics have managed to completely overlook it. John Patterson of the London Guardian did not. He suggests -- and it's not too far fetched -- that Tom Cruise's Algren is "a John Walker Lindh figure."

The trouble with the film is not the still-wet-behind-the-ears white hero or the simplifications of Japanese culture and history, but the general absence of irony. Irony is something that any dying race quickly learns. You get a hint of what might have been when Katsumoto (the admirable Ken Watanabe) keeps talking about trying to find the last line of his poem. You would get more irony if anyone besides Katsumoto, with a third point of view, could come in and talk to Algren about the downside of the job: about how the samurai were no longer anything but palace guards and hired killers, like mafia hit men (a reality that Kurosawa does show in his samurai movies, which Zwick professes to adore). An example of a movie with splendid irony is Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 Le Samouraï, starring the cool, implacable Alain Delon.

The Last Samurai however isn't a delicate piece of film noir like Le Samouraï; it's a Technicolor epic in the grand tradition. Sure, Zwick is no John Ford or David Lean, but if you'll sit back and relax he'll give you a grand time. And there's nary a terminator or replicant in sight. My reaction when it was over was: 'That was a lot of nonsense – but I loved every minute of it!'

My choice for Edward Zwick's best film: the meandering but charming 1986 About Last Night, his version of David Mamet's play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, with Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, and James Belushi.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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