Dances with Wolves Goes to Japan
The Last Samurai
reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, December 15, 2003
Perhaps the most memorable character created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz for that quintessential 80s' television show "thirtysomething" was the "samurai advertising man" Miles Drentell, a sinister executive who justified each new swindle with parables drawn from the martial moralists of Japan.
Drentell proved less satiric than prophetic. Two-thirds of a century after the Rape of Nanking, these feudal philosophies of violence occupy a revered place in American media culture. Now, Zwick is back (with script assistance from Herskovitz), directing Tom Cruise as an American cavalry captain hired in 1876 to train Japanese peasant soldiers to put down a samurai rebellion, but who instead learns to admire the old-fashioned "way of the warrior." The "The Last Samurai" is a lovely looking but staggeringly reactionary $100 million elegy for the good old days when an insulted aristocrat could restore his honor by decapitating an insolent commoner on the spot.
This is the fifth military movie Zwick has made. He obviously loves war, but his liberal conscience requires him to inject into each film some multiculturalist moralizing. His first and best war flick, "Glory," was a deserved tribute to the black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Unfortunately, his subsequent efforts, such as "Courage Under Fire" (about a ferocious Desert Storm chopper pilot played by, of all people, Meg Ryan), have been silly.
Zwick's spin machine faces its greatest challenge in "The Last Samurai" because it's essentially an ode to Japanese militarism. Rather than just revel in the cruelty of the samurai tradition, like Quentin Tarantino does in "Kill Bill," Zwick tries to justify his fascination with superb swords hacking human flesh by concocting a clever rationalization for why the Meiji Emperor's destruction of the samurai was America's fault. Yet, as David St. Hubbins pointed out in "Spinal Tap," there's such a fine line between clever and stupid.
The samurai paralleled Europe's knights, but while the latter were rendered militarily obsolete in the 15th Century by hoi polloi with armor-piercing longbows and guns, Japan's hereditary swordsmen used gun controls laws to maintain their bullyboy status into the 1870s.
"The Last Samurai" is a highly romanticized version of the Satsuma revolt under Takamori Saigo, a general who had helped bring the Meiji Restoration reformers to power in 1868, but who resigned as commander of the Imperial Guard in 1873 when his fellow cabinet-members rejected his plan to invade Korea.
Increasingly, the young samurai advising the Emperor realized that to modernize Japan enough to prevent its conquest by a European power, they would have to eliminate the parasitical privileges of their own class. Other samurai were less forward-looking. Deprived of their traditional welfare payments and ordered to stop wearing their swords, they rebelled and made Saigo their warlord.
The new national army of peasants shredded their historic oppressors. Defeated, Saigo committed seppuku. The Emperor pardoned him posthumously, however, and his foolhardy valor became an inspiration to the Shinto adventurers who staged the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
So, how does Zwick put a progressive paintjob on such medieval material? He has Cruise play an alcoholic, almost suicidal veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing a massacre of Blackfoot Indians ordered by his criminal colonel. This genocidal officer is hired as an advisor by an equally evil Japanese capitalist (who is in cahoots with the amoral American ambassador) because of his expertise in fighting "savages."
Get it? Zwick's brainstorm is to portray the samurai as victims of racial prejudice! See, the Meiji modernizers think of the samurai rebels as savages, just as their American puppetmasters think of the Plains Indians as savages. (In reality, Saigo resembled Sitting Bull infinitely less than he resembled Jefferson Davis. And the U.S. had almost zero influence inside the Japanese government at the time.)
Cruise does his best to whip these lackeys into soldiers, but when the samurai charge, the cowardly knaves flee, and our hero is captured. From there, "The Last Samurai" turns into an Eastern "Dances With Wolves." Cruise is held prisoner for the winter in an exquisite mountain village where the samurai spend their days perfecting their swordplay (and the unsightly peasants who keep these lords fed stay respectfully offscreen).
As he masters the martial arts, Cruise finds therapy for his guilt over the Indians in a profound friendship with the rebel leader (who bears a distracting likeness to Yul Brynner in "The King and I"). Together, they resolve to die nobly, banzai-charging side by side into the American Gatling guns.
A little boy asks Cruise admiringly "Are you going to help us fight the white men?" His ex-colonel inquires, "Why do you hate your own people?"
Cruise, normally a reliable leading man, gives a pompous performance in the throes of Oscar-fever. Still, "The Last Samurai" accurately if distastefully depicts the primary emotional characteristic of Japanese militarism: male hysteria.
Rated R for strong violence and battle sequences.