An angry and confused American man, disgusted by the valuelessness, rapacity, and interminable selfishness that he believes characterizes the United States in the throes of unfettered capitalism, finds meaning and community overseas in an antimodern movement dedicated to tradition, discipline, martialism, and fighting Westernization. Taking arms against the side his mother country supports, this scruffy, bearded fellow watches proudly as his comrades-in-arms attempt to achieve honor and purity through a wave of suicide attacks against superior American-backed firepower. The John Walker Lindh story? Nope, The Last Samurai. Funny how the same narrative looks completely different once Tom Cruise gets involved.
Ok, ok, I should say that The Last Samurai is both very well-made and for the most part very enjoyable. Despite having the straightest teeth in the nineteenth century, Cruise is quite good in the lead (give or take the first five minutes — somebody should have already figured out by now that, after Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky, Cruise should never, ever, play a drunk.) Moreover, Ken Watanabe in the semi-fictional title role is a revelation — he commands the screen’s attention and suggests comparison with some of Kurosawa’s stars of yesteryear. There’s tons of solid supporting performances here, particularly by the residents of Katsumoto’s village. The cinematography and the New Zealand scenery (while obviously recalling Middle Earth) are often beautiful, and the action scenes (if not the CGI) are first-rate. And, there’s ninjas in it, and, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool.
But, still, something about the film ultimately left me hollow, and it wasn’t just the drawn-out, increasingly Hollywood-y ending. In some ways, the movie seemed like a textbook-case fictionalization of T.J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: An American seeks meaning and refuge from the vicissitudes of Gilded Age capitalism in the antimodern, the martial, and the Orient. So, in that sense, the history checks out.
But, as Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club points out, many – if not most – Americans who’d fought in the Civil War had soured on the purported romance of dying for a cause (In fact, Menand argues, perhaps a bit dubiously, that it is this realization, borne of Antietam and Cold Harbor, that undergirds the philosophy of pragmatism.) And you’d think that after the carnage of Pickett’s charge and Petersburg, most Civil War veterans — particularly ones as disillusioned as Tom Cruise’s Algren — wouldn’t think charging a Howitzer is a particularly valiant way to go out. (Although I haven’t read the book, I expect Cold Mountain to make some hay of this come Christmas Day.) Besides, c’mon y’all, didn’t we learn anything from WWI?
I know, I know, I’m probably thinking about this way too much. After all, the “fight to the last man in the name of the cause” suicide charge is a staple of both samurai films and war movies (including Edward Zwick’s own Glory), and The Last Samurai is both a very good war movie and a superlative samurai flick. And, of course we’re going to see a few variations on this trope next week in RotK, a film I was lavishly anticipating just one entry ago — in fact, change the costumes a bit and we’ve got the Ride of the Rohirrim here.
But…riding against Sauron is one thing — riding against the United States is (hopefully) another. (For that matter, while they both embrace the antimodern, I’d say the overarching theme of LotR is fighting so your friends can live, not fighting for the sake of dying with honor.) I suppose it’s probably good for a lot of people’s sense of perspective to see an American-made Alamo-type story where the US are the imperialist heavies rather than the freedom fighters (even if nobody seems to be taking it as such.) Still, something about the naked adoration this film displays for its suicidal warriors against Western modernity struck a discordant tone with me.
In short, I thought the movie goes only half the distance — it makes the West morally ambiguous without doing anything but idolizing the martialistic, traditionalist, and antimodern culture of the samurai. In our time, when the clash between antimodernism and the West seems more pertinent than ever, you’d think a movie like this one wouldn’t find so much to relish about suicide charges against American values. And, while Western modernity undoubtedly has a lot to answer for in Japan, there has to be some sort of irony to the fact that US audiences thrilled to the final scene in the Emperor’s chambers on the same weekend as the 62nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Be careful singing the praises of anti-Western martialism, because it may just come back to bite ya.
But, in case you get the wrong idea from my post here, the film is definitely worth seeing. If you see only one movie about Americans in Japan this year, see Lost in Translation. But I’d check this out before Kill Bill. And, in case I didn’t make it clear before, this film’s got ninjas, y’all, ninjas.