The Last Samurai and Blind Idealism

(By Doug Nelson, for the Misunderstood Blog-a-thon.)

The Last Samurai

Edward Zwick is a more-than-competent director who has made some capable movies, and some that I physically detest. This is largely the fault of his love of the “ideal worth dying for,” which is central to most of his movies. I, on the other hand, feel few ideals are worth even discussing, let alone dying for. “Idealist” isn’t a snide put-down without reason.

The Last Samurai is a very beautiful movie, with excellent battle scenes, built around ambivalent racism. The White Man is so superior he learns Japanese fluently and becomes an expert samurai fighter in six months. During this period he also earns the love of the widow and children of the man he killed in battle. In this same timespan, the Japanese army cannot even learn to load and aim a modern rifle properly. I’ll let you guess who the titular warrior ends up being.

According to Zwick, the most evil person is one with no ideals at all. All the battles in this movie pit one imperial army against another, because the emperor cannot make up his mind which ideal is best. Of course, the White Man does not have this problem, disposing with 40 years’ worth of ideals over a single conversation, and instantly adopting a new “ideal worth dying for.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so sour over this movie. It is pretty, and stirring, and has some dramatic scenes. The music is nice, too. It’s essentially high-rent Bruckheimer, outrage-porn for those who enjoy being outraged. Rambo or Red Dawn for the CGI generation.

I mean, what harm could possibly come from anyone preaching that ideals are worth dying (and killing) for?

The Last Samurai sort of surprised me in that I expected not to like it but I did more than I didn’t, despite the flaws you cited and Tom Cruise. If they’d told the story without Cruise’s character, it might have been great.

I don’t follow you here:

It took the “white man” a while to adopt the Ken Wattanabe’s set of ideals and this is also one of the few Tom Cruise movies where he doesn’t bed the girl like Tom Cruise’s characters usually do. They never share an on-screen kiss and they share a mutual bond well before he returns to her home in what we assume might be the next level of their relationship which I think is significant.

You say “The Japanese army” can’t learn to load a rifle properly, but that’s not saying that they’re inferior, transferring the cultural process of the whites’ ways in battle don’t neccessarily work. That’s pointing out cultural relativism: That each culture has its own unique way of doing things that’s equal to any other culture and the Japanese can fight well with swords and what not.

Lastly, two imperial armies aren’t being pitted against each other because the emperor can’t decide. It’s the battle between modernity and tradition, that although not historically accurate reminds me of the later stages of evolution of the Western in a film like Sam Peckinpaugh’s “Wild Bunch”.

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