A Cruise through Japan's political past


The Last Samurai
Directed and written by Edward Zwick
With Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe
Showing at major cinemas


Any serious examination of The Last Samurai must consider the historical context in which the film places its storyline. We are accustomed to Hollywood taking extreme licence with history, often diluting it to a mere montage for background ambience. Contrary to what some reviewers have written, The Last Samurai still manages to reflect the political events that created modern Japan.

The Last Samurai is the tale of a washed-out veteran of the US Civil War (played by Tom Cruise), who becomes a mercenary in Japan soon after the overthrow of the Shogunate and the restoration of imperial rule in 1868, known as the Meiji Restoration. He ultimately rediscovers his dignity by joining a samurai rebellion against the encroaching world of the West.

You read it right: Tom Cruise, all-American hero, signs on with the anti-globalisation movement!

In fact, when you begin to look further into the historical threads from which the film is hung, it becomes an even more interesting take on where the world of today came from. How is it that, of all countries after the rise of international capitalism, Japan was able to avoid the sentence of "underdevelopment" and challenge for economic hegemony by the beginning of the 20th century? How did they manage to do that and keep the competition at bay?

It was not because Cruise saved Japan from itself. There's more to it than that, fortunately.

When Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is recruited as a military adviser — yes, they had them back there then too — to Japan's new conscript army, his first engagement is against the rebel samurai led by the Katsumoto (Watanabe). The samurai were the military aristocracy of feudal Japan.

Katsumoto is based on a real figure — Saigo Takamori — who supported the emperor in the Meiji Restoration. However, Takamori led an 1877 samurai revolt against the government after the warriors' salaries were eliminated and Westernisation threatened their way of life.

While the rebellion was more economic and cultural than political, the Samurai Wars were the final stage in the political revolution that Japan was undergoing. The brutal irony is that it was samurai like Takamori who first led the revolutionary process that overthrew feudal Japan — displacing the Shogunate lords and, under patronage of the emperor, instituted government by council based on the the Five Articles of 1868 — a sort of democratic charter.

The samurai did worse out of the revolution than their former lords and after trying to reassert their authority in the face of the new conscript army, Takamori resigned from the new governing council. Later at the battle of Shiroyama, he led the now desperate samurai against a 300,000-strong army of conscripted peasants. He is reputed to have committed ritualistic suicide when his forces were defeated.

The Last Samurai pursues the idea that, when caught in the conflict between the old and the new, sometimes protagonists will choose the old. In allying himself with Katsumoto/Takamori, Cruise's character begins to consider the options confronting Japan at the time — and the way this movie tells it, national independence is preferable to being a lackey of the US.

Of course, it was never so simple. There's a touch of Luddite fanaticism in this movie' Zen conversion. Too much cherry blossom, and you can't see the wood for the trees. Nonetheless, The Last Samurai is very keen to present the world of imperialism as one you don't want to be part of. While its samurai are cast as knights errant in the best tradition of a Kurosawa movie, the film tends to avoid the fact that the samurai by this time were a bunch of Don Quixotes already marginalised by history.

When you try to read a bit more into this melange, it becomes an interesting exercise in possibilities. Would the people of Japan have been better off if the ethos of the samurai had triumphed? Takamori (as the film fails to point out) had been a keen adherent of a preemptive invasion of Korea. Hardly the stuff of spiritual renewal.

The passing of the last samurai was really the rise of the new militarism of a Japan that was soon to invade Manchuria and of a United States, which, after forcing Japan to trade with it, returned in 1945 to annihilate the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Obviously, in the light of such relentless history, any amount of martial arts, meditation and intuition can only get a people so far.

[For a thoughtful discussion of this period and the samurai wars visit <http://www.marxists.de/fareast/barker/>.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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