Thursday, June 23, 2005

Last night I watched The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise (as himself--he doesn't know how to play anyone else). Technically, he plays a world-weary U.S. Army Captain who is hired to train Japanese army troops in putting down a samurai rebellion. Fate steps in, however, and he is capture by samurai warriors. Stockholm Syndrome sets in, Tommy Boy becomes enamored of his captors and their pure, warrior, naturalistic ideology (*cough*). Apart from a scene involving ninjas and the final battle near the end of the movie, though, it was a pretty dreary film. It was chock-full of the condemnations of 19th Century America that one can pretty much expect from Hollywood these days. For example:

Cute-looking Japanese Kid: Will you fight white men?
Tom Cruise: Yes.
Kid: Why?
Tom Cruise: Because they have come to destroy what I have come to love.

Ah, yes, those insiduous honkies. As soon as they find anything beautiful, it's Zippo time! Because God knows there's a Lt. Calley inside every white man just waiting to get out. Those sensitive and good-hearted Indians, on the other hand, only want your scalp as a token of your goodwill. And don't get me started on Japanese ritual suicide.

The villain in the movie, Cruise's former commander (who once massacared an Indian village--probably Cruise had come to love it as well), asks a very good question that gets lost in the pretentious and empty end of the film: "Just tell me one thing, what is it about your own people you hate so much?" The only white men we see Cruise have any affinity for are his Irish sergeant and a British photograper. (Granted, there are a dearth of white people in the film). Cruise, however, seems to be literally only play-acting the part of a Civil War-hero American Captain, and he doesn't do it especially well. Most American cavalrymen were probably not the diary-writing, introspective, sensitive, metrosexual type of enlightened trooper that Cruise is supposed to portray. And I seriously doubt that any of them would have ended up having philosophical discussions in a Buddhist temple with a samurai rebel.

The movie does a good job of describing the conflict between the old Japan, the Japan of warlords united under a divinely incarnated Emperor, and the new Japan, one of polished military might, guns and steel and--most important--the entreprenuerial spirit. What it does NOT accomplish is accurately portraying the average 1870's-era American's reaction to Japanese culture and political ideology. Hollywood has force-fed present-day political tolerance to an 1876 Army Captain who could not possibly have possessed such cultural sensitivity. The results are this finely done but ultimately flawed and eminently skippable film.

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