“The Last Samurai” is the story of Nathan Algren, an American Army captain who is haunted by his previous military experiences fighting Native Americans. He becomes a mercenary for the Japanese Emperor and agrees to help train Japan’s new, modern army in the face of samurai rebellion. The untrained troops are overwhelmed in their first battle with the samurai and Algren is captured. The samurai leader Katsumoto spares his life after witnessing him fight and decides to spend the winter becoming more acquainted with Algren in an attempt “know his enemy.” Algren gradually becomes more integrated into the samurai society, learning Japanese and becoming proficient in sword-fighting. When assassins make an attempt on Katsumoto’s life, Algren defends him and his family. With the end of winter Algren returns to the city with Katsumoto, but later decides to break him out of prison when hes sees the new Japanese military, Omura’s plans to destroy the samurai, and the mistreatment of Katsumoto’s son Nobutada at the hands of corrupt soldiers. He helps Katsumoto escape and return to the village, where they make plans to engage the modernized military in a final battle. Algren takes up the samurai armor and agrees to ride into battle with Katsumoto. With Algren’s help, the samurai are able to completely repel the imperial army’s first attack, but they are too weakened to win. Knowing they are doomed, the samurai charge the imperial lines and are all killed by cannon and machine-gun fire. Only Algren survives, after helping Katsumoto commit ritual suicide, and the film ends with him returning to the samurai village.
Our presentation will be covering 4 different analyses. Matt will talk about the tragic portrayal of Japanese culture as primitive and doomed to defeat against the modern world. Dan will be looking at how Orientalism can’t be applied to this film, in particular how the West isn’t always superior. Gibson will discuss the agenda behind the use of Japanese in particular scenes and situations in the film. Lillian will look at the film as an example of modern-day Orientalism presented through a prejudiced American view of Japan, white supremacy, movement towards modernization, and loss of a cultural identity.
Reversal of Orientalism and Tragic Culture in The Last Samurai
On the surface, “The Last Samurai” appears to reverse the dichotomy between East and West that was common in both pre- and post-WWII films concerning East Asia. In that relationship, Western civilization was always depicted as being superior in any number of ways to Eastern civilization. This film uses the example of the samurai, with their strict moral code and discipline, to illustrate the superiority of Japanese culture to the greedy, ruthless culture of the West. However in reality, it simply trades one unflattering portrayal of Eastern culture for another. Upon further examination, it becomes clear that the film is presenting the East, through Japan, as a tragic primitive culture that is doomed to defeat by the modern world.
On the surface, the film clearly divides the characters into the “West” and “East”. The “West” is represented by ruthless American soldiers and greedy businessmen, as well as the westernized and corrupt Japanese officials like Omura, while the “East” is represented by the samurai leader Katsumoto and his people, including his son. It is quickly evident who is supposed to be morally superior, as Omura is shown to profit extremely well from winning the war, and the Americans are mostly concerned with the large arm deals they will be able to make with the Emperor. The samurai, on the other hand, are bound by a strict code of honor and discipline, and devote their time to improving their skills. The superiority of the Japanese culture is solidified by Algren’s growing assimilation and eventual integration into it, as he rejects the American culture with which he has become disillusioned.
Despite the glorification of the Japanese culture present in the first part of the film, it quickly becomes evident that the portrayal of East Asia in “The Last Samurai” is negative but in a new and different way from the old pre- and post-WWII films. By narrowly focusing its portrayal of Japanese culture, the film presents a nostalgic view of a noble but primitive culture that is doomed to fail in the face of modernization.
The film presents a very narrow view of Japanese society at the given time period. The main contrasts are drawn between the city life, which is associated with modernization and westernization, and life in the samurai village. The city is dirty, noisy, and dominated by corrupt officials and soldiers from the modernized government. In the samurai village, everything is quiet and peaceful and everyone happily and dutifully goes about their tasks. The people in the film are also clearly divided, into either “samurai” or “westerners”. What makes the depictions so narrow is the fact that there are no samurai-affiliated characters outside of Katsumoto and his followers, creating the impression that the samurai class was as a whole opposed to modernization, when in reality a majority of the samurai became integrated into the new post-Restoration society. This impression makes it easy to link to the samurai with the “primitive” culture of Japan that values honor and discipline over wealth and power, as well as reinforcing the notion that their culture is doomed when the entire army is wiped out at the end of the film. In contrast, the other Japanese characters are all willing participants in the process of modernization, even if some like Omura are more eager than others.
The tragic nature of the samurai culture is realized in the climactic battle scene but is also reflected on throughout the film. While they are characterized as being more moral and disciplined, they lack the technology and desire for change that the “westernized” Japanese have, and therefore can’t survive in the face of progress. In a way, the role of the samurai culture in this film is similar to the role of the “tragic couple” as described by Gina Marchetti. In being destroyed, the samurai reinforce the idea that the Western culture is dominant. Their collective end also clearly moves the Japanese people, and the emperor decides to remove Omura and cut off negotiations with the American arms company. However, while their sacrifice is noble and worthy of remembrance, it clearly does not change the fate of Japan; the emperor doesn’t return to his traditional clothes and the army isn’t going to suddenly stop using firearms. Ultimately, their sacrifice is a futile gesture which provides some minor benefits, like the experience that Algren gets from serving alongside them, but doesn’t truly have an effect on the status quo.
The movie shows these two different portrayals of Eastern society as a part of the film’s progression, particularly through two important scenes. In a scene near the beginning of the film, which was later removed from the final product, Ujio beheads a commoner who hassles him in the street. The commoner is dressed in modern clothes and represents the “modernized” side of Japan. In addition, he makes fun of Ujio for his clothes and hair, even going so far as to imply that he isn’t even Japanese. In beheading him, Ujio demonstrates the power of the samurai over the “new” Japan, as well as reinforcing the idea that the old traditions are still dominant, particularly the right of samurai to execute commoners who disrespect them. This scene contrasts with the scene near the end of the movie where Katsumoto’s son Nobutada has his topknot cut off against his will by Japanese soldiers in the same street. This time, the modernized Japanese are all armed with guns, thoroughly overpowering Nobutada. They still treat him with disrespect and forcibly disarm him even as he maintains the samurai’s air of decorum. His inability to resist the power of modernization reinforces the film’s portrayal of the samurai culture, and by extent East Asian culture, as primitive and inevitably doomed to fall against modernization.
In conclusion, “The Last Samurai” presents two opposing portrayals of East Asian cultures. In the beginning, the film appears to refute Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, demonstrating the various ways that the samurai, representing the East, are superior to the Europeans, Americans, and modernized Japanese who represent the West. However, the latter half of the film makes it clear that it is exchanging one negative portrayal of East Asia for another. In this case, the film presents East Asia as primitive and doomed to be destroyed by the overwhelming force of modernization.
Orientalism in Contemporary Hollywood
In his book Orientalism, Edward Saïd explains the term Orientalism as “a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern the Orient.” In other words, this definition is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” During the first unit of CHIN 280: East Asian Culture through Film, we discussed representations of East Asian societies in Hollywood throughout the first half of the 20th century. Saïd’s interpretation of Orientalism easily applied to many of the films viewed in class because there was a clear “superior and inferior” relationship between West and East civilizations. However, it is more difficult to use this term to examine the relationships between West and East in contemporary Hollywood, and even more specifically, in Kwick’s The Last Samurai.
At the start of the film, America is established as the superior country. The Japanese emperor, without hesitation, hopes to modernize Japan by welcoming Western imperialism American values. However, a village of samurai plans to attack the emperor’s people. During the entirety of the film, the samurai are portrayed as wise, noble and just. On the other hand, other Japanese characters are depicted as aggressive and immoral. These hostile characterizations were common as they were early 20th century stereotypes of East Asian cultures. However, in this film, the Japanese characters are this way because they are influenced by Western imperialism and American modernization.
During a battle between the emperor’s army and the samurai army, the samurai leader, Katsumoto, spares Algren’s life by kidnapping him to their village. This scene describes his encounter with the new people—they are not hostile; but accept him, and Algren is quick to adjust to his new lifestyle in the samurai village. What is interesting is that while he is a “prisoner’ in the village, he does not escape the village nor criticize their values; he simply speaks (through diary entries) what he examines and how he admires their culture. Becoming fluent in Japanese, Algren assimilates into the samurai life completely and is set on rebelling against the Americanization of Japan.
During a traditional Japanese performance, the crowd is interrupted by a ninjas who are fighting for Japanese modernization. Though they attempt to murder Katsumoto, Algren helps saves him by defeating the assassins. Soon after, Algren goes with the Katsumoto and other members of the samurai village to Tokyo to visit the Emperor. Compared to the serene and peaceful environment of the samurai village, Tokyo is shown as modern and overcrowded. Upon meeting the emperor, Katsumoto is arrested for not obeying the new rules against the samurai.
During this conversation, Bagley addresses a major question in the film: “What is it about your own people that you hate so much?”
It isn’t that Algren hates America; he appreciates where he came from, but he appreciates the way of the samurai more. Because Algren is full of guilt from his previous life, he searched for a way to redeem himself and was able to do so by living the samurai life. Algren sees the people of the samurai village the same way he sees the Native Americans he killed: victims. To cleanse his conscious, he does not try to run from the samurai village even though they capture him, but protects the village from his own, violent people.
Rather than deeming the East Asian culture as corrupt and uncivilized, The Last Samurai depicts America as immoral, as they are shown developing Japan and solving their problems through killing others, war, and mass destruction. Even though Algren comes from America, he cannot be portrayed as immoral. In this sense, Saïd’s Orientalism can apply because it follows the popular Hollywood narrative of the white male saving the East Asian culture. However, Algren is saving the Japanese people from his own culture. Modernization is not necessarily wrong, but the film is trying to show that there are issues with this pompous Western civilization.
The film ends with Japan prevailing against the modernization of the Western world. This does not mean that America is superior or that the East is obsolete—The Last Samurai shows that despite Western stereotypes, the people of Japan can be superior on their own without the West. The East can stand its ground by maintaining its traditions and customs by not succumbing to the West. Saïd’s view of Orientalism is better suited for when analyzing 20th century films when there was a clear distinction between the “strong” West and “weak” East. In contemporary Hollywood, the Orient can be classified as many different things, not solely a weaker, subordinate to other Western cultures.
Constructing Conversation in The Last Samurai
As with any film set in East Asia, the director and screenwriters of The Last Samurai had to make a choice about what languages to use and when. Presenting a relatively accurate account of language usage in 1870s Japan would have lead to much more frequent Japanese usage throughout the film, generally a box-office death knell for viewers in monolingual America. Given that a production entirely in English would also have utterly destroyed the verisimilitude of the film, and thus ticket sales, Edward Zwick chose a middle route, with English comprising a majority of the lines but Japanese included as well. Many Japanese lines occur only in situations absolutely necessary for the believability of the scene; however a substantial number of interactions occur in Japanese that are not strictly necessary. Since dialogue in films is inherently a construction, the usage of Japanese and English by various characters, their variation of languages, the situations in which one or the other is used, and the attitudes towards language displayed by various characters are all aspects of the director and screenwriters’ conscious manipulation to achieve an agenda beyond merely furthering the plot. Rather, the manipulation of these variables establishes the Japanese language and, by extension, the Japanese people as the exotic other.
Throughout The Last Samurai, Japanese is framed as the “foreign” language vis-à-vis English. Despite the fact that the film is almost entirely set in Japan, the voice-over narrator Simon Graham (played by Timothy Spall) and the main character Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) are both English speakers; the audience is introduced first to an English-speaking environment, not a Japanese environment. When Algren encounters English-speaking Japanese people, he doesn’t bat an eye. His lack of reaction, even in highly unlikely situations such as the near-perfect English fluency of the hyper-traditional samurai lord Katsumoto, signals to the audience that such situations are unremarkable, even to be expected. The implied normalcy of English adoption, even among those supposedly resistant to modernization, contrasts with the dramatic reactions Algren receives when he starts to use Japanese. Described as having facility with languages, he acquires halting but technically-sound Japanese in the course of four months, which appropriately enough shocks his Japanese and Western compatriots alike. The strong reactions of Nobutada and others derive not from the speed of his learning however, but from a subtly articulated assumption that the Westerner who learns Japanese is an anomaly, strange. Such a Eurocentric viewpoint creates a double standard at odds with the reality of being foreign in Japan.
Simon Graham remarks that he has “a rather unfortunate tendency to tell the truth in a country where no one ever says what they mean…” Zwick plays around with the idea of indirect speech beyond what is merely necessary for a bilingual film. Characters often speak for one another, assuming the agency of those whom they speak for. As the film progresses, a pattern emerges in this ‘speaking for’; first Lieutenant Colonel Bagley speaks for the Japanese businessman Omura in America, then Omura himself speaks for the Emperor at Algren’s audience in Tokyo, and later Nobutada speaks for Taka. In each case, the most “western” character is chosen to speak, despite traditional assumptions of authority favoring the ‘spoken for’ (even in Taka’s case, as she runs her own household and is Nobutada’s aunt). This assumption of authority is overturned in the climactic scene, when Emperor Meiji speaks for himself and rejects the American ambassador’s plan. However, even this triumphant reclamation of agency is not an unmitigated resumption- it is delivered in English, not Japanese.
This leads into the final aspect of this analysis, the construction of domains for Japanese and English. While Emperor Meiji’s use of Japanese in rejecting the American ambassador’s treaty would be thoroughly justified, as it is his native language and the language of his imperial authority, the audience is not particularly discomfited by his use of English instead. Such a lack of reaction is the result of consistent shaping of audience attitudes through the course of the film. English is consistently presented as a prestige language. It is the language of the battlefield; even Omura uses English commands to his Japanese soldiers. As all the high-ranking Japanese characters can use it with some degree of facility, it is also linked to station and authority; Taka and the nameless army grunts conversely speak only Japanese. Most tellingly, the emperor speaks in English in the aforementioned scene of resistance; English is not necessarily a language only of the West, though it certainly retains those associations, but rather it is the language of power.
Japanese, conversely, is characterized as the language of intimacy. Algren and Taka’s tenuous, glacial romantic subplot is conducted wholly in Japanese (and lingering gazes), as are the smaller conversations between members of Katsumoto’s retinue. Katsumoto and Algren’s grand philosophical conversations are not suited to the Japanese constructed by Zwick. However, this characterization is not only romantic; intimacy does not preclude intrigue, assassination, or treachery. Omura’s orders to assassinate Algren and the power struggle in the Emperor’s inner council are, in their own way just as intimate, and no less dangerous. The Japanese language constructed in The Last Samurai is an index of solidarity, of shared and adopted identities, whereas the English constructed through usage, characterizations, and domains indexes power.
The Last Samurai depicts American attitude towards Japanese culture and depicts the contrasts between the cultures very clearly. The Last Samurai is an example of modern-day Orientalism presented by the underlying prejudiced American view of Japan through white supremacy and Japan’s movement towards modernization and loss of a cultural identity. The Last Samurai was intended to be pay homage to Japanese culture but there are some stereotypical themes that can be interpreted as racism. The theme of white superiority can be found throughout the movie through the interactions of both the Americans and Japanese and Algren and Japanese Samurai. The systematic underlying prejudice is presented in the way Americans viewed the Japanese in The Last Samurai.
Japan was involved in a civil war during this period of time. The samurai felt that the change towards modernity was occurring too quickly and at the expense of the nation’s cultural identity. The Samurai were not willing to give up the morals they live by. The difference was that the Japanese people emphasized the well-being of the country while American culture values individualistic culture.
The underlying themes in The Last Samurai are seen through the interactions of East meets West. First the Samurai are portrayed as savages who ride around and slay innocent victims. They are seen as backwards and portray the optimal Japanese society as feudal and agrarian. In contrast, the West is portrayed as Modern and powerful and Japan would have to undergo Modernization before it could be considered powerful and modern.
The superiority of the White male is also seen throughout the movie. They are the ones who supply powerful weapons that the Japanese businessman and politician want. They are able to sway the opinion and thoughts of the Japanese businessman who in turn corrupts the Emperor. We see the concept of modernity itself was a foreign import. They did not believe they could be modern without the influence of Westernization. The Japanese businessmen were willing to sell their soul for the power that the White man had.
It’s not until Algren is captured that we see the way of the Samurai. We start to understand how they are misunderstood and that ultimately they stand for a life founded on honor, compassion, loyalty and sacrifice. These traits are lost in translation by the Westerners who only understand their savage ways. In reality, the Samurai live a very disciplined life. The discipline of Samurai culture allowed Algren to overcome his nightmares and alcoholism. The tranquility he finds allows him to find peace with live and overcome his “White guilt” associated with the Native Americans. Algren was so stricken with grief about the Native Americans that he ultimately was portrayed as the victim of his nightmares and conscious. The quote “…moment of change from the antique to the modern” symbolized the change from a loyal life to a life filled with people such as politicians and businessmen who were willing to sell Japan’s soul for a quick profit. These profits and new technology were the ways of the West.
Even though Algren was depicted as a man who was compassionate he still had “Superior White” traits. Algren was able to learn the difficult skills of a sword fight in 6 months, while it took his teacher a lifetime to achieve the status. And ultimately in the end, Algren is the only one who survives after the whole army of Samurai is killed.
The death of the Samurai symbolized the death of traditional Japanese morals. The scene where Katsumoto is shot resembles the Americans coming in and slowly killing off Japanese morals. He hangs on to dear life which resembles Japanese society holding on to traditional morals in the time of modernization. After his honorable suicide, everyone falls to their knees to mourn the end of traditional Japanese morals. ( insert video)
Sayonara is similar to The Last Samurai because there are obvious themes of western superiority. In Sayonara, the Westerners are seen to be superior to the native Japanese. Both films had courageous brave souls that dared to take risks and go against the American institution. They opened their hearts and their souls to accept another culture but at the same time they did not completely become immersed and equal. They were still above the native Japanese people.
Both of the main characters also wanted to escape their “white guilt” and ultimately became the victim themselves
Both of the films had Japanese women who had disillusioned justified anger towards the Americans but after meeting the American man they fall in love and their anger just disappears. They were portrayed in the typical Asian stereotype as passive and obedient. They did what they were told and what they had to serve the man and make him happy. Both Sayoaora and The Last Samurai depict the difference and similarities between American attitude towards Japanese culture. Algren did not disrespect the Japanese the way Ace Gruber did.
Ultimately The Last Samurai is an example of modern-day Orientalism. We see themes of white superiority, and modernity depicted as a foreign import that affected cultural identity. While the film was intended to pay homage to another culture, the stereotypes of inferior Japanese people still played a large part in the film. The modernity westerners had to offer upstaged the traditional culture of Japanese people and in return they had to suffer to find their cultural identity.