A disillusioned young man ventures overseas, where he encounters a band of warriors dedicated to resisting the modernization of their country. The warriors follow a patriarchal code of martial valor and spirituality that appeals to the young man and he joins the group. But their opponents—nationalists who seek to improve their country’s infrastructure and introduce governmental reforms--pursue the warriors and eventually defeat them through the superiority of their military technology.
Sound familiar? The story of John Walker Lindh—who left the bourgeois comforts of Marin County to “find himself” among Afghanistan’s Taliban? Or perhaps a tale of some misguided soul who abandons his moderate Muslim family to join the jihadists in Iraq? Well, no, actually, it’s the plot of the latest Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai, a $100 million historical epic set in 19th century Japan. Colorful, filled with rousing action scenes, the movie will probably rake in buckets of money for Warner Brothers and its boyish-looking star. By the same token, though, the film feels old-fashioned and out-of-synch with the times—and worse, by romanticizing a reactionary rebellion, it sends the wrong message in our current conflicts against the forces of anti-modernism throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like Tom Cruise and have no brief against big-budget Hollywood movies, so I went to see Samurai with high hopes. And things started off well. The cinematography was stunning, and I was relieved when director Edward Zwick (of Legends of the Fall and Glory fame) introduced a back story involving an Indian massacre without shoveling on the PC. No, it wasn’t until the story shifted to Meiji-era Japan that I realized, once again, I’d spent my money on yet another Hollywood sermon on the evils of bourgeois liberalism.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the movie bases itself on a true story involving the efforts of a group of radical nationalists (represented in the film by one character, Omura, played by Masato Harada) to modernize Japan. Using the youthful Emperor Meiji as a figurehead, this clique began transforming Japan’s agrarian economy into a democratic-industrial state modeled after the West. One obstacle to modernization, however, were ultra-conservative elements among the-then decadent samurai class, whose Shogunate had dominated Japan for seven centuries. In 1877, one of these warriors, Takamori Saigo, led the so-called Satsuma Rebellion against the Meiji nationalists, only to be vanquished by a peasant army equipped with modern weapons. It’s this doomed rebellion that The Last Samurai highlights and romanticizes.
Everyone loves the samurai, of course, especially as depicted in the movies of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. But Kurosawa was always careful to suggest the limitations of the samurai ethos, its roots in savagery and blood. And in truth, for most of their history, the samurai were feudal warlords who maintained a system characterized by militarism, class stratification and the oppression of women. Zwick obscures this point by portraying his Sagio-like samurai, a character named Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe), as an enlightened, poetry-loving nobleman who inexplicably reads and speaks near-perfect English. Katsumoto’s mountain stronghold—where Cruise, as the alcoholic ex-Army captain Nathan Algren joins the rebels—is portrayed as a kind of Northern California Zen-utopia. Here, Algren muses, “from the moment they wake up in the morning, the people pursue the perfection of whatever it is they do”--which for Katsumoto’s gang, seems to be archery, calligraphy, horseback riding and beating each other with sticks. Well! No wonder Captain Algren rejects the Meiji Restoration, with its boring insistence on forging a contemporary nation-state. How much more fun it is to don a cool suit of medieval armor and slaughter peasant conscript soldiers!
There are other problems with the film. To begin with, it invites us to root for samurai reactionaries who, had their rebellion succeeded, would have stalled Japan’s modernization and led to its eventual colonization by some foreign power. Moreover, it posits the greedy capitalist Omura as the film’s antagonist—although his main transgression seems to be the funding of railroads, telephones, modern armies and other trappings of democracy. Are we supposed to believe that a band of swordsman whose highest ideal of public service is ritualistic suicide are better fit to lead a nation into the modern age?
Now, you can say we’re talking about a movie here, so lighten up—but let’s face facts. In real life, the U.S. is struggling to modernize two nations, while fighting warrior bands who seek to drag those countries back to their despotic pasts. And like the 19th century samurai—and the 20th century kamikazes and Nazis--today’s Baathists, Taliban and their Islamist allies consecrate themselves to a cult of romanticized violence and death, whose mindless militarism and “spiritual purity” is perceived as an antidote to Western-style democracy. Meanwhile, they are killing U.S. soldiers and foreign aid workers—and would do the same to you and I if they get the chance again. Does Hollywood really need to endorse the mindset of these people? According to press reports, Zwick has been developing Samurai for years—and indeed, the movie seems uncomfortably pre-9-11. “Americans love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death,” a Taliban warrior once enthused—one can imagine Zwick’s Katsumoto uttering similar sentiments about his conflict with modernity. .
Movies regularly view despotisms through rose-tinted glasses, of course—from its white-washing of the Civil War Confederacy to Oliver Stone’s aborted encomium to Fidel Castro. Usually, this cinematic revision is easily brushed aside—its Hollywood, after all. But with the U.S. and its allies currently battling nihilistic killers who place suicide bombers on city buses and transform civilian airliners into missiles, perhaps its time to rethink that fantasy. Irony may not have died after 9-11, but perhaps romanticizing anti-liberal insurgents should. After all, like Zwick’s Katsumoto, Osama bin Laden recites poetry, too.