There was something universally silly about the film The Last Samurai. It was a story that could have easily enough been told by an all Japanese cast and the foreign nature of Tom Cruise’s character, while providing the opportunity for contrast with the Japanese cast and setting, seemed like a third wheel on the audience’s attempt to take in the experience of the last Samurais.
While discussing the film with my good friend Jon Twitch (who is from the other side of the political spectrum of me), we both found it rather disturbing. He broadened my horizons by pointing out that even Dances With Wolves could seem like a whitewashing of events in American history as far as it attempted to capture native American life, and to do so felt the need to insert a relatable white figure into the cast. Touche. But there was something different about Dances in the sense that Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) was central in ways besides merely his interaction with the native Americans. In a very real sense the story did focus on the horrors he suffered in war and the ‘journey westward.’ But nonetheless it does tell something that one of the more popular films ever about native Americans is understood through the eyes of a white hero.
I had also felt that the accusations of The Revenant being a whitewashed telling of native American experience were unfounded. To me, clearly, the purpose of the film was a complex plot of man against nature and man against man, and the unique perspective of DiCaprio’s character was meant to crisscross into a lot of powerful stories from the beginning.
Whitewashing is back in the spotlight with the film The Great Wall which is oddly enough being directed by a Chinese native and features two Chinese stars who have a lot to benefit. I think that while whitewashing is a relevant narrative for the Western world we forget that in the age of globalization one of the goals of these films is to bring together as many stars from divers backgrounds as possible to increase the market share of the film when it goes to China or other places. Never underestimate the willingness of Koreans to see films for the mere presence of a single Korean actor or even there simply being Korean text (such as Moon 2009).
It might behoove us to analyze this from the perspective of the bottom line sometimes, more than thinking about it in terms of a nefarious attempt to interject ‘whiteness’ (for lack of a better word) into the film. Not everything comes down to an americentric interpretation of race and ethnic relations. 🙂
But nonetheless… The Last Samurai was disturbing. Perhaps moreso in the fact that it seemed to be such a great film with powerful symbolism.
One of the symbols, of course, is found at the end when Tom Cruise’s character is observing the death beneath the cherry blossoms hints at the parallels between a Samurai and a cherry blossom. This is not something that is cleverly revealed by the film writer Edward Zwick came up with — it is actually a very old concept that was even included in Japanese textbooks from the late Taisho period.
I dug around the internet to try to find out just how old we can take the cherry blossom as the symbol of the Samurai representing their ephemeral nature and willingness to die unselfishly and with great candor… There are references to the fact that the Japanese kamikaze painted cherry blossoms on their aircraft, and we see that the Judo symbol has a cherry blossom on it, We are assured in what appear to be good articles that the symbolism must be quite old, but sadly there is nothing more concrete that I found in my initial searches.
But as the history of Mon is quite old, we can imagine that this does go back deeper into feudal Japan and may be as old as the concept as the Japanese warrior.