I saw The Last Samurai on opening weekend out of a feeling of professional obligation rather than a genuine desire to see the film. As mentioned in my previous column, director Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai is the last of this winter’s triumvirate of Hollywood films about Japan, following Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I approached The Last Samurai with a great deal of trepidation. From the trailers I felt I knew what kind of Orientalist epic to expect-well-executed but essentialist in its depiction of Japan.
I was not disappointed by the film because it successfully lived up to my admittedly low expectations. The Last Samurai was cinematically beautiful but too contrived in its execution. The film tried to be sweeping in its depiction of human drama, but it failed to connect on an emotional level. Tom Cruise’s portrayal of a drunk-but-anguished American learning the ways of the Japanese was too hackneyed to elicit any real response in me; while Cruise has stoicism down to a science, his other attempts at conveying emotion fell flat. Cruise’s Japanese foil, Ken Watanabe (probably best known to non-Japanese audiences for his portrayal of Gun in Juzo Itami’s Tampopo), was far more convincing in his role as a renegade samurai, displaying excellent English-language acting chops. (I hope we’ll see more of Watanabe in English-language cinema in the near future.)
The Last Samurai also relied on the trite and stale images of Japan that have come to be prevalent in popular conceptions of Japan and the Japanese. If we are to believe the film, the island nation of Japan is an inherently spiritual place, the people are natural hard workers, and a highly developed sense of honor is what drives their daily actions. I am not just inferring this Orientalist ideology from the content of the film. These shockingly reactionary morsels of wisdom are told to the viewer through that most pedantic and unimaginative of cinematic techniques-the voice-over. It is fitting that the season’s final American film about Japan should indulge in such conservative nostalgia, bringing the cinema viewer back around to a more “traditional” view of our neighbor across the Pacific.
So, in the latter half of 2003 the moviegoing public was presented with three disparate cinematic representations of Japan by American directors. In my previous PopMatters column, “Killing in Translation” (October 2003), I briefly theorized why these films have been coming out recently and I discussed Douglas McGray’s idea that Japan possesses what he terms “Gross National Cool.” Even the mainstream press (seldom a sensitive barometer of cultural trends) has been picking up on this phenomenon - a recent article by Anthony Faiola in the Washington Post “Japan’s Empire of Cool” (27 December, 2003) highlighted the impact cultural exports from Japan have been having on worldwide popular culture. What surprised me was not simply that the article appeared in the Post but that it ran on the front page. Japan’s cultural exports are no longer limited to obsessed fans of Japanese animation and video games. Japanese popular culture now exerts a significant economic (and, by extension, political) force on the world markets.
With this influence in mind, these three recent films about Japan make sense as a way to both take advantage of the Japan boom as well as contain the impact that direct imports may have on the American market. True, all three films feature the country of Japan in a starring role and were made with the support of Japanese actors and crew, but they are all distinctly American imaginings of Japan. We love Japan for its “coolness” and for how the country throws American culture into sharp relief. But we feel that this is a cool that we feel entitled to control; after all, America is the birthplace of cool. It only makes sense that the current popularity of Japan has not translated into more Japanese films being shown in US theaters.
The handling of Asian films in the US has been notorious among cineastes for many years. One recent casualty of the American studio system is Avalon, the most recent film by Japanese director Mamoru Oshii. Originally released in Japan in 2000, Avalon could be considered the thinking person’s response to The Matrix (which, not coincidentally, was heavily influenced by Oshii’s previous film, Ghost in the Shell). Oshii’s film was a meditation on the nature of reality set against a backdrop of stunningly gorgeous computer graphics. Although his films can be challenging, Oshii had a proven commercial track record when it was released on video in the US, Ghost in the Shell debuted at the top spot on Billboard‘s sales chart. This fact, coupled with Avalon‘s strong Japanese debut (it claimed the number five slot on its opening weekend), seemed to indicate that Avalon had the potential to become a minor hit in America. Miramax picked up the rights to the film, and at one time were even working with Neil Gaiman on an English rewrite of the dialogue.
Miramax, in its wisdom, kept holding off on a theatrical release of Avalon until it no longer made commercial sense. Miramax ended up shunting Avalon to one of its subsidiaries, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, which quietly released the film on DVD in December 2003. While American film buffs are finally able to watch Oshii’s brilliant film, Miramax has compounded the disgrace of its lack of theatrical release by putting out a DVD with English-language dubtitles (subtitles that are not a true translation of the original dialogue but are of the sometimes significantly-altered English rewrite). Through its own ineptitude Miramax squandered the opportunity with Avalon to play host to a minor science fiction hit.
The case of Avalon is not atypical of the treatment of Japanese films in the American market. For the longest time American perceptions of Japanese film began and ended with Akira Kurosawa. Yet the works of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu (who was born 100 years ago last month and about whose works the Japanese film website Midnight Eye wrote a fantastic overview are mostly ignored by US commercial distributors. While the amount of Japanese film available in the US is steadily increasing, more often than not it is given short shrift as we fall back upon our perception of Kurosawa as the standard bearer for Japanese cinema.
While he was a phenomenal director, Kurosawa did not embody all of Japanese film, yet Kurosawa’s presence in the American consciousness seemed to reassure us that we were aware of film from Japan. Importantly, most people who view Kurosawa’s films are unaware of the context of Japanese filmmaking within which Kurosawa’s films were enmeshed. According to an article by Lisa Kennedy in the Denver Post “‘Samurai’ Completes Circle for Director” (3 December, 2003), director Edward Zwick was heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s epic film Seven Samurai. However, judging by Zwick’s romanticization of the samurai ideals he learned very little from Kurosawa’s film. Kurosawa was working consciously against the samurai ideology in Seven Samurai, portraying his characters as human beings rather than the embodiment of an abstract code. Zwick, in his enthusiasm for the trappings of the samurai, seems to miss this crucial point.
The proliferation of Japanese popular culture in America will prove to be beneficial to us if we can actually pay attention and not blindly prefer our own visions about foreign cultures. We are loath to relinquish control of our cinematic viewpoint, but this is why imports such as film, animation, and comics are important. Not only do they inject a needed dose of creativity into our sometimes vapid entertainment wasteland, but they remind those of us in the US that we are not the only cultural producers in the world.