So I was able to get my arse to the theater to see Last Samurai the other day and since I know that the first time any of you see anything to do with Japan, your first thought is invariably, “Gee, what would Scott’s fascinating and invaluable insight on this be, I wonder?” (Anyone who isn’t my mother can just quietly snicker to themselves while reading that last sentence.) Well, it just so happens I have at least a few thoughts on the matter, which segue very nicely into a brief book review I’ve been meaning to get around to.

Before we get started, I need to point out that I’m not going to review the movie, I’m going to reflect on it. So if you haven’t seen it yet and dislike things like massive plot spoilers, you’d best go find something else worth reading.

IFFirst, for my friends and/or family who value my opinion on such matters as movies (Bow down and respect the Film Degree!! Bow, damn you!!), I will say that I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s not perfect and a few clichés were thrown in by the filmmakers, apparently for good measure, but it was a thoughtful movie with good performances and some kick-arse sword fights. Also, I should point out that it was refreshing to see that most of the clichés that I mentioned were Hollywood clichés (certain editing and camera shots, [over]dramatic beats and so forth) and not Japan clichés. Even though it was set in Japan, it really felt like a Hollywood movie, which was odd at times, but I think most people can deal with it. In any case, it’s better than those other pesky Japan-cliché´s because Meji-period Samurai running around with cameras around their necks just would have ruined the credibility. If it’s Japan-clichés you’re looking for, Kill Bill would be a good place to start. </obligatory Tarantino slight>

While we’re bashing Kill Bill, let me also say that Tom Cruise’s Japanese was soooo much better both Uma Thurman’s and Lucy Liu’s. He was portraying a character that was struggling with the language and it still sounded more believeable than those other two who were supposed to be fluent. Yeesh. </bonus Tarantino slight>

One of my biggest fears going into Last Samurai was that it was going to basically be “Dances With Wolves in Japan.” What with the arrogant oppressor inadvertantly finding himself living with, and eventually coming to know and admire an oppressed people on the verge of an unjust extinction to the point that he fights side-by-side with them against his former oppressor-allies. (I haven’t even got to the spoilers yet, this was all stuff in the trailers!) Actually, this wasn’t too far from what the movie turned out to be. For crying out loud, the guy even kept a journal which was quoted from for the narration to keep the audience up to date on what’s happening through the passage of time, a la Kevin Costner. I kept expecting at any moment to see a conversation like,

“We’re having trouble putting your name into katakana so we’re just going to call you Dances With Sushi.”

“But… sushi’s dead. How can it dance?”

“Shush, Kevin.”

“My name’s not Kevin.”

“Didn’t I just tell you to shush?”

The fact that it was a well-made movie however helped me ignore the fact that I already knew the ‘formula’ and generally how things were going to turn out. In some areas, I kind of thought it even one-upped Dances. In particular, I loved the history of Tom Cruise’s character (he’s haunted by his role in a Native-American massacre years ago) and gave him a very clear context for his story, kind of an “Only Nixon could go to China” kind of a thing. You never wonder why this dude’s in the movie. The events of this movie wouldn’t even be unfolding like this unless they happened to this guy. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Dances though, perhaps Kevin Costner’s character had this aspect as well and I just don’t remember. I’m sure one of you will remind me if that’s the case. 😛

Also, thank Christ they didn’t force some gay-ass romance in there too. I kept expecting it at any moment with Koyuki’s character but was simultaneously hoping that Hollywood wouldn’t insult our intelligence too much by asking us to believe that she’s gonna hook up with the dude that off’ed her hubby. Thankfully they didn’t, whew.

I saw the movie with OCJG(Offensively Cute Japanese Girl) and asked her how it looked from a Japanese point of view and if there was anything she found hard to swallow. The only thing she thought was pretty unlikely was that the samurai would let a gaijin be ‘one of them’ (by this, I assume she meant letting him wear their armor and riding along side the leader, since I pointed out to her that he was never actually given an official Samurai Club Member’s Card or anything, he was just fighting with them).

As far as from the non-Japanese point of view, let me take this opportunity to call FUCKING HORSESHEEAT on Tom Cruise becoming apparently fluent in Japanese over the course of a single winter. I have no doubt that his experience was perhaps a little more immersive than mine, but after four winters of my own in Japan and evaluating my own language skills, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t be hanging around with Ken Watanabe and fighting the Japanese infantry a bit more.

My one final gripe is a petty one (honestly, are my gripes ever anything but?). I will form this gripe in the form of a question:

Why, I ask you Lord, why? Why are movie-ninjas always fucking retards!?!?

Being a longtime fan of the ways of the Ninja and their history, starting way back in my freshman year of high school when me, Bob and Dan made our first ninja movie in their backyard, I perhaps have a little more knowledge and interest than the average viewer in this particular topic. Thus, I tend take it personally and get over-excited and when I see ninja appear in, albeit one of the coolest, scenes in the movie, I’m going to wonder a few things.

Now, obviously the people that made this movie did a lot of research. So I have to ask, if they go through all this trouble and read countless books on on Japanese history, culture, samurai and probably all kinds of other things I’m not even aware of, what exactly was it that prevented them from picking up a book OR TWO about ninja!?

Allow me explain something to you; if you’re a ninja, you’re not going to infiltrate a village by loading up with every noisy piece of weaponry and equipment you can saddle yourself with, sneak in with forty of your ninja-buddies and try to snipe the leader of a resistance from a rooftop (where the hell are you going to run or hide??) with a crossbow, while he’s onstage at a public event, with 300 of his samurai buddies, not to mention the rest of the pissing village all right fucking there!!! What about that plan would make anyone think that it’s a recipe for success??

No, if you were a ninja, you’d sneak in after the leader went to bed drunk and kill him quietly. Or if you were even more ninja-er, you’d join the clan and after several months of getting in with everyone and gaining their trust, you’d sneak in after he went to bed drunk and him quietly, without anyone ever suspecting it was you until you’re long the hell gone. Or if you were the ninja-est ninja that ever ninja’ed, you’d join the clan and after several months of getting in with everyone and gaining their trust, then plant a pressure-sensitive bomb on the guy’s crapper, like in Lethal Weapon 2 and then buy him some Taco Bell… but since Japanese toilets don’t actually involve sitting I guess that’d be right out. I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong, just go ahead and scratch that last scenario, would ya?

My point is, there was very little about the ninja in Last Samurai that was ninja-like. In fact, the only thing ninja-ish about them was that someone took a moment to call them ninja (and I might even be wrong about that). That being said however, it did provide for one of the coolest fight scenes in the movie, so I can live with it…. I guess.

Aside from that, this movie made me feel a little uncomfortable in the theater actually, the reason stemming from the subject matter and my (perhaps flawed) reading of it. In a nutshell, the story takes place during the historical period known as the Meji Restoration, during which Japan has opened her borders to the world after 250 years of self-imposed isolation and is scrambling to re-integrate with the modern (and in this case, predominantly Western) world. Of course, some people at the time have problems with this and think that Japan is changing too much, too fast and needs to take a proverbial chill-pill (as the kids these days call them) before it does irreparable damage to it’s culture.

Enter the Samurai, whose job it is to protect the Emperor, and by extension the nation of Japan. Thus, you have Japan essentially fighting itself from the inside; the Emperor trying to modernize his people while the Samurai are confounding these efforts for the Emperor’s own good so that in ‘bringing in the new’ he doesn’t accidentally ‘sweep away what’s good about the old.’ All of this having been brought about, by the way, from contact with the “poison” of the West.

A nice visual touch to reinforce this conflict of ‘New/West’ Vs ‘Old/Japan’ was the costumes. The lead samurai, of course wearing either his traditional samurai armor or kimono and brandishing swords, was always contrasted with the main antagonist, the Emperor’s advisor who was constantly wearing western suits and tuxedoes and obsessing on his modern, gun-bearing military.

This leads us back into why I was feeling so uneasy through most of the movie, wondering what the other Japanese were thinking of the portrayal of my ancestors’ culture infiltrating them like a virus and robbing them of what made them Japanese. Of course, the matter is not nearly so simple. As I mentioned, the film focuses primarily on the conflict of Japan tearing itself apart from the inside, personified by Emperor Meiji, who sees the need to bring Japan into the present, but is unsure how to do so without destroying it’s past. This brings me very nicely into my comments on a book that I want to mention.

Dogs and Demons, by Alex Kerr, is somewhat of an infamous book among the expat community in Japan. It’s said to be one of those books that every expat should read, even if you don’t agree with what the author’s saying. In a nutshell (I seem to have a thing about nutshells today. You shut the hell up, Fletcher!), the author makes the claim that, contrary to popular belief, Japan is NOT a post-modern nation (as are most European nations and the U.S.), and by definition not even a modern one. The state of “things”, from environment, to economy, to business, to education, et al, are frozen in a state of pre-modern development which Japan hasn’t needed in decades, yet has grown so dependent on that it can no longer even conceive of doing things any other way.

The author grew up in Japan and genuinely loves it as many of us expats do. But make no mistake about it, this book is brutal. Being a foreigner in Japan, it’s sometimes hard to understand all the things going on (or ANY of the things going on) simply because you don’t understand everything they’re talking about on the news, or you can’t read a newspaper, or you don’t talk politics with your neighbors or co-workers, etc. I’ve been living here for three years and didn’t know about most of the things Kerr details in this book; suffice it to say I was shocked and subsequently a little depressed after reading it. I imagine it’s kinda like having a child that’s getting mixed up in drugs or gangs or Windows development and because you love that child, the disappointment and shame just hits you all the harder. You just want to grab the idiot by the neck and shout, “WHAT IN THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?!?” (heh, maybe it’s a good idea if I don’t become a parent quite yet. :O )

One of the recurring themes in the book is Japan’s addiction to construction. Everywhere you go, you can see construction in this country. It’s all over the place and it never seems to end. The locations and projects change, but they’re always building something. I swear, it’s like my university campus was, I didn’t think those idiots ever intended to finish anything because then they’d have to find new jobs. Ironically, my tongue-in-cheek complaint back then is what the reality is in Japan. A gross majority of the construction in Japan is completely unneeded. The only reason it exists is to create jobs. There is so much unneeded construction in Japan that it is far and away the number one industry in Japan’s economy. Let’s bust some First Amendment rights out da box and use (fairly, I might add) a couple of staggering facts from Chapter 1: The Construction State.

  • The national budget devotes an astounding 40 percent of expenditures to public works (versus 8 to 10 percent in the US and 4 to 6 percent in Britain and France). (page 20)
  • In 1998, the construction industry employed 6.9 million people, more than 10 percent of Japan’s workforce – and more than double the relative numbers in the U.S. and Europe.(page 21)
  • In 1994, concrete production in Japan totaled 91.6 million tons, compared with 77.9 million tons in the U.S. This means that Japan lays about thirty times as much per square foot as the U.S. (page 47)

Crazy, right? This all happened because after the war the country was desperate to severely rebuild itself, and quick, to get back on it’s feet. To this end, the government busted out will all kinds of subsidies for construction. For some reason (for many reasons actually, but I’m not about to reprint the book in it’s entirety here), these subsidies never went away after things got rebuilt. Well, why bother busting your ass in some lame deskjob when the government is handing out fat wads of cash for anything that’s built on the public’s dime, right? Hence, cities and townships find excuses to demolish, build and pave over anything and everything they can in order to keep getting money and keep employing slews of people that would otherwise be unemployed.

Not that this doesn’t happen in other countries too, but I think the relative stats I cited above, as compared with a country as large as the U.S. shows how utterly overblown and out of control it all is here. In a country roughly the size of California, you WILL eventually run out of space and natural resources if you “develop” on this grand a scale for any length of time.

The tragedy of all this, which is also how I’m going to tie everything back into Last Samurai, is that Japan is literally destroying it’s history and culture. Kyoto is a perfect example. The city, which lies in the valley, is just as modern and “ugly” (though I personally find a certain aesthetic pleasure to such “horrific” urban landscapes) as any other city in Japan. It used to be a treasure-trove of historical architecture and natural beauty, but in the rush to “catch up and modernize”, homes that were built hundreds of years ago are simply being bulldozed and replaced with gaudy apartment buildings. Pretty soon, the only historical sites left in Kyoto will be hidden away in the surrounding hills. There aren’t even any attempts to restore old buildings, that’s an industry and art wholly unknown in Japan, apparently. Either something is old and falling apart, or shiny new, right out of the box.

Just like the events portrayed in Last Samurai during the Meiji Restoration, today too, Japan is fighting itself from the inside. It recognizes that “bringing in the new” is essential to it’s survival, but unfortunately, there is no Emperor Meiji, nor samurai (nor Tom Cruise for that matter. Oh, the tragedy!!), to be Japan’s conscience and help guide the Old Japan and it’s identity into the future, instead of just doing away with all of it and building a New Broken Japan in it’s place. In Last Samurai it was a physical conflict, samurai VS infantry, while today it’s a quiet cultural conflict, Japan’s history and culture being sacrificed for the sake of “modernization” and “catching up.”

Earlier I mentioned that perhaps my reading of the film was flawed, and I say that because I have to wonder how many of these parallels were actually intended by the filmmakers. I noticed that the story and script were all written by non-Japanese, which in itself doesn’t mean a whole lot, but most of these things I’ve been commenting on are not going to be apparent to someone who hasn’t lived here, I wouldn’t think. So I wonder if this parallel that I’m seeing is simply a happy coincidence of history that the filmmakers stumbled upon without realizing it, or if they are indeed severe Japanophiles that really know what they’re talking about. I guess it doesn’t change the relevance of the film either way, I also wonder how much, if any, of the audience is going to pick up on the deeper meanings of the film, which I feel are kind of the point.

I’ve pretty much said my piece on the movie, so let me just finally say, regarding the book, that if you are even slightly interested in modern Japanese culture, and especially if you’re planning on ever living here for any length of time, Dogs and Demons should be required reading (Albert, this means you). I wish I had read this book two years ago when I first got here, it would have helped me understand so much more of what’s been going on around me. Granted, it stings a little bit, having the beautiful image of Japan that was in my mind taken down a notch, it’s kidneys punched a few times before finally being given a swift kick to the pills and brought down into reality, but as is usually the case with truth, it’s much more rewarding to know the pain than live with the ignorance.

If you do read it though, just make sure you have something around afterwards to remind you why you fell in love with Japan in the first place, cause you’re likely to feel a little sobered and in need of reassurance after reading. Just because the bad things are in front of you now (in all their gory, footnoted detail) however doesn’t mean the good things you used to see are gone. They’re still there, just a little more real than before. And that’s a good thing, right?

Somebody tell me I’m right.

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