February 09, 2006

Dances with Samurai


"A Connecticut Yankee in Lord Toranaga's Court"
The Anachronistic Splendor of The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai is a enjoyable, big-budget theatrical extravaganza, if less than original in plot and theme. It looks gorgeous, sounds gorgeous, is executed competently in most respects. Tom Cruise even correctly conjugates "to be" in Japanese (something Richard Chamberlain never managed). True, there are a few tense moments when you fear you might have to start taking the whole thing seriously.

But not to worry. Because that's when the ninjas show up! What Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was to back-lot Hong Kong wuxia actioners, The Last Samurai is to chambara eiga, the samurai sword fight genre Akira Kurosawa retooled from John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns, and that Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood reinvented yet again. It's a heroically self-important morality tale, so stunningly anachronistic and historically inaccurate that it qualifies more as fantasy.

Peter Jackson I'm sure would tell you, there's nothing wrong with fantasy. As long as you don't mistake it for the real thing.

The last time Hollywood made a big deal about an epic event in Japanese history (prior to 1941, that is), the aforementioned Richard Chamberlain was helping Toshiro Mifune establish the Tokugawa Shogunate and unify Japan under a single authoritarian regime. A quarter century and 250 years later, we find Tom Cruise alongside Saigo Takamori, the man largely responsible for overthrowing the Shogunate and ushering in Japan's modern age.

Now, Mifune's character in Shogun is called Toranaga, not Tokugawa Ieyasu. And in The Last Samurai, Ken Watanabe's character is called Katsumoto, not Saigo. Yeah, sure, whatever. Except that, back in 1600, there simply weren't that many shipwrecked English pilots hanging about the Edo court bending Ieyasu's ear (unlike Cruise's Algren, a pure fiction, Chamberlain's Blackthorn was based on the real Will Adams).

And following the Meiji Restoration there was only one Satsuma Rebellion. And definitely only one Saigo Takamori. It's sort of like making a movie about Valley Forge and calling General Washington General Smith, you know, lest anyone object to your ahistorical deviations. Clavell mostly avoids meddling in verifiable history, mentioning the decisive Battle of Sekigahara only in an afterword. His 16th century Englishman would have been exchanging one barely post-medieval society for another.

Thus, the expectation that men (aside from himself, naturally) should know their station in life and act accordingly would hardly have been a foreign concept to Will Adams. What is more difficult to swallow is that such an enlightened U.S. Army veteran of the Indian Wars as Cruise's Algren would find his redemption amongst the passionate followers of an unegalitarian feudal order. (And, incidentally, the Imperial army's advisers (1) were French and Prussian, not American.)

Okay, feudalism isn't slavery, but it's awfully dang close. Tokugawa-era feudalism concentrated enormous power in the hands of a few, who perpetuated their power from generation to generation through a rigidly-policed caste system. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and by the mid 19th century the regime had rotted out at the core. The arrival of Admiral Perry's "Black Ships" in 1853 alone nearly felled it.

But, hey, if you're going to embrace feudalism you might as well start at the top, and Cruise's Captain Algren gets to cut to the head of the line. Edward Said is worth listening to here. What he terms the "Orientalist" impulse to depict the cultural grass as exotically greener elsewhere has the tendency to inure one to the faults of all other cultures but one's own. As Slate's David Edelstein observes, "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime."

Thus biased by Noble Savage silliness, and the ball and chain of Occidental self-loathing, we have come to believe that any culture observably different from our own must be, ipso facto, better. The more different, the more superior. Here, Cruise is channeling another burdened white man, Kevin Costner and his Lieutenant Dunbar from Dances with Wolves (gee, also a U.S. Army veteran ready to help out the natives with his superior military training ). "Dances with Samurai," let's call it, then. So Dunbar's noble warrior, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), becomes Algren's Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe); Dunbar's girl, Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), Algren's Taka (Koyuki). And etcetera.

Okay, tell me the same story, only different. Except we're not dealing here with the latest politically-correct mythologies of the American West, but with well-documented history. The melodramatic demands of director Edward Zwick's well-intended Orientalism have instead produced a hagiographic account of the Battle of the Southwest (as it is called in Japan), that provides American audiences no good idea, other than the repeated mantra about samurai "honor," what it was really about.

What makes it doubly unfortunate is that the real Saigo Takamori was such a fascinating person. While he was a physical and intellectual giant of a man, we see nothing in Zwick's earnest screenplay or Watanabe's earnest portrayal that hints at the complexities of a person who attempted suicide once, was exiled three times, married at least three times, and carried on a long-term affair with a plump Kyoto geisha his close friends described as "comically round."

Or that in this final instance the Meiji government was right and Saigo was wrong. As Mark Ravina, author of The Last Samurai (a biography of Saigo Takamori) briefly notes in a History Channel documentary on the DVD, the soldiers mowing down Katsumoto and his troops in the end were in fact "the good guys," representing the ninety percent of the population fighting for a share of the rights and privileges that hitherto had been granted only to a small elite.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Saigo himself was born a low-ranked Satsuma samurai in the domain/daimyo system. Growing up he absorbed the totality of the bushido ideology. This aspect of his personality Zwick gets right. Katsumoto's fascination with General Custer is a nice (fictional) touch. Throughout his life Saigo waxed eloquent about the hope of dying a glorious death in battle. Two years before ending his life on a hilltop in Shiroyama, he summed up his beliefs in a poem that vividly begins, "The burden of death is light."

During the initial engagements of the war against the Shogunate (called Boshin, or "the year of the dragon"), Saigo successfully led his troops against much larger Shogunate armies, all the while bemoaning that he could only command, and not join in the front-line fighting. He did personally lead the assault on a hold-out brigade of Shogunate dead-enders at Ueno, where his statue famously stands today.

The Boshin War began with a sweep north from Satsuma, at the southern tip of Kyushu, and ended with the Battle of Hakodate, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. However, Saigo was delayed mobilizing the troops under his command out of Tokyo, and Hakodate capitulated before he could arrive. The war was definitely over, and this bad timing Saigo regretted for the rest of his life.

But while Saigo-the-warrior represented the ideals of the traditional samurai ethos, Saigo-the-revolutionary could not ignore the vast social and political corruption Tokugawa-era feudalism had produced. Not only was Japanese society divided by caste, but the haves and have-nots within the castes had by then separated like oil and water, reducing many samurai families like his own to poverty. Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai well depicts the trap in which low-ranked samurai found themselves, with the impoverished protagonist longing to shed his status and become a mere farmer.

Saigo rose to prominence after internecine conflicts decimated the Satsuma leadership. Like Ito Hirobumi and Fukuzawa Yukichi and other leaders of the Meiji Restoration, the "creative destruction" of the Shogunate's fall presented opportunities for travel, education and political involvement that would have been otherwise impossible for a minor samurai from a tozama (outsider) domain to contemplate.

You'd never know it from The Last Samurai, but some of Saigo's most notable accomplishments were his diplomatic efforts. The first was the alliance with Choshu, Satsuma's bitter rival and one-time enemy. Choshu and Satsuma, together with the Tosa domain, formed the core of the Restoration movement.

The second was the surrender of the Shogunate army, including an amnesty for many in the Tokugawa leadership whom Saigo deeply despised. These negotiations prevented a reprise of the bloody power struggles that preceded the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, and perhaps more than any other single act cemented the legitimacy of the Meiji Restoration.

After the fighting was over, Saigo helped push through radical reforms of the decrepit feudal system, including the conversion of samurai stipends to bonds, and the replacement of the domain/daimyo system with the contemporary prefecture/governor system. Both spelled the end of the samurai as protected social class, even before the edicts on carrying weapons were promulgated.

In fact, many of these reforms Saigo had already implemented in Satsuma. Moreover, the Meiji government had expressed a grudging willingness to make exceptions on Satsuma's behalf in regards to samurai privileges, and a man of Saigo's stature could easily have bargained for more. So why did he then start the Satsuma Rebellion?

The simple answer is: he didn't.

Zwick's screenplay asserts that Saigo/Katsumoto began a war over a fashion statement. It is impossible to imagine a man of his stature and political maturity carrying on in such a silly manner, especially in the presence of the Emperor. (The Meiji Emperor chiming in on substantive policy matters is also fiction.) Perhaps Zwick was thinking of The Forty-Seven Ronin ("Chushingura"), the classic story of bushido honor and revenge, an oldie-but-goodie even in 1877.

Saigo had plenty of criticisms of Meiji policies, to be sure, starting with its Korea policy. Like all good samurai, once the fighting was over in Japan, he believed it was time to invade Korea. He was rightly rebuffed. (Unfortunately, three decades later this is exactly what Japan did, aggressively moving against China, Korea and Russia with a degree of military overconfidence that eventually led to Pearl Harbor.)

After resigning from the government, Saigo spent his time hunting and running a military school devoted to the Confucian classics. Anecdotal accounts have it that when the revolt first broke out, he despaired at the pointlessness of it all, but became enraged at the government's heavy-handed treatment of the Satsuma upstarts, many of whom were his students and disciples. After provoking Tokyo governments for 300 years, Satsuma just couldn't stop itself.

Like Robert E. Lee, only after the shooting started was Saigo approached by the Satsuma rebels to lead the revolt, and Meiji officials to suppress it. And like Lee, he chose his "country" (Satsuma) over his nation. But one suspects as well that Saigo was seizing upon the opportunity for that great and glorious final battle that had escaped him at Hakodate.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
It does not help that Zwick's "insights" into the samurai mind and his depictions of the Battle of the Southwest consist of throwing every cliche in the book at the cinematic wall, such as having Katsumoto and his troops dressed up in period costumes. Imagine General Pickett at Gettysburg outfitting his men like medieval knights and charging the Union line sporting lances instead of guns. Hey, I'm not saying it wouldn't look totally cool. But Saigo's 25,000 man army was equipped with western military hardware. To demonstrate his loyalty to the Emperor, Saigo dressed in an Imperial Army uniform.

The rebellion itself began with raids on government arsenals in Kagoshima and Iso. The rebel samurai who joined up along the way did so with any number of motives and allegiances. Military tactics were similarly confused. Soon after Saigo joined the effort his forces blundered badly at the siege of Kumamoto Castle. By the time they had regrouped and started a long retreat, a larger conscript army commanded by Aritomo Yamagata (who would become the first prime minister under the Meiji Constitution), equipped with better weapons and supported by much better logistics, had caught up with them.

It was all over except for the wasteful killing and heroic dying. Still, Saigo managed to drag the fighting out for six months. There was no charge of the "Noble six hundred," as Tennyson immortalized the similar fate of 13th Light Brigade at Balaclava. Popular accounts had Saigo committing seppuku and being beheaded by one of his retainers before their positions were overrun on Shiroyama. A subsequent autopsy concluded that he was too injured to carry through with the first part of the ritual.

Yet, paradoxically, as the movie does accurately indicate, Saigo Takamori's reputation emerged from the conflict not only intact, but enhanced. This was in large part due to his extraordinary contributions to the Restoration before the Satsuma Rebellion, but also because the poetic finality of his revolt. The goal of the rebellion leaders had been to drive north to Tokyo and present their complaints to the Meiji leadership. But they never even made it off the southern island of Kyushu. It exhausted the nascent national budget and resulted in over 30,000 killed and wounded on both sides. But the last land battle fought on the Japanese "mainland" (Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu) was resolved without a return to the devastating civil wars depicted in Kurosawa films such as Kagemusha and Ran.

Which brings us back to the appeal of The Forty-Seven Ronin. To review, a young daimyo is provoked by a haughty court official into drawing his sword within Edo Castle. As punishment, the daimyo is ordered to commit seppuku, his lands are confiscated and his samurai disenfranchised. A year later, these forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai) carry out a carefully-planned revenge, and then gave themselves up to the authorities.

At the time, Confucian scholars hotly debated the rights and wrongs of what they did. Bushido ideology itself had been largely invented to justify the existence of a warrior class with no wars to fight. They weighed the specific responsibilities of the principal actors in the affair, and whether such a well-planned revenge was really in keeping with the spirit of bushido, and whether they should have committed seppuku and not surrendered.

The Shogunate found itself in a tight spot. They couldn't openly condone such actions. Like cowboys slinging guns, it was fine for samurai to carry swords as long as they didn't use them very often, if at all. Yet, they couldn't well be seen to disparage such a spirited execution of bushido ideals. Similar political conflicts, arising out of this surfeit, not paucity, of martial "honor" did not end until the final devastation of the Second World War.

So the Forty-Seven were ordered to commit seppuku. And by complying, cut graphically through the Gordian knot. The Shogunate could celebrate the noble exceptionalism of the ruling samurai class while warning that, take that exceptionalism too seriously and you may have to nobly die for it. It provided a politically tidy conclusion to the affair, and the general public with a dramatically satisfactory ending to a great 17th century reality show.

As did the final days of Saigo Takamori. And the Meiji government did not let slip such a golden opportunity. In 1889, Saigo was posthumously pardoned and promoted. He was declared a national hero, if a tragic national hero, and those are often the best kind. According to the mythic historical account that later arose, as described by Mark Ravina,

[Yamagata Aritomo] turned to the assembled commanders and spoke of Saigo's glorious death. He called the attention to Saigo's calm countenance, unchanged even in death. Then, holding Saigo's head, Yamagata wept for his fallen comrade. This was a death befitting the last samurai.

Zwick gets the myth about half right. Unfortunately, embracing a tragic hero is no longer enough. We must be constantly reminded what lousy people our ancestors were. And so Zwick has to toss in the requisite wicked white men in black hats. The character of Omura, based on Saigo's far more pragmatic and realistic Satsuma compatriot, Okubo Toshimichi, whom historian Masakazu Iwata praises as the "architect of the modern [Japanese] state," practically twirls a vaudevillian mustache whilst carrying out his evil deeds.

Granted, it's only one man's opinion, and a relatively benign one at that. Japanese film makers have plenty of experience fictionalizing their history as well. Consider Samurai X, based on the popular Rurouni Kenshin anime series.

The movie begins with a flashback of Kenshin standing guard at the critical meeting between Saigo Takamori and the Choshu clan's Kido Koin, and driving off an attack by the Shinsengumi, a fanatical group of Shogunate loyalists. It was this meeting that marked the beginning of the end of Shogunate rule, and the rise of Saigo as one of the great leaders of the Restoration.

The story resumes shortly after Saigo's death. It follows Kenshin's investigation of one of the many minor coup attempts that would erupt during the Meiji period. The coup plotters include a motley crew of naive idealists, honestly dismayed at the government's politics and policies, remnants of the Shogitai (the brigade Saigo wiped out at Ueno), Shinsengumi dead-enders, plus assorted carpet-baggers and opportunists.

The movie's Japanese title, "Requiem for the Meiji Revolutionaries," makes clear the director's message and intent. And along the way, Samurai X much better explores the inflamed passions that also led Satsuma to revolt against the very thing it had created. Samurai X is a cartoon, to be sure, but ultimately less cartoonish than The Last Samurai.

Buried as well in the surprisingly accurate historical detail of Samurai X is the the real story Zwick was trying to tell but missed completely: the Shinsengumi. The Shinsengumi was a guerilla organization based in Kyoto, charged by the Shogun to confront advancing Satsuma and Choshu forces and disrupt and frustrate anti-Shogunate activities. For the Shinsengumi, plain old bushido wasn't good enough. They lived by the Taliban version of the samurai code, called gohatto (literally, "forbidden").

Following the collapse of the Tokugawa regime, the Shinsengumi were routed and killed. According to the gohatto code, a quarter of the original 200 committed seppuku. If you want to be Byronesque about it, they were band of brothers sacrificing themselves for a lost cause. Or you could conclude, as John Dougill quips in his review of the NHK television series, "They were a bunch of hit-men hired by a repressive regime."

Saigo deployed similar insurgency forces in Tokyo prior to the surrender of the capital. But the Shinsengumi came far closer to Cruise's and Zwick's romanticized notions of the "old" samurai ways. They even eschewed firearms and fought with swords and bows and arrows! In the forward to his manga, Rurouni Kenshin creator Nobuhiro Watsuki admits to a sneaking admiration for the Shinsengumi, his protagonist's sworn enemy.

The same year as The Last Samurai also saw the release of When the Last Sword Is Drawn, a romanticized account of the downfall of the Shinsengumi. Not to be outdone by Hollywood in the "dying for your self-destructive but admirable beliefs" genre, NHK made the Shinsengumi the subject of its 2004 historical drama series. NHK hired writer Mitani Koki (who penned the hilarious Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald) to do the screenplay, cast pop idol Katori Shingo in the lead, tossed its heralded devotion to historical accuracy out the window, and has been pulling in buffo ratings all year.



1. Cruise's Algren does have a historical precedent, and in an unexpected quarter. Japan had, for the time, a highly literate population, but nothing like a national or even state education system. Japanese diplomats traveling abroad were impressed by what they saw in the United States.

Our prototype in this case was also a Civil War veteran, one Captain L. L. Janes, hired to set up a school for "western learning" in Kumamoto. But as Marius B. Jansen wryly notes in The Making of Modern Japan, Janes's employers got more in the bargain than they had counted on:

Under [his] influence, the first class produced the "Kumamoto band," or fellowship, of earnest young Christians who dedicated their lives to spiritual rather than martial modernization.

Spiritual "enlightenment," apparently, goes both ways. [return]

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