by Lazarus Black
Over the centuries, people who vaguely resemble me have caused a lot of problems. I would like to consider myself one of those attempting to correct those problems as I can — or at least not cause any more of them. But something is being lost in the fight.
I enjoy celebrating the differences between peoples while showing how we are all still bound together by our humanity. And as another human being on this planet, I feel a responsibility to appreciate and learn about other people, and represent them to the best of my ability to others. Obviously, there are going to be limits to my experiences and my ability to represent them which makes it best for me to avoid telling certain stories. But some stories — some experiences — are a lot more universal than one might think
Unfortunately, some of the greatest attempts to connect cultures have been misunderstood by loud individuals who know much less (maybe even nothing) about the cultures they desire to protect.
The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise is a classic example of a beautiful, respectful story, connecting cultures that was vilified by ignorant people who not only didn't understand the movie — likely never saw it at all, and instead are reacting to trailers and trolls.
If you haven't watched the movie, please do before reading further and certainly before commenting.
The crime it has been accused of is the so-called "White Savior Trope" where by a White person travels to a foreign culture, proves they are better at everything the locals pride themselves on, and saves them from some danger they could not have done on their own.
Error #1: Tom Cruise does not travel to another culture. He is invited — actually HIRED by another culture — because of his expertise at war. He is a decorated soldier, an officer, with PTSD just trying to survive, forced to do the only thing he knows how to do. He is a soldier of great experience placed amongst other soldiers. Casual racism will lead one to believe that the word "samurai" is some sacred position in Japan. But while it was elevated politically for centuries, the word simply means "soldier". Yes, it translates to "one who serve" (it is also its own plural "those who serve") and refers to warriors who have sworn oaths to a warlord, but there is no other word in Japanese for a "soldier". And while Japanese soldiers have been venerated in myths and legend, the same occurred for warriors in most cultures, including Hoplites, Saxon Knights, and United States Cavalry (from where Tom Cruise' character belonged). In English, we call warriors who fight for money "Mercenaries". In Japanese, those warriors are called "Ronin" until they find a permanent Patron. So, by definition, Tom Cruise's character is a Samurai — a soldier. He is not "different".
Error #2: Tom Cruise's character is not "better" than most of the other characters he is placed with in the film. Even by his own culture's standard, he is just more experienced. Which is not the same thing as an average foreigner being better than the best "barbarian". Compare this to the White Savior Tarzan who, as an orphaned White child, is able to survive and excel in the wilds of Africa better than any African-born child ever has or will and is acknowledged by indigenous Africans as "King of the Jungle". Tom Cruise's character begins the story as a decorated war hero, not some average schmuck, and is hired by the Japanese Emperor to modernize their army. He is not only acquainted with all the weapons of war, he has extreme battle field experience using firearms and even swords (the sabre). When he encounters the Japanese rebels for the first time, he fights bravely, defeats one of them in close combat, and holds off others for a little while. But what one has to remember from history is that he is actually the most experienced warrior in the entire scene. At the time the film takes place, Japan had not had a war for centuries. The Samurai had been granted status and authorities and developed a culture of dueling, but they had not actually gone to all out war for generations. And that is exactly why Tom Cruise was hired by the Emperor to train his army. Even then, however, he is not good enough to defeat everyone that day (this isn't an Arnold Schwarzenegger film). Tom Cruise's character loses his first battle. He is spared by the rebel Japanese General for reasons that don't become clear until much later (and even then, one should be a student of Japanese military history and myths to appreciate it fully). And when the General insists on training him in the Japanese tools and philosophies of war, it takes time and effort for Tom Cruise's character to do well. Even with all of his experience, he only gets good enough with sword-fighting to fit in. He is never great among them. He doesn't, for example, become brilliant with the bow or Ju-Jitsu or Aikido (martial arts developed to be used with Japanese swords). Oh, and every critic who has denounced to me the speed with which he learned to use a sword has been unaware of the existence of, let alone the character's expertise with, the sabre, the traditional sword of the US Cavalry that he carried in the film, which is a similarly curved blade to the Japanese sword (the Japanese word for sword is "katana". Every sword on earth is a katana.) And when all is said and done, his training ends up being meaningless — which the entire theme of the film. Yes, the film's theme NEGATES his entire training and expertise with traditional Japanese weapons. Compare this to Tarzan's bare-handed victories against gorillas 4 times his size with a incomprehensibly strong musculoskeletal structure.
Error #3: *SPOILER ALERT* Tom Cruise's character doesn't save anyone. Everyone else dies. And he began the story pretty much dead from PTSD to begin with. He is merely a witness to the events that unfold, to tell the story of the General, the rebels, and the Imperial Army.
Who is "The Last Samurai"?
Lastly, let's address the title: probably the most triggering thing to those who've not seen the film. I've even heard people swear they never WOULD see the film because of what they expect the title to mean all by itself.
But the title is a pentuple-entendre. That's right, it has 5 meanings (that I could count), and one has to actually watch the film to learn even two of them.
So who is "The Last Samurai" in The Last Samurai?
As I said, "samurai" means soldier. That's it. It of course is a Japanese word and so has certain symbolic elements to it — but none of those elements are exclusively Japanese.
- "The Last Samurai" is the rebel General. The last of the great Samurai warriors, sworn to defend the Emperor and Japan. And as the last, he dies, in a dramatic moment signalling the end of an entire age of Japanese History.
- "The Last Samurai" is the end an entire age of Japanese History. Those many soldiers who fought for their lords (some with and some without honor) that shaped Japan and its culture for centuries.
- "The Last Samurai" are those many rebel soldiers who fought for their Emperor, their General, and all they believe Japan should be.
- "The Last Samurai" are those soldiers Tom Cruise's character was training for the future of Japan, the ones burying the past to become the future, the only soldiers remaining to serve the Emperor, who salute their fallen comrades of the dying age to create the new one.
- "The Last Samurai" is Tom Cruise's character, the last surviving member of TWO massacres. The first occurred before the film started, where he earned his medal, PTSD, and deep personal shame, and the second with the rebel army in the final battle. That he is a foreigner means only that he can embody both ages fused into a single man that the Japanese story was striving to resolve. And he is no hero. That he physically survived is not heralded as a great feat with any suggestion of superiority over the others. He survived as a narrator's tool, to witness and share and suffer further.
The Last Samurai is nothing but respectful of both cultures in the film, presenting both shared experiences and differences as unique precious jewels to be appreciated. Tom Cruise's character hadn't been fighting a good fight in his history. He had never defended anything. He was an instrument of war, reaching across the American plains and into the homeland's of his lords' enemies, hunting and killing people to increase his lords' coffers. And his primary reversal in the film is appreciating what it means to be on the other side — to be the one defending for a change. And to lose it all. And suffer even further. Again, he doesn't save anyone.
My stories that feature people different than myself do the same thing: present both shared experiences and differences as unique precious jewels to be appreciated — or at least that's my goal.
... and yet there will still be some troll out there who will use this against me, spurning hate against me because "He wants to write more garbage like The Last Samurai" because they have duped their followers into despising what they don't understand. The question is, will they make the mistake because they are incapable of understanding nuanced truth, or will they bold-faced lie because they profit too much in praise, ego, and maybe even cold hard cash? We may never know.
Over the centuries, people who vaguely resemble me have caused a lot of problems. But I am not them.