I have a certain interest in Japanese culture. Most of this interest is connected with Japanese animation and comics, but there is some depth to my breadth on the subject. I was never sympathetic to the fashionable xenophobia of the Reagan-Bush years, despite having grown up in the geographic center of the Rust Belt. I lost touch with a number of high school friends, who just couldn't understand my college-years enthusiasm for Japanese things, who cherished a certain congenital national revulsion against the trade-enemy.
That being said, I never could abide samurai-worship, bushido, and all of that death-cult crap that should have died with Mishima but, sadly, hasn't. I won't tolerate European old-right enthusiasm for the lost institutions of nobility, class, and bigotry, and I won't turn a kind eye on that same enthusiasm in lacquered armor over padding and a kimono. In any conflict between a peasantry and a nobility, I will, all other factors being equal, side with the peasantry, with the future, with an egalitarian cause. All men are not equal, but they are born that way. The potentials they hold within are not determined by caste, family, blood or position. Those potentials are not knowable in the womb; systems that pretend otherwise are abominations in my eyes. Aristocracy is an evil. It is not the only evil – the last century stands almost like a laboratory for the wholesale invention and demonstration of all the possible evils the world can produce – but it is evil sufficient in and of itself to warrant fury and rage. A system in which certain people are declared less human because of birth is one for which I have not yet plumbed the depths of hate.
The samurai represent one of the most pure expressions of aristocracy the world has ever seen. The Tokugawa samurai were such that no commoner could ever join their number. It was a caste, as hard and fast and impenetrable as the crust of the earth itself. Only an act of God could break it, a catastrophe of volcanic proportions. The samurai worshiped death; prized inflexibility; reserved the right to slaughter presumptuous commoners. After the Meiji overthrow of the Shogunate, they asserted a monopoly on military power and political authority. The Satsuma Rebellion of the late 1870s represented an uprising in favor of aristocratic privilege – the privileges of nobility, of life or death over commoners, of class arrogance and birth, of the rights of certain families over the common rights of a people, or the natural rights of Man.
The samurai had virtues, as do all traditionalist, nationalist, militarist, or fascist factions or movements. They prized bravery, loyalty, nobility. One can recognize these virtues; one should not let that recognition overthrow one's own virtues – liberty, equality, mercy, compassion, progress.
I knew I shouldn't go see the Last Samurai. I knew it would enrage me. I am a person for whom politics often overwhelm aesthetics. I suppose this means that I don't possess the artistic temperament. It sometimes seems that to the artistic, nobility always trumps equality, bravery defeats mercy, loyalty crushes liberty. the Last Samurai is a very artistic film. I can see the points at which a writer, of lesser artistic sensibilities, might have built a story in which the last gasp of the noble samurai was tragically, accurately depicted; one in which our American hero comes to do a job, meets and is humbled by the titular last samurai, and yet marches forth in the end to suppress the rebellion, and strike down his inflexible friend in a true conflict between eastern and western values.
But the creators of the Last Samurai do not feel it necessary to acknowledge that there are western values. Our hero, as depicted, is a hollow vessel, emptied out by his experiences. He has no values of his own, and thus is filled by the values of the culture he encounters. This is a narrative for a defeated nation, a self-defeated nation, a polity without the courage of its own convictions. This is the ideology of nothingness. It is a placeholder for any assertion strong enough to fill its vacuum.
There are other issues with the movie – the classist, near-racist depiction of all Japanese commoners as cowards, bullies, or cowardly bullies; the way it doesn't follow through on the courage of its own abominable convictions and let the protagonist die in battle; some minor anachronisms, the largely bloodless violence, certain ugly wish-fulfillment moments – but the ones that truly outrage me are ideological. I am offended by this film's historical myopia. I am offended that they didn’t think historically. No-one in the project seems to have thought out the true tragedy - that the moral victory of the samurai, the retention of a samurai spirit within the New Japan, the spreading of that samurai spirit throughout the Japanese commons, would eventually result in the monstrosity of Japanese militarism and catastrophic defeat by the Americans.
The story of the Satsuma Rebellion, of the suppression of the samurai, is one that, told clearly, can only be a comprehensive tragedy. That the Last Samurai ends up a mere myopic melodrama, is both an ethical failure and a sin of the imagination.
Sunday, December 14, 2003
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