Flashback to a golden era

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 12:00am

American friends often ask two questions about the epic movie, The Last Samurai: was the portrait of Japan in the 19th century historically accurate, and did Japanese think the portrayal of the code of the samurai to be authentic?

I was born and raised in Japan, and have samurai lineage on my paternal and maternal sides dating back centuries, and I kept these questions in mind as I watched the movie.

On the first: the story is fiction and we should take it as an exciting tale, not a historical document. In that era, the new Japanese government invited many Europeans to train its military forces, but no Americans, like Captain Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise.

Katsumoto, the rebel leader, is loosely based on an historical figure, Takamori Saigo. He helped overthrow the last shogun and founded the Meiji government, but quarrelled with other leaders over the way the country was heading. He returned to Kagoshima prefecture in Kyushu and launched a civil war. In the movie, Captain Algren was captured and eventually joined Katsumoto's army.

The Last Samurai may be fiction, but the theme that Japanese did not easily walk the path of modernisation, industrialisation or westernisation appealed to Japanese audiences. Not only did westerners push Japan to open up for trade and as a supply base for American whaling in the Pacific, but the Japanese leaders themselves chose that path.

The men of Meiji were keenly aware that Japan would be colonised and subjugated by Europe and the United States, like the rest of Asia, if they did not compete with western military and industrial might. In modern Asian history, only Japan, Thailand and Nepal succeeded in maintaining their sovereignty before the second world war.

In Japan, the onslaught of industrialisation squashed many time-honoured ways of life and values. To this day, the pain and sadness about a vanishing world echo in Japanese minds. The scene of the last battle between the samurai and the imperial army brought tears to the eyes of many Japanese audiences.

On the second question, the image of the samurai both in Japan and the West is complicated, making it difficult to discern myth from reality. The samurai code of conduct called bushido developed over the centuries into a collection of manuals and there is no simple explanation.

Some guidelines are so detailed they sound like books on etiquette. A passage in Hagakure (Hidden Leaves), an 18th century book, says: 'It is bad taste to yawn in front of people. When one unexpectedly has to yawn, if he rubs his forehead in an upward direction, the sensation will stop.'

Other works have a sweeping, philosophical approach, including the concept of honorable death, incorrectly called harakiri in the West. Its proper name is seppuku, meaning 'slitting your own belly with a sword'.

From boyhood, a samurai was trained not to fear death by seppuku because it was an honourable death. They committed seppuku as proof of righteousness, innocence, refusal to be shamed by capture, or to protest against an injustice. In the movie, Katsumoto was fatally wounded in battle and Captain Algren helped him to die. In real life, Saigo asked his aide to behead him in the samurai way after the imperial forces had trounced his army.

In their rush to modernise, the Meiji government abolished the class system of the samurai at the top, followed by farmers, craftsmen and merchants. Even though the samurai retained their nominal status, most of their privileges were taken away. They were disarmed and the concept of an honourable death became obsolete.

Still, the samurai code that prized values such as honour, duty, discipline and courage still exists in Japanese minds today, if not in practice. Japan has its share of dishonour, irresponsibility, cowardliness and rudeness. At the same time, many ordinary Japanese cherish the principles that Captain Algren found enchanting in The Last Samurai.

Ken Watanabe, who played Katsumoto, was quoted as saying: 'The spirit of bushido is mainly known for its idea of honourable death, but even in daily life, such a spirit exists - to be honest, never to lie and to respect others.' Watanabe, who has leukaemia which is in remission, said: 'In my work as an actor, I try to live by these values.'

Both Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada, who played the sword master Ujio, were sceptical about the project before arriving in the US. They found, however, that director Edward Zwick and Cruise were eager to discuss the plot along with the language, costumes, sets and the way of the samurai. Watanabe said the Japanese team was fundamentally involved in making the movie, which made them proud.

I was impressed, for instance, with a scene of a large torii (Shinto gate) through which Katsumoto's men passed on horseback. On the lower beam of the torii was a pile of pebbles, which is exactly the way they are today. I have no idea what they mean, but there they were.

On the other hand, the combat with the ninja (secret agents), the improbability of the emperor speaking good English and a foreign soldier like Captain Algren appearing in an imperial audience looked like mistaken images of the past. I also wish the ending had not been in the style of Hollywood, with Captain Algren surviving and returning to the village where his love interest, Taka, awaited. The end would have been more powerful - and more Japanese - had Katsumoto and Captain Algren died together in the last battle.

A true samurai is a person skilled in martial arts and cultural training. He never uses his sword for senseless killing, only in defence. He is never timid in a crisis. He is ready to risk his life for a worthy cause. He is loyal to his master even when he disagrees with him. Such human beings have great appeal. Did they really exist? Perhaps the tears of Americans and Japanese while watching The Last Samurai welled up from a longing for a golden world in the distant past that may or may not have been.

But for 150 minutes, we lived in that world.

Fumiko Mori Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist