Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Last Words on Last Samurai...

The comments I wrote on the movie in the last two entries should not be taken as a criticism of the movie itself. They are simply observations that I made based on what I know about Japan. And if you'll notice, I critiqued some of the criticisms as well as the movie itself. I think Dizzo said it best when he said that movies are first and foremost entertainment and should not be viewed as a representation of "real" life. I whole heartedly agree. And as a story it was affecting and enjoyable.

The story evolves around the development of Algren (Cruise). A former civil war officer, he is disenchanted with life due to the brutal and indiscriminant killings of Indians--women and children included--he experienced in the service of the U.S. Army. He gets the opportunity to go to Japan to train Imperial Japanese soldiers--conscripts from the common classes, mostly peasants. During the course of their training, they are forced to make a stand against a resistance group of samurai who refuse to let go of the old ways. These men are see as anachronistic, throw backs to an earlier age who threaten to impede on the modernization of Japan. When these soldiers-in-training meet the superior warriors in battle, they are easily routed, and Cruise, outnumbered, is captured.

During his captivity, he familiarizes himself with the life of these warriors, their approach to life, living and death. They train with dedication, they accept loss and death with dignity, and they treat their enemy with respect. Cruise being one of these enemies, he experiences first-hand. He also learns that Taka, the woman who is seeing to his daily needs, is the wife of the man he killed. He perhaps recognizes her sadness or frustration of having to house this foreigner, but Algren nonetheless comes to appreciate how she accepts him as an enemy to be respected--if not liked. Of course, this turns toward the end to acceptance: she simply dresses him into his armor, accepting him as a member of her inner group. Thank God there was no sex and they didn't make this into a I'm-Tom-Cruise-and-I-can-have-any-woman-in-any-language kind of thing.

Anyway, during this time, Cruise discovers something that he himself either lost or never had in the first place as a U.S. soldier: A sense of pride of being a warrior, that it was good to fight for a cause, to fight with dignity. And this dignity is grounded in the respect and honor of ones own lifestyle and traditions as well as those of your opponents. Too bad he didn't die in the final battle. This guy who supposedly now understood the samurai, could not die with them. Wouldn't it have been something if Cruise died? But then again, maybe that was the point. Unlike Kikuchiyo in the Seven Samurai, Algren could get really close, but never actually becomes a samurai. Kikuchiyo was a farmer and could never be a samurai in life, so how fitting it was that this peasant could become one in death in battle. Conversely, Algren didn't die, cuz he couldn't do what Katsumoto did in the end: Take his own life as a samurai.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the movie as a story, and hope everyone watches it. My curse, sometimes, is my need to analyze things too much, to peek under every freakin' rock to find if everything is just perfect.

But this is only with things Japanese. Many of you will laugh, but I watched The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the other day and enjoyed it. It was surreal and "extraordinary". And it was--by unanimous verdict--a flop at the box office, because it was too fantastical. Was it realistic? Not even close. Was it ridiculous at times? Incredibly so. When you see a submarine the size of the Enterprise--the aircraft carrier, not the space ship--maneuvering the canals of Venice, Italy, you know that this is way over the top. The main characters in the story are literary fictional characters--Allan Quatermain (Haggard), Capt. Nemo (Verne), Dorian Gray (Wilde), Tom Sawyer (Twain), the Invisible Man (Wells), Dr. Jekyll (Stevenson), Mina Harker (Dracula: Stoker), and Professor Moriarty (Doyle). Now, when you think of these fictional characters, you think of fantastic things. But consider the reaction of a late 19th century reader. A White Hunter who can kill a lion at a thousand yards? Unheard of! A ship that submerges 20,000 leagues under the sea? Preposterous! A man and a woman who don't age because one has a cursed portrait and the other sucks blood? Queer! One man who is invisible and another who becomes a monster through a potion? Scientifically absurd! A white boy going on an adventure with a negro boy? Can I have a hit from your hookah? Hahahaha... The point, I think, is that the movie was supposed to be as fantastical to us as those stories were to the readers of a century ago. And as such it was a fun story to watch on screen. An adventure of extraordinary characters doing extraordinary things. What's wrong with that? I wish some of these critics would stop being so stuck on "realism" and chill...

But then, er, I guess, um, I can say the same thing about me...

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