The Last Samurai: Movie Myth or History?

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"The samurai were very much backward-looking and no more courageous or loyal or wise than anybody else," said Bolitho. "They were just more privileged. In the end they fight for those privileges, and they are defeated by the new Japan. It's the new Japan overcoming the old Japan."

Mythologizing the Hero

But it's the idealized image of the samurai as brave and noble warriors that has survived. Zwick attributes it to the Kurosawa movies he watched as a 17-year-old student.

"I was as influenced by movie culture as I was by academic history," said Zwick. "When you're 17, you look for inspiration in different places. The idea that had most importance to me was how the samurai embraced the imminence of death and how antithetical that was to the culture in which I was living. The samurai code corresponded to an appreciation of life, the beauty of things transitory, and an absorption of the moment."

Zwick points out that Kurosawa himself was perhaps more interested in iconography than literal history, and that Kurosawa was heavily influenced by John Ford, the American director of classic Westerns, and the image of the lone frontiersman seeking justice with a gun.

"It's a kind of fusion of Western and Eastern culture that's bouncing back and forth," said Zwick. "It's important to realize this is a movie and not a historical document. That's why I chose to name the character Katsumoto, not Takamori."

But Zwick also wants his movie to depict Japan's first significant encounters with the West and to capture the rise of imperialism.

"There's a temptation to depict Japan's imperial impulse as having existed in a vacuum, when in fact they were certainly influenced by the circumstances of the world," said Zwick. "Our relationship with Japan did not begin 60 years ago with Pearl Harbor, but 150 years ago."

With the coming of the modern, explains Zwick, there are winners and losers; things are gained and lost on both sides.

"It's easy to appreciate the technological marvel and the world competitor that Japan has become," said Zwick. "But to be there in Japan and see the absolute disappearance of anything of the natural world, the aesthetic that was so celebrated and is still celebrated in the culture, feels also tragic."

Crafting the Image

The samurai may have been defeated in the late 19th century, but their virtuous and noble image has been carefully molded ever since.

"It's an idealized image that's been pushed onto the entire Japanese people," said Bolitho. "It's built into the education system and the armed forces, so that everyone who goes to war sees himself in some sense as a Samurai. It's a tremendous public relations job. Samurai images are brought out again and again, even to people whose grandparents where pushed around by the Samurai."

Still, Bolitho says he thoroughly enjoyed the new movie.

"We're dealing with a fantasy, and fantasy always tops reality," he said. "The samurai is a great movie theme. Like all ideals, it's going to be around forever."

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