By Mark Schilling
Hollywood views of Japan tend to be bipolar, swinging with the national mood. Most often the country appears as no more than an exotic backdrop for the doings of foreign actors. But even when a movie focuses on the country itself, what is served up is not one of the many aspects of the real Japan but a Japan that filmmakers think American moviegoers want. In the silent days, when exotic eroticism was all the rage, Sessue Hayakawa rose to stardom playing mysterious Orientals with a dangerous sexual charge.
In the war years, Japanese became the enemy Other, either rendered faceless (the ant-like Japanese soldiers of "Bataan") or reduced to crude stereotypes (as portrayed by Caucasian actors in "Tokyo Joe"). The experience of the postwar Occupation -- thousands of young American soldiers and civilians stationed in Japan -- and dating and marrying the locals -- changed the tone of Hollywood films with Japanese settings. Hostility and fear gave way to something resembling affection, however condescending. In "Teahouse of the August Moon" the Okinawan villagers the bumbling American occupiers try to democratize are mostly likable types -- though Marlon Brando's mugging, clowning "Japanese"interpreter, with his taped-up eyes and singsong accent, was about as authentic (and offensive) as Al Jolson in blackface.
By the 1970s, belittling stereotypes were on their way out, but Hollywood's Japan was still a long way from the real thing. Paul Schrader's "The Yakuza" was an earnest attempt to pay tribute to Japanese gangster flicks. But the film's talk of duty, honor and loyalty and its portrayal of gangsters as self-sacrificing stoics seemed woefully dated. By the time it was released in 1975, this sort of romanticism had been thoroughly exposed as nonsense in Kinji Fukasaku's "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" series, which presented postwar gangsters in all their real-life venality and duplicity.
In the 1980s, when Japan and the United States were locked a bitter trade war, American fears of being overrun by a fanatic Asian horde revived. This time, though, the enemy was legions of Japanese corporate warriors wielding, not samurai swords, but Games Boys, Camrys and other products that sliced and diced the American competition. In Philip Kaufman's "Rising Sun," based on a Michael Crichton thriller, a Japanese corporation is revealed as a ruthless, highly disciplined machine, run by a brilliant, sinister schemer who will stop at nothing, including murder, to win his business battles.
The period's Japan bashing also took more basic forms. Ridley Scott's "Black Rain" (1989) depicted Osaka as a steamy, exotic urban hell, where Michael Douglas's cop hero snarled abuse at his Japanese counterpart, played with teeth-gritted forbearance by Ken Takakura. In Fred Shepisi's "Mr. Baseball" (1992), Tom Selleck's aging major leaguer was comically baffled and enraged by the un-American oddities of Japanese "yakyu." In both films, Hollywood once again gave Americans the Japan they expected: a combination of the chillingly sinister ("Black Rain") and the amusingly strange ("Mister Baseball).
Now, with the Japanese economic threat long since subsided, Hollywood's interest in Japan has reverted to the default position: Samurai, geisha and other symbols of traditional Japanese culture that have fascinated the West since the days of "Madam Butterfly." In June of 2002, director Edward Zwick sent me an e-mail asking for my help with the dialogue and historical details of his new film "The Last Samurai." He admitted that the story, based on the 1877 rebellion led by the real "last samurai," Saigo Takamori, was highly fictionalized, with names changed and historical events simplified or ignored. At the same time, he told he want to present, not the usual stereotypes, but "rounded, complex, heroic Japanese characters to an international audience"
Over the next three months, serving as a script consultant, I learned exactly how serious Zwick was. My first task was to point out factual glitches. In one scene, the rebels trained in karate, a martial art practiced only by Okinawans in the19th century. In another, a character is called Yoritomo, a name with too strong an association with Japan's first shogun ruler to be appropriate for a humble young samurai. Zwick gladly fixed these and other problems. Then came my most important job: check all the Japanese dialogue, together with veteran scriptwriter Yo Takeyama, make sure it sounded like something Japanese might actually say.
Late that summer Takeyama and I met Zwick in Tokyo, and over a lavish meal at a Japanese restaurant, we answered his questions about script minutiae, including the niceties of Meiji court etiquette. He also mentioned films he had seen for reference and inspiration--not only the expected Akira Kurosawa classics but also "The Godfather." He was, in other words, aiming high. A year and a half after that conversation, I finally saw "The Last Samurai" and learned how far the completed film reflected Zwick's original vision.
In the main, I think it did. Tom Cruise's Nathan Algren accomplishes his transformation from guilt-wracked Indian fighter to noble samurai without overly straining credulity. By the end he is no longer a stranger in a strange land but a Japanese warrior in body and spirit. The major Japanese characters do not simply exist to support Cruise--again a frequent fault of American films set in Japan -- but are strong, individual presences, particularly Ken Watanabe's witty, dashing rebel general.
If anything, Zwick seems too much in love with the samurai and their world. In "The Seven Samurai," Kurosawa shows the farmers hiding their rice and women from their samurai protectors, whom they fear, from bitter experience, as potential exploiters. "The Last Samurai" lacks this sort of shading; its samurai may have their quirks but few weaknesses--and no dark side at all. To Japanese who know the real--not the movie's--history of the Meiji era and its aftermath, the film's glorification of warrior ideals may seem naive.
Hollywood's latest take on Old Japan is "Memoirs of a Geisha," Rob Marshall's screen version of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel. It is something of a throwback to an older Hollywood that regarded the cultures of the Mysterious East as a chop suey it could mix and blend to taste. Chop suey, of course, is an American dish masquerading as Chinese and the authenticity of much old Hollywood Orientalia was similarly suspect. Marshall and his staff labored mightly to achieve an accurate period look (save when it did not suit their dramatic purposes) -- but made several glaring errors. Nobu, Sayuri's would-be patron, loudly praises a small sumo champion (played by former real-life sumo star Mainoumi) for his splendid hatakikomi. First of all, hatakikomi is not considered a champion-like way of winning, unlike the more powerful and thus macho pushes and throws. Second, a small wrestler would not ordinarily make the technique his specialty, since height is required to execute it consistently.
Marshall departs more radically from realism, however, in casting three well-known Chinese actresses in the lead female roles -- Zhang Ziyi as the eponymous heroine, Gong Li as her bitter rival Hatsumomo and Michell Yeah as the okiya okasan Mameha, who takes Zhang's Sayuri under her wing. The fireworks between Zhang and Gong are spectacular, but they and the elegant Yeoh are unmistakably non-Japanese. Some cultural leaps are hard to make for all but the most gifted chameleons -- and impersonating a geisha, whose every gesture derives from a deep, exclusively Japanese tradition, is one of them. Zhang is a wonderful dancer, but her brisk, sharp movements with fans are closer to Chinese dance than the softer geisha buyo. Also, the choreography for her big solo number during her debut as a stage performer is totally Broadway, not the Gion. Marshall evidently felt compelled to remind everyone that he was the director of "Chicago" but the film's credibility suffers a blow it never recovers from.
It doesn't help that the girl who plays Zhang's younger self for the film's first forty minutes looks nothing like her and that Zhang and the other actors speak English almost exclusively, with a variety of Asian accents. But then the American audience, for whom the film is mainly intended, is not expected to mind these and other inconsistencies, just as they were once not expected to notice Brando's taped-up eyes.
Under the guidance of the wordly-wise Mameha, Sayuri quickly masters various geisha arts, but bridles at pleasing the wealthy older men who underwrite the whole enterprise. Instead she rises to the top more on the basis of her beauty and artistic talent than the core geisha art of flirtation -- and seduction. She also avoids entanglement in the traditional geisha (and Japanese) web of duty and obligation to a patron, while resisting harsh bullying by Hatsumomo and relentless exploitation by her first okiya okasan (Kaori Momoi). Supported by her (mostly one-sided) love for the kindly rich businessman played by Ken Watanabe, she emerges essentially unsoiled from her hardships and trials.
Kenji Mizoguchi, who made the best-ever film about the geisha, "Gion no Shimai"(Sisters of the Gion, 1936), took a different view, based on experience instead of "Sayuri"'s PC fantasies. His own sister was a geisha and, as young man, Mizoguchi became thoroughly acquainted with her world. In "Gion no Shimai" the two sisters of the title are among the common geisha herd, not Sayuri's elite, scraping out a living any way they can. The older, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura), is an old-fashioned type who stays loyal to her patron, even after he falls on hard times. The younger, Omocha (Isuzu Yamada), is a modern girl who scorns loyalty as bad for business and manipulates men with a casual, if calculated, ease. Both come to bad ends because, in a male-dominated society, neither has the power to overcome male superiority -- and brutality.
Instead of Mizoguchi's informed, unblinking portrayal of the prewar geisha's real lot,"Memoirs" offers a romanticized, deracinated caricature for foreign consumption. "My world is as forbidden as it is fragile, without its mysteries it cannot survive," Sayuri intones. Omocha's last, angry qeustion -- "Why must there be such things as geisha?" -- reveals a heart without illusions about "mysteries," protesting against an institution that was less "forbidden" and "frail" than simply feudal. The geisha world has survived, however -- and so has Hollywood's need to invent its own Japan.