By Mark Schilling
Americans have long had a fascination with Japan in the movies -- and
Hollywood has long been happy to give us the Japan it thinks we want.
Back in the 1950s, with memories of the Occupation still fresh, Hollywood
presented a postwar Japan that had a passing resemblance to the real
thing. Audiences could nod knowingly at the bumbling attempts of Army
bureaucrats to democratize a Japanese village in "Teahouse of the August
Moon"-- because many had been there themselves. Not many seemed to
care that Marlon Brando's "Japanese" interpreter, with his taped-up eyes
and sing-song accent, was about as authentic as a white singer in blackface
In the 1970s Hollywood's image of Japan became more PC, if not always
accurate. When the TV mini-series "Shogun" was broadcast in 1980,
viewers became enthralled with its detailed, mostly sympathetic depiction
of feudal Japan -- and its romance between a shipwrecked English captain,
played by Richard Chamberlain, and a Japanese woman of the samurai
class, played by Yoko Shimada. The Japanese audience found this
relationship hard to swallow, however -- a lady of high rank, they knew,
would almost never consort with a foreigner -- and certainly never jump into
the bath with him, as Shimada did with Chamberlain in one memorable
scene. Released in Japan as a theatrical film, "Shogun" was a box office
In the 1980s, when the United States and Japan were battling over trade --
and the US seemed to be losing -- Hollywood movies saw Japan and the
Japanese in a darker light. Ridley Scott's 1989 "Black Rain" portrayed
Osaka as a steamy, exotic urban hell, while Michael Douglas's cop hero
snarled abuse at his Japanese partners. He found his match, however, in
Yusaku Matsuda's icy cool gangster, who looked terrific in shades and
leathers, but dealt death with a frightening originality. In his hands even a
plastic baggie looked menacing.
In the 1992 Tom Selleck comedy "Mr. Baseball," the mood was lighter --
though the two cultures once again clashed, with Takakura, playing a
Japanese manager, again putting up with a rude, crude American, in the
form of Selleck's aging major leaguer. And once again, the American hero
jumped in the tub with his Japanese love interest -- this time a thoroughly
modern woman played by Aya Takanashi
Then came a decade-long gap when no major Hollywood films were made in
Japan. Then, in June of 2002, I received an email from Edward Zwick, who
was producing and directing a film called "The Last Samurai" starring Tom
Cruise. Zwick wanted people in Japan to get the dialogue and historical
details right -- and asked if I was interested in helping. He admitted that
the story, based on an 1877 rebellion led by the real "last samurai," Saigo
Takamori, was highly fictionalized. Saigo's rebels had fought with modern
weapons, while Zwick's would use only swords and arrows.
His aim, however, was not just to make a big-budget swashbuckler. "I honestly believe,"
he wrote, "...that I can present rounded, complex, heroic Japanese characters to an
international audience; that sixteen year-olds everywhere might just come away with an
awakened sense that our history and that of Japan were intertwined long before Pearl
Harbor; that words like honor and duty have resonance throughout history; and that the
birth of the modern and such wrenching transitional moments have resonance and
application to our present circumstance."
How, I thought, could I not sign on? Over the next three months, serving as
a script consultant, I started to learn exactly how serious Zwick was about
getting it right. First I sent notes him on the script, noting factual glitches.
In one scene, the rebels train in karate. Jujitsu would have been more
likely, I wrote -- karate was known only in Okinawa at the time.
Zwick gladly made these and other changes -- but my most important job,
working together with veteran scriptwriter Yo Takeyama, was to check all
the Japanese dialogue in the script -- and make sure it sounded like
something real Japanese might say. I then had to translate any changes or
additions back into English, so the English subtitles would correctly reflect
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 19th century Imperial court etiquette. He
also mentioned films he had seen for reference and inspiration -- not only
"The Seven Samurai" and other classics by Akira Kurosawa, but Francis
Coppola's "The Godfather." He was, in other words, aiming high.
Early in September, Takeyama and I sent off our final batch of corrections.
A month later, at Zwick's invitation, we went to see "The Last Samurai"'s
final day of shooting in Japan, at a Kyoto temple. When I got to the set, at
around seven in the morning, Zwick was preparing a simple scene -- Tom
Cruise walking up the temple steps with two foreign companions. Beaming,
he introduced me to his star, who was being frantically prepped by three
women -- one in charge of his Army officer costume, the other his make-up,
the other his hair.
I had the odd feeling of stepping out of sleepy, early morning Japan and
into a charged Hollywood moment. I noticed that Cruise had tiny crow's
feet around his eyes, wore a retainer on his teeth and was looking straight
at me, his eyes burning bright and alert. No surprise there; I had never
expected Cruise to be anything but intense. I was even prepared for the
retainer, having read about it on an Internet gossip column.
What shocked me, first, was his size. I had thought he was about the same
height as me, but he stood a couple inches taller (the boost, I later
realized, was in his boot heels). Second, he really wanted to talk, asking me
standard getting-to-know-you questions: "Where are you from?" "How long
have you been in Japan?" "How do you like Tokyo?" He was trying to put me
at ease -- though the whole idea of having a normal conversation with Tom
Cruise struck me as bizarre. Also, I had my own questions. but it wasn't the
time or place to quiz him on Nicole.
More than a year after that conversation, I finally saw "The Last Samurai,"
at it's world premiere in Tokyo on November 20. I learned how much the
script had changed since we had sent in our last batch of corrections -- and
how much the completed film reflected Zwick's original vision.
Mainly, it does, beginning with the fateful "intertwining" of Tom Cruise's
Nathan Algren and the samurai. Algren, a former Indian fighter tormented
by his butcheries in the name of civilization, is a natural ally for the
samurai rebelling against the new Western-influenced government. In his
mind, the rebels are brothers to the Native Americans he once slaughtered
-- they offer him a chance for redemption. He not only accepts their ways --
shades of Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves" -- but finds in them a
model of manhood, a vision of spiritual peace. By the end he is no longer a
stranger in a strange land, but a samurai in body and spirit.
Also, the major Japanese characters don't only support Cruise's -- they
have a strong, individual presence of their own. Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto
has not only the hawk-like dignity expected of a rebel general, but a wry
sense of humor and an eager curiosity. The obvious comparison, down to
his bald head, is Yul Brynner in "The King and I." In any case, his character
is no stereotype -- and certainly no subordinate to Cruise's Algren.
Katsumoto begins as his enemy, becomes his mentor, ends as his friend.
Then there is the wife of a samurai Algren kills in battle, played by former
model Koyuki (NOTE: No last name), who ends up caring for her husband's
killer at the request of her brother, Katsumoto. Unlike Shimada's character
in "Shogun," Koyuki's Taka keeps her distance through much of the film --
no hops into the hot tub. A statuesque beauty, she is also a strong-willed
type, who flares out at her brother for sparing an enemy's life, but comes to
admire Algren's courage -- and love the way he cares for her two sons.
At an August 28 press conference for "The Last Samurai" in Tokyo Cruise
said "This is the first film I've been so proud of" and spoke feelingly of his
fascination with the samurai spirit. Co-star Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays
Cruise's samurai fencing instructor -- and adversary -- said "I believe we've
made a film we won't be ashamed to have the Japanese audience see."
Other Japanese cast members made similar remarks -- Hollywood had
finally gotten Japan right. Then again -- what else would they say? In Japan
as in Hollywood, movie press conferences are for promotion -- not critiques.
A truer test came at a press screening I attended the day before the official
world premiere, on November 20. The industry and media types in
attendance didn't exactly stand on their seats and applaud at the end, but
the emotional climatic scenes had more than a few tearing up. Not what
you would expect, in other words, from another Hollywood travesty.
By some strange alignment of the stars, three Hollywood films with
Japanese settings have come out at nearly the same time. Sofia Coppola's
"Lost In Translation" will not be released in Japan until next spring and so
far the local reaction has been muted. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson
are not yet names to reckon with in the Japanese media.
Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 1," on the other hand, arrived in Japanese
theaters on October 25 in a blaze of publicity and topped the box office
chart in its first week on release. For all its Hong-Kong-style wire work it's
mostly Tarantino's blood-soaked valentine to Japanese genre films -- and
Japanese audiences have responded enthusiastically.
"Kill Bill," though, is essentially a joke greeting card, while "The Last
Samurai" is a heartfelt love letter, written on Hollywood's best stationery,
with Tom Cruise's name on the envelope. On December 7, when "The Last
Samurai" opens worldwide, millions of Japanese will want to read it.