I’ve seen two movies in the theater recently – “The Last Samurai” and “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Both kept me entertained while in the auditorium, but only the latter would I actually recommend to others. “Samurai” had some exciting fight scenes but was otherwise forgettable. Worse, like many movies of the “Western man goes to live in another culture” genre, its socioeconomic message is atavistic and misleading. The message of such films is nearly always something like, “The old traditional culture was more honorable than modern Western culture, and we should lament its passing.”
What’s wrong with that message? The fact that old traditional cultures were often politically brutal and economically backward. The samurai culture was no exception. The samurai were the warrior class of feudal Japan, a system that, like feudal systems elsewhere (notably Western Europe in prior centuries), privileged the nobility, tied the common people to their land, restricted trade, stunted economic growth, and forcibly kept the mass of people in poverty. “The Last Samurai” focuses almost exclusively on the seemingly honorable traits of the samurai themselves – loyalty, discipline, respect, etc. – while downplaying (if not outright ignoring) the cause those characteristics served, a cause utterly without merit: preservation of the god-monarch status of the Japanese Emperor and the feudal system over which he reigned. (To be fair, I’m eliding some distinctions here myself. At the time the movie was set, the 1870s, the Japanese Emperor’s power was weak, the monarch being little more than a figurehead. But the system he symbolized was still feudal, with all that implies.)
At times, the film’s conflict appears to be between traditional Japanese culture and the militaristic greed of the West. Undoubtedly, the Western powers often acted less than admirably during the historical period in question. The U.S. government terrorized the American Indians at home, while attempting to extend its military power abroad (though not nearly to the extent it did in the next century). The European powers were even worse, governing and exploiting vast colonial empires. Japan was justified in wishing to resist Western control.
But in no way does the West’s poor behavior legitimize the samurai culture. What made the Western nations’ foreign policies undesirable was their deviation from the Western liberal principles of freedom, democracy, property, and contract – principles that were the source of the West’s astounding prosperity and the dramatic improvement in their quality of life over the preceding four centuries. By rejecting those principles, Japan’s feudal political-economic system guaranteed its continued stagnation relative to the West. (Eventually, Japan was able to achieve independence from the West by adopting a quasi-capitalist system. Unfortunately, that system melded with the worst aspects of the militaristic samurai mindset, leading to the Japanese imperialism that culminated in World War II.)
I feel somewhat silly spending time criticizing “The Last Samurai,” because in truth, the film is a thematic lightweight. “Return of the King” is a much better film, far more worthy of discussion. Yet interestingly, the LOTR trilogy draws on some of the same primitive impulses: glorification of military prowess, disdain for technological progress, approval of traditional undemocratic forms of government. Why does LOTR deserve a pass on these matters while “Samurai” does not? The simplest is answer is that the LOTR films are immeasurably better in pretty much every other respect, from the writing to the acting to the cinematography. But more importantly, LOTR is obviously a fantasy, whereas “Samurai” claims the mantle of history. The samurai were real; the Rohirrim were not. We know little of the economic system of Gondor and Rohan, so we can imagine that their rulers are benevolent dictators who protected the economic and personal freedoms of their people. In Middle Earth, good and evil are tangible things that result from your species and your soul (human vs. troll, elf vs. orc); in the real world, good and evil are behaviors whose incidence is mostly a function of institutional incentives.
One completely unrelated comment on “Return of the King.” From those I’ve talked to about it, the most common criticism is that the ending was far too long. And it’s true that the movie includes a half hour or more of denouement, which is really too much for one movie. But in Peter Jackson’s defense, neither of the previous installments in the trilogy had any denouement at all. ROTK’s ending could charitably be considered three denouements in one. Is one half hour of ending really too much for nine hours of movie?