Now Watching…The Last Samurai

Tell me how he died.

I’ll tell you how he lived.

The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick and starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe is a 2003 epic war film about the last remnants of the Japanese warriors trained in the Bushido tradition, and how they rebel against the westernization of Imperial Japan, AND the American soldier who chooses to stand with them.

I just finished watching this movie for the first time and I have to confess that I am blown away by the fact that I’ve never seen this movie before…seriously, how have I never seen this movie before? This movie was FANTASTIC! I LOVED it! The performances are nuanced and captivating, especially Ken Watanabe as the samurai lord Katsumoto. The thing that I love most about this character is that he completely dashes the stereotypes of many Asian-heritage characters, particularly the idea that people of Asian descent never show emotion. In fact, this entire movie spits in the face of that idea.

This is easily one of my favorite performances by Tom Cruise as well. You can tell that this is a role and a story that he deeply cares about.

I understand that there has been some controversy surrounding this movie in the past, and I understand why… There is as certain idealism woven throughout the narrative of the film, but honestly I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

It would be naive to assume a blanket romantic attitude towards ancient cultures. The reality is that very often, they could be just as evil as we are today. I could not help feeling a terrible discomfort, however, as I watched the plot unfold and witnessed the massacre of an entire culture at the hands of a “westernized” Japan.

There are two thoughts I’d like to share and invite anyone reading to reflect on. First, this film has me reflecting on myself and my culture, the evil and the good to be found in both, and what I can do as one man to ensure that my people tomorrow are better off than my people today. I was surprised by the rich sense of charity portrayed between Tom Cruise’ character and the culture he found himself in, including one of my favorite quotes from this entire script. In explaining why he is fighting to defend the samurai village from the empire, he says this:

They come to destroy what I have come to love.

That’s all that needed to be said in that moment. Which reminds me of another thing: the silences between the characters in this movie are so poignant, so stuffed full of emotion and meaning, that very often few if any words are spoken or needed.

Second, and this is perhaps the aspect of this film which impacted me most of all…

Death is such a little thing, when it comes to what you make your life all about.

One could argue that the samurai threw their lives away, but I don’t think so. They chose to die for what they believed in. Put another way, they so believed that their life was worth living that they were willing to die with that way of life rather than give it up for another way, which they believed to be a far inferior way.

We don’t like talking like that today. Saying that one way is inferior or superior to another makes us uncomfortable. Honestly, it should. It should make people of white western heritage uncomfortable to say such things, because we are part of a culture built upon an endless burial ground sown with the blood of nations our ancestors deemed ‘inferior.’ People of the west must, I think, always carefully examine their own hearts before daring to make any sort of claim that one way is inferior or superior to another.

For the samurai, Bushido was the only way to live. Dying for that way was not a huge decision; they would not have been samurai if they had been unwilling to die in the first place.

I feel compelled to search my heart and ask, “What way shall I die for? What way shall I live for? What way shall I love so dearly that to live it is worth dying for it?”

I feel compelled to ask you, too.

All of us must live, and all of us must die.

What will you live for?

What will you die for?




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