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Lessons of The Last Samurai

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Samurai, among the most popular icons of Japanese history and culture, are often the subject of common myths or simplifications. Those of us who teach in the field of Japanese Studies confront these iconic images in the cultural baggage our students carry into the classroom, most recently from the lavish Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai. Efforts to establish authenticity in this big-budget Hollywood production, with its elaborate sets and meticulously-filmed battle sequences on remote New Zealand locations, collide with an implausible tale of the American hero who goes “native” and survives to teach the Emperor about true Japanese values. But the film also immerses us in a sympathetic portrayal of cultural encounter and transformation, one that reflects many popular and appealing images of Japan. For Japanese Studies, the problem of incorporating popular perceptions acquired through historical fiction is familiar territory. James Clavell’s Shogun (1975) conveyed a great deal more detail about Japan in 1600 than can be absorbed in a single showing at the multiplex, and, to the surprise of many of their literary colleagues, historians weighing its merits in the teaching of early modern Japan generally found in its favor (Smith 1980). One of the strongest recommendations for Shogun was its opening a door for students to encounter more scholarly and critical accounts of early modern Japan. The Last Samurai offers similar opportunities to engage students, and to illustrate how popular perceptions provide points of departure for a more intelligent, critical appraisal of Japanese history and myths. These top ten lessons are not meant to offer a cinematic critique, but rather to identify areas where, as the film’s director has admitted, “history sometimes took a backseat to drama” (Potier 2003:3), and to flag recent scholarship that aids in appraising mythic representations.