Friday, December 5, 2014

Thank You Tom Cruise! 
(probably not what you'd expect)

The Last Samurai (2003) Poster

Today marks my son Jack's fifth month on planet Earth. Coincidentally, it also marks the 11th anniversary of Tom Cruise's Japan-set historical drama The Last Samurai (2003). Now, if you know me, that's not something you'd expect me to celebrate. However, here me out. I owe Mr. Cruise and his ahistorical East Asian Dances with Wolves a big favor. Way back then, after catching TLS in the theaters with my father, I was incensed. Everything about the film annoyed me, from its "white savior" leading man Hollywood trope to its flagrant middle finger waving at the actual history of Japan (BTW, I got my undergraduate degree from the Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Chicago).

So I went home and started typing up a list of everything I thought was wrong with the movie: historical blunders, technical mistakes, stuff that I just found unbelievable even within a dramatic context. Nothing particularly well-written or organized. Just a bunch of random bullet points off the top of my head. Then I shared it with a couple of friends hoping to get the whole matter off my chest and be done with it.

It was then that one of the recipients of my rant, my friend Sam del Rosario, recommended that I post it on the local Asian American Artists Collective's listserve. Not thinking much of it, I followed up on his suggestion. And man, was I surprised by the response. E-mails complimenting me on the information I had enumerated filled my inbox. A bunch of requests to repost, quote or use portions of what I wrote elsewhere came to me (I'm pretty sure this is how I first met folks like poet Bao Phi online).

And then I received a most curious request. A young lady e-mailed me stating that she found my post interesting, and wondered if I'd like to meet her to talk. Trading messages, it turned out she was taking classes in Wing Chun kung-fu in Chinatown at the Ng Family Martial Arts Association on the same days I was covering teaching for the University of Chicago Aikido Club. Our classes ended around the same time, so she suggested that I meet her at a restaurant near her school when we were both done. I agreed.

Normally I didn't (and don't) meet with strangers who have introduced themselves to me via the internet. But, something about the tone of the messages seemed friendly and innocuous enough. And although the person contacting me was of the female persuasion, I had no thoughts of having a potential dating partner. I had recently come out of a relationship that had ended unpleasantly, so was planning to enjoy singlehood for as long as I could.

So on that blustery Saturday morning, after wrapping up Aikido class at the University of Chicago and departing the Henry Crown Field House, I made my way to Chinatown and to the designated restaurant meeting spot. Parking my car, I headed in and scanned the tables to see who was there. First thing I noted was there were no women sitting by themselves. Assuming that I had arrived early, I was going to grab a table for myself, when a very young looking girl got up from a table where she had been sitting with a group of guys and asked my name.

I was taken a bit aback. She was much younger looking than I had even expected, dressed in training sweats and her hair tied back. It was hard to tell her age. She looked Indian or Filipino, which of course meant, she could be anything between 16 and 35 as far as I was concerned. In fact, I suddenly had the sinking feeling that I had just arranged a meeting with someone in the 13-year-old range, and at any moment, Stone Philips and the entire team of "To Catch a Predator" would come bursting out of the kitchen armed with cameras and lights.

Luckily though, that wasn't the case at all. She was very much an adult (Thank God), and invited me to join her and her "Kung Fu brothers" at their table. And the conversation was wonderful. Turned out we had a lot more in common than I would have expected. We both had performing arts interests (she studied classical voice while I worked as an actor). Plus we had a lot of friends in common, like Sam, who had originally suggested I post my samurai rant.

We left the restaurant promising to keep in touch. Eventually we started dating, but not for two years, during which we both went through other relationships (one of hers, funny enough, was with a friend of my brother's from high school). And in 2010, we got married, and this year our first child was born.

So, thank you, Tom Cruise, for introducing me to my wife Czerina.

P.S.: I did learn later that that the bunch of guys sitting with Czerina in that Chinatown restaurant 11 years ago, her "Kung Fu Brothers," had chosen to be there very deliberately. Apparently, learning from Czerina that she was meeting a man she had talked to on the internet, they had accompanied her to the restaurant fully prepared to beat me up if I did something untoward.

P.P.S. Below is the complete text of my original rant from 2003.

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"Problems with Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise’s Japan War Epic"

By Dwight E. Sora

Historical Inaccuracies

1. In the film, in 1876, American Army veteran Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is hired by Japan’s Meiji government to train the new modern Japanese army in Western arms and tactics. Although the Meiji government did hire Western military advisors in their modernization efforts, they were largely German and British

2. Algren is ordered to lead the new Meiji army against a group of anti-modernization/anti- Western samurai led by General Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). The army is defeated, and Katsumoto takes Algren captive. However, the Western military advisors did not take part in the actual battles of the late 19th century samurai revolts led by Katsumoto’s real-life counterpart Saigo Takamori.

Technical Inaccuracies

1. During a fight with ninja sent to kill him, Katsumoto throws a katana (Japanese sword), which spins end-over-end and impales an assailant. However, katana are not weighted properly for use as throwing weapons and due to the personal attachment and reverence samurai had for their swords, it is highly unlikely that sword- throwing would be part of their combat training (in fact, it’s just not true).

2. Algren is given four months of training in Japanese kenjutsu (swordfighting) during his captivity, and is exposed to the concept of mushin (no mind). During that time, he becomes capable of fighting an experienced samurai to a draw, and defeats multiple Japanese assailants during an assassination attempt in Tokyo. Although admittedly, there have been and probably are people of exceptional physical talent who show an unnatural aptitude for learning martial arts (both Asian and non- Asian), keep this in mind–high-ranking samurai warriors belonged to clans steeped in warrior tradition and began training as young children. Furthermore, specialized skills would only be taught to a student who showed particular dedication – the type proven by years of loyal service.

3. During his captivity, there is a scene in which Algren is given a traditional topcoat and hakama (wide pleated pants). Somehow, without any instruction, he manages to get these on right. This is a nit-picky point, but I can tell you from personal experience that getting a hakama on correctly can be a major ordeal for the inexperienced.

Mixed Messages

1. Algren kills a samurai during the film’s opening battle, a man revealed to be the husband of Taka (Koyuki) and the brother of Katsumoto, and experiences absolutely NO CONSEQUENCES for his actions. In fact, Algren becomes adored by the children of the slain man and gains the affections of his wife, who allows Algren to wear the dead samurai’s armor during the climactic battle (She even tells Algren that it would be a great honor for him to do so). This has been defended by some film fans and critics as illustrative of the samurai family’s adherence to the  bushido code (Respect for a fellow warrior, so I assume), but apparently it also means that Japanese people are devoid of normal human emotion or reactions to the death of a loved one as well.

2. During the film’s climactic battle, Algren takes up arms against the Meiji soldiers and cold-bloodedly kills the American officer (Colonel Bagley, played by Tony Goldwyn) leading them, his former commanding officer in the U.S. Union Army. Though these actions would be transparently criminal in the eyes of the US Consular authorities, to say nothing of Japanese officials, Algren apparently experiences NO CONSEQUENCES for his actions. In fact, in the film’s dramatic closing scene, he somehow gains surprise access to Emperor Meiji’s private chambers, carrying a sword (?), still allowed to wear a full dress US Army uniform, and delivers a stirring lesson to Emperor Meiji on being Japanese.

3. In the film’s closing scene, Algren retires to Katsumoto’s mountain village, presumably to settle down with Taka and live happily ever after. This despite the fact that we’re in the 19th century, mixed-race relationships were frowned upon, and the village would probably have been economically devastated by the fact that all the able-bodied young men were gunned down by the Meiji army.

What the F**k?

1. Algren, who is portrayed in the film’s opening as a burned-out drunk disgusted by war, suddenly goes gladiator during the first battle scene, and manages to survive against multiple samurai armed with spears and katana by wielding nothing but a flagpole.

2. Algren is a trained frontier soldier, with combat experience during the Civil War and having served under General Custer. Yet, once his wounds have finally healed while in captivity, he never once tries to escape.

3. Ninja assassins sent by Omura (a pro- Western politician-industrialist working for the Meiji government, played by Masato Harada) attack Katsumoto’s village base during a nighttime raid. The ninja presumably manage to evade the notice of Katsumoto’s battle-hardened samurai sentries, as well as Katsumoto himself. However, just before the assassins are able to get Katsumoto in their sights, only Algren (who presumably has no clue what a ninja is) spots them and warns Katsumoto.

4. During the final suicidal charge of Katsumoto’s samurai cavalry against the new Meiji government’s army, the army unleashes a rapid barrage from a set of Gatling guns, mowing down everyone in its path. However, despite being in the front line of the attack, Algren is the only one not mortally wounded.

5. In the final confrontation in the Emperor’s chambers, Emperor Meiji (Shichinosuke Nakamura), overcome with emotion, blurts out a heartfelt plea in English (?).

Irony of Ironies

1. “The Last Samurai” portrays Katsumoto and his samurai rebels as the good guys, apparently because of their reverence for tradition and adherence to the samurai code of bushido. The pro-Western modernizers, embodied by Omura are portrayed as the bad guys. Conveniently left out is the fact that the “traditional” samurai-ruled culture included a rigid caste system, oppression of peasants, and clan warfare; while the modernization forces brought about constitutional government, rule of law, standardized education and modern industry.

2. The real-life Saigo Takamori became a martyr to right-wing traditionalists in Japan after being felled by the Meiji army during the actual Satsuma rebellion. In the following decades, it was likeminded pro-Japanese, anti- Western militarists who took control of the government, and used the code of bushido to justify military conquest of China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, leading up to the attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941. (Kind of makes Algren’s participation in a suicide charge against pro-Western military forces kind of funny.)

3. “The Last Samurai” debuted on December 5 in the US, taking over the number one box-office position domestically at $24.4 million. That same weekend, on December 7, the US observed the 62nd anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Dwight E. Sora is a Chicagoland native of half-Japanese, half-Korean descent. He has a B.A. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, and studied Japanese history at Waseda University in Tokyo. He works as a Japanese translator and actor, and has spent the last ten years training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido.

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