by Julia Oh
"Give me a freaking break, Tom Cruise plays a samurai? Who's gonna take that seriously?"
It was over a year ago that I heard about the production of "The Last Samurai". The very idea of a movie casting a white American leading a samurai revolt during the Meiji Restoration was so appallingly revisionist, if not hyper-egocentrically base, that I was certain it would flop before it ever took off.
"This goes a step beyond the white guy going to Asia and playing center stage a la Shogun and 7 Years in Tibet. The white guy actually usurps the role of the Asian guy in his native country!" my friend furiously rattled off to me, while I was busy writing letters to try and impede the Hollywood production of "Memoirs of a Geisha", a movie based on the novel by Arthur Golden. In my mind, geishas and their painted faces had much more box office potential than a scientologist fumbling around with a Japanese sword, so my limited time and resources went into protesting the former from airing.
As it turned out, my psychic senses failed- while progress on Memoirs stopped, TLS went onto become a blockbuster in both the US and Japan. This critique comes a bit late as my hopes that TLS would generate as much (or as little) attention as "Kung Pow: Enter the Fist" were dashed, yet I felt was necessary, given that there is little substantial criticism, especially that from a social perspective, about this degrading film.
Now, going to see TLS to realize that it's crap would be like eating shit- that is, I don't need to do it to know that it tastes bad. And I certainly don't need to shell out the $10 or so to know which parts of the movie bother me. Those who did waste their money related to me the film's historical inaccuracies (overlooking the most glaring of all- that there was no white Samurai, duh), the bits of cultural appropriation, and the Hollywoodesque scenes in which the lone white man emerges victorious and minimally scathed after taking on a horde of colored savages.
And as usual, the critics, for the most part, didn't do their job. "[A] loving tribute to the great Japanese samurai movies. . ." waxed a review in the Chicago Tribune. A review for the Boston Globe called it "[an] epic drama. . .with all the muscle and splendor Hollywood can call up." And the comparison to "Dances with Wolves"? Hogwash! Kevin Costner, in DWW, never patronizingly teaches the Native Americans on how to be more Native American (vs Tom Cruise lecturing the Japanese on what it means to be Japanese), Costner never kills a Native American after aligning with them (vs Cruise slaughtering Japanese men by the scores without remorse), and Costner's romantic interest is of an equal social dynamic with a white woman (vs Cruise paired with a Japanese woman whose husband he killed).
For those of you staring in disbelief, you read it correctly: Tom Cruise's love interest is a Japanese woman whose husband he has killed. To add insult to injury, there is a love scene in which the woman dresses him with her dead husband's clothes!
I seethed when I first learned about this detail, and even now it makes me ill. If the facts alone weren't disturbing enough, it is the utter lack of controversy and questioning over the situation that leaves me bewildered. Under any other circumstance, viewers and critics would be discerning over the abhorrent psychology behind such a scenario. How would viewers feel about a white woman falling in love with a man (white or Asian) who killed her beloved husband? Likely disgust. Or how would an audience react to a Japanese woman swooning over a Japanese man who just killed her husband? Likely in disbelief. Yet in TLS, a Japanese woman becomes enamored by a man who stabbed her husband in the neck just a few scenes prior, and the intended reaction is not one of disbelief or disgust, but enchantment. Awww, how sweet. Does this have anything to do with the fact that the male protagonist is white and the damsel in distress is Asian? You bet. Interracial relationships between blacks and whites and the implications therein are sure to fall under (due) scrutiny and debate - such as whenever Denzel Washington appears on screen opposite a white woman, or when Halle Berry is paired opposite a white man. But there was no hoopla or buzz over the repercussions of Tom Cruise bedding Koyuki. TLS was just another Hollywood example of the white male-Asian female phenomenon becoming depoliticized. In this instance, it happened within a glaringly political context.
At the same time, any frivolous screen action can intend a subliminal message, and a concrete action such as the one in question, conveys a deeper one. Certainly, it was not a coincidence that Tom Cruise ends up fornicating with the woman whose husband he knifed down. So what kind of message was intended here? That Japanese women are so desperate for white validation that we are willing to spread our legs for a white man even if he's just killed our husband? Or is it "Kill the men, fuck the women" style of imperialism that's meant to be etched on my yellow forehead?
As an Asian woman, I feel like Tom Cruise took a big crap on my face. As if casting himself as the lead character in a purely Japanese historical affair wasn't enough, he decides that Japanese women are so docile and subservient that we wouldn't have enough dignity to honor our loved ones' death. Every day, Asian women, such as me, have to combat the stereotypes that degrade us and place us on lower footing, and every day there are those of us who are forced into circumstances where we have to prove that we are not quiet geishas, meek china dolls or coy dragon ladies, but are independent, strong, opinionated, and are not looking for a white knight. For every drone that watched TLS, saw the love scene and lapped it up, I become that desperate Japanese woman who sucked face with a white knight while my Japanese husband's dead body was still warm. And it becomes my burden to undo the damage. Not to forget, there is too the other side of the equation - that is Asian (Japanese) men - and what potential messages the movie conveys about them: That they are so boorish that need to have a white man explain their culture to them? That their leadership skills are so lacking that they need a white man to head their battles? Or that they are so vapid as to sit complacently while white men slaughter their fellow man and take their women to bed? It's a tough call to decide who had the bigger crap taken on them.
Needless to say, it would be foolish to think that these words would actually mean something to a multi-million-dollar-earning celeb who basks in his white male privileges every day of his sheltered life. Yet, while it may be my burden to deal with racist and sexist stereotypes, it is not mine to educate or enlighten those who spread them. My time is better spent connecting and communicating with other Asians, first and foremost. A message must go out, however, to the perpetrators of hurtful and degrading ideas. And so, to keep it simple, here is my reality for Tom Cruise's fiction: if he or any heinous white man ever tries to get between my legs after disrespecting my lover, brother or father, my reaction to him would make Lorena Bobbitt look like a saint.
See article on Last Samurai casting call