After reading Scott Tobias scathing review of the movie “The Last Samurai” I personally have no interest in seeing it.
A coffee-table book posing as a prestige epic, Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai comes wrapped in a handsome, leather-bound cover, with each shot set against magnificent “magic hour” sunsets, snow-capped peaks and rolling foothills, or cherry blossoms in full bloom. If it hadn’t cost $100 million to make, it might have come free with a subscription to Time-Life books.
But the New York Times use of the movie as the jumping off point for a supposedly serious analysis of contemporary Japanese society is so profoundly stupid that it requires some comment. In “Japan’s Samurai Past Thunders Into the Present” Ken Belson writes:
The movie, though fictional, reminds us that while the samurai are gone, many of their values are still part of the fabric of Japanese society. Though outsiders — and many Japanese — exaggerate the resonance of this mix of allegiance, self-control and shame, the social structure that nurtures these values has resisted everything from the American occupation to encroaching globalization.
Note: “outsiders … exaggerate”. But not this article. No. Never.
The flip side is the shame in letting down one’s boss, coach or teacher. “The Japanese ethical code consists of three main pillars: obligation, shame and the environment that surrounds people,” said Shinichi Yanaka, a professor at Japan Women’s University and a specialist in Bushido, the samurai’s code. “To do something bad in Japan does not only mean breaking the rules but also doing something that society does not permit.”
To do something bad means not only “breaking the rules” … “but also doing something that society does not permit”!? As opposed to?
The sentimental attachment to the samurai code runs deep. Japanese form hundreds of relationships based on deep and often subtle obligations to one’s company, school or sports teams. And with those obligations comes the shame in not meeting them.
In other cultures failing to meet obligations is, of course, completely different. No Samurai code, no shame. But we don’t want to exaggerate, do we?
One thing is certain, though: No matter how strong the pressure for cultural change, the intertwining code of obligation and shame that has grown over centuries will not unravel easily.
And no matter what, the New York Times will always find some way to exoticise East Asia.