Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Last Samurai and the Mighty Whitey

(Writer's note: While most of these ideas I came to on my own, this article is still largely an elaboration of a post from the TV tropes website.)

There are many literary and film examples of centering a story which takes place in a non-white racial and cultural setting around a white, usually male, main-character or group of people.  Think of most Hollywood movies that take place in Africa or even sci-fi movies like Avatar which repeat this trope on an allegorical level.  They are always about the five white people in Africa.  This trope is revisited constantly for numerous reasons.  The first is that the audiences want the comfort zone of a main character they can relate to who will play mediator for them in a strange land rather than having to deal with another culture directly.  Another is the need for a single protagonist and thus someone who is "Other" from his setting.  Another is that writers seem to prefer the ease of making their story center around a contrived mediator character whom they can relate to and thus superficially glossing over the culture they don't really understand in the first place.  The observation is that this is a white guilt fantasy which has implicit undertones of condescending racism.  All of these things come up in the film The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise.

American moviegoers seem to have very little interest in other cultures or non-white races.  This is one of the many narrowing expectations of the average American moviegoer.  This is a large reason why foreign films remain unpopular in America.  No story, however interesting on paper, can engage Americans unless they have a cultural stake in it.  Americans are uncomfortable with engaging other cultures directly.  Thus, in the case of The Last Samurai, we have a famous, white, Hollywood actor to be the star.  The real story is no longer the story of the end of the Samurai, but Tom Cruise's character arc.  Thus the movie begins and ends with Tom Cruise, who of course plays a completely made-up character who exists to bring a Western element into an essentially Japanese story.

One of the reasons for doing this, besides discomfort with other cultures, is the American need for a singular protagonist.  The outsider narrative provides someone with a reason to be distinct from his backdrop.  This is common, even in when characters are of the same race.  There has to be some characteristic separating the main character from the other characters.  If Ken Watanabe had been the main protagonist, it would have been harder and made less sense for the story to not drift off into a collective story of the Samurai.  Making the distinction amongst samurai would require a nuance that someone outside the culture, prone to turning them into a monolith, would less likely have.  Tom Cruise as outsider allows us to experience his distinctness and provides an excuse for a singular main character and less of a need for distinction amongst the samurai themselves because they are already distinguished from the American character.

Another reason for this trope is the ignorance of the audience is also the ignorance of the writer.  Hollywood writers should not be expected to understand foreign cultures as well as those who have lived in them.  Having a white main character is a writing crutch.  They don't understand foreign culture well enough to tackle it directly and so they create a mediator who shares their own ignorance.  The movie thus gives the audience the vantage point of someone who doesn't know any more than the writer does.  The movie requires no real insight and the audience learns little, if anything, new.  Also, for the writer, the focus of the movie is shifted from foreign culture they don't understand to their own character creation whom they know front and back.

All of this ties into the idea of white guilt fantasy.  A white person steps into foreign culture to do what they can't and stand up for them.  It is supposed to quell white people's feelings of guilt for past injustices done by our race.  Underneath this fantasy is a condescending racist element.  A white man always manages to integrate into the "tribe."  White culture is complex and hard to break into but non-white culture is simple and any white person can integrate as well as become a leader of the group.  In The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise's character easily learns a lifetime of swordsmanship over the course of a few months.  He has a romance with the wife of a man he killed.  In the final scene, not counting the epilogue, with the emperor, he proves himself to be the most Japanese person in the room and the heir to the Samurai legacy.  The ending would have more power if its lesson was not taught by an American.  The much superior movie, Laurence of Arabia, destroys any delusions of integration by the end of its story.

Hollywood should really stop making these condescending, not to mention, dull stories.  Stop stealing other cultures heritage and Americanizing it.  Perhaps just altogether make less stories set in other countries.  The rest of the world should not be a simplified, monolithic backdrop for America and the West.  American audiences should be more open to watching foreign films, even ones that presume a cultural knowledge that they don't have.  That's what Wikipedia is for.  Go look up answers to your questions when the movie is over.  Movies created within the framework of the culture they represent, that deal with it directly, tend to have a potency that the dumbed-down work of outsiders does not.  They are more able to explore the nuances within a culture without the burden of introducing us to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment