First, let me state that I don't think The Last Samurai is a badly written script or a horrible movie, though it is rather Hollywoodish in its happy ending. It is well-paced enough not to be boring. The costumes and period architecture were splendid. But there are some points that really lead the average viewer to raise an eyebrow:
The samurai, their code of honor, the benfits of Buddhist meditation, all exist for the benefit of the white man.
From the beginning, Tom Cruise is presented as the ultimate embodiment of the samurai, despite his outsider status. In the first fight scene, the samurai leader comes across Tom Cruise waving the banner of the samurai clan, which Tom Cruise had seized in a battle. From his sharp-eyed, meditative point of view, we see the fusion between Tom Cruise's desperate fight and the spirit of the white tiger. He alone among the vanquished is allowed to live, and is given special treatment by the Japanese.
The white man really doesn't have to work hard to gain entry to the exclusive society of the samurai. The samurai leader likes him from the beginning, and even houses him with his own sister. Quickly, he is initiated into their intimate family circle, though our white man modestly tries to disclaim his status as that of a "stray dog". The samurai's son challenges his aunt (people usually don't challenge their elders lightly) in order to satisfy Tom Cruise's alcoholic cravings. This recurring motif of "outsider being liked so easily" takes away from what could have been a decent plot. If he just had to work a little harder to cross each threshold, the outcome would have been more satisfying.
After a few months of living with the samurai in a rustic setting complete with quiet Buddhist temples, our lost white man has overcome his alcoholism and his sleeping problems. Along the way, his mind has also risen to the pristine level which enables him to defeat multiple attackers in meditative slow time. The wonders of a long meditation retreat! This sounds too much like a promise to western tourists that a change of scene would help with one's personal problems. Really, if you're an unhappy person, you'll just take it with you wherever you go. Going to another country to run away from yourself isn't going to result in an epiphany. Really into eastern philosophy? Well, you can just start seeking enlightenment where you stand.
Not once, but twice, the great white savior has to step in and tell the Japanese what their culture is about. He gives hope to the samurai leader by extolling the virtues of the samurai lifestyle. His impassioned plea to the emperor turns the ruler's heart back to traditional Japanese values.
After the climactic battle, Tom Cruise, again, is the last survivor. This time, he is last surviving samurai. The soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army prostrate themselves on the ground in a circle around Tom Cruise. Granted, the audience should understand that the homage is being paid to the dead Japanese samurai, not to the sole white survivor. But can one really escape what is being implied in that imagery? The white man receives honor from the Japanese masses for being the embodiment of the samurai spirit.
The Japanese hero dies, as did his son, leaving a genetic deadend. But the white hero, being gifted with evolutionary destiny, survives and returns to lay claim to the Japanese woman.
Much as movies have improved over the years with regards to racial stereotypes, I still find the latent ideology that drives the story very questionable.
As typical with Hollywood, The Last Samurai romanticizes a mysterious East. Even the way it was advertised "Fight with Courage, Live with Honor" is based on unrealistic notions of "honor" as it was in the past. Sure, there are really cool things about the medieval code of honor in different cultures, but all those systems of 'honor' have a brutal side to it too. But these dirty details are hidden from the view of the western consumer, who only wants a safe, 'touristy' experience. Is samurai 'honor' that romantic? Is it the ideal way to live? Well, let's see - this code of honor inspires samurai to duel to the death if the scabbard of one had accidentally touched the scabbard of another. (See p122, Secrets of the Samurai - the martial arts of feudal Japan). Samurai also have the right to cut down lower-class people such as peasants and merchants, if these lower class individuals impinged their honor by in advertently bumping into samurai in a crowded street.
If you're truly interested in a culture, you should endeavour to learn about both its good and ill parts, and not idealize it. People who idealize another culture are sometimes interested in exploiting it to satisfy their own lusts, thinking they could get something out of this Other that they can't get from their own culture.
The Last Samurai also plays safe by presenting a picture of the reserved, gentle Oriental female, ignoring the social realities of samurai women. The samurai female in the movie only made one kill with one short dagger while the men did most of the fighting. But according to Ratti and Westbrook in "Secrets of the Samurai", "women in the [warrior class] were trained in the use of traditional weapons, which they were expected to use against a foe... Among the weapons the samurai woman handled with skill was the spear, both the straight (yari) and the curved (naginata), which customarily hung over the doors of every military household and which she could use against charging foes or any unauthorized intruder... She was also equally well-versed in handling the short dagger (kaiken), which... she could deftly employ against armed foes in close combat or throw with deadly accuracy." Samurai women might not been seen on the battlefield as often as the men were, but they were quite capable of taking an active role in defending the home. Yet we did not see much of the samurai woman's extensive repertoire of killing moves in this movie. Yep, keep things safe for the western audience.
This formula is so *OLD* - this has been done a gazillion times before. The white man entering the Oriental world where he battles Oriental villains and gets Oriental women. He may or may not have an Oriental male mentor - such a detail would be a mere scrap from the table of white-male-controlled Hollywood. Some previous films which have used such a formula are The Year of the Dragon, Showdown in Little Tokyo, The Hunted (with Christopher Lambert and Joan Chen) and The Lost Empire. Other movies or TV series with similar ideas of "white guy takes on another culture and becomes that culture personified, show the natives what their own culture means" include Dances with Wolves, Taipan and Shogun. In fact, one reviewer has called The Last Samurai "Dances with Samurai".
Somehow, this trite formula can succeed at the box office with the support of white males whose imaginations feed on Orientalist sexual fantasies like maggots on garbage. If we take the same script, and change the ethnicities of the people involved, I wonder if it will enjoy the same success. For example:
A Japanese samurai travels to medieval Europe, where a older European knight teaches him not just the use of European weapons, but also the European knights' code of chivalry. Our Japanese hero wins the heart of a beautiful European lady. Our yellow man goes on to use the specialized knowledge he brought from the east to help his European allies fight or enlignten their oppressive rulers. He reminds the European knights of what their culture really stands for. Yay for the yellow man saving Europe from the Europeans.
A Mandinke warrior of the great Mali empire travels to medieval Japan, where a older Japanese samurai teaches him not just the use of Japanese weapons, but also the samurai code of honor. Our African hero wins the heart of a beautiful Japanese lady. Our black man goes on to use the specialized knowledge he brought from West Africa to help his Japanese friends fight or enlighten their oppressive rulers. Yay for the black man saving Japan from the Japanese.
Nope, there is nothing wrong with having an AFWM pairing in a movie. The only wrong thing is the lack of representation of other kinds of interracial couples. There is nothing wrong with a movie about a European/Euro-Am man finding love, purpose and courage in East Asia. There is, however, something wrong with the fact that there are far fewer movies about other kinds of interracial interactions.
Interesting point that the contributor raised about how Tom Cruise's character outlives the Asian male 'good guys'. On a similar note, the Feo Amante site lists a whole bunch of sci-fi/horror movies that follow the formulaic "minority characters die and whites survive" trend. So it seems this isn't an isolated case.