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The Last Samurai 映画評論

The Last Samurai

starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony

Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Masato Harada, Koyuki and Willian Atherton

written by John Logan and Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based

on a story by John Logan

directed by Edward Zwick

I thought this was such a good movie that I watched it twice.  That’s right, twice!  This film has received such publicity that I was looking forward to it, and when it finally came out on video I had to continue waiting more than a week to be able to get my hands on it.  Ken Watanabe was expected to receive a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the renegade conservative samurai, Moritsu Katsumoto, in early Meiji Era Japan.  He did not get it.  I loved watching Watanabe’s performance, though.  He is a handsome man, with a compelling voice, and terrific physical presence.  Tom Cruise gave a good performance as Captain Nathan Algren, an American Indian wars veteran hired as a consultant to help train the first modern conscript army in Japan.  But Cruise’s long, greasy hair and scraggly beard never ceased to bother me throughout the films 154-minutes.  I loved the portrayal of old Japanese rural village life:  the costumes, the wooden houses, the doors, walls and flooring, cooking utensils, temples, rice fields, the valleys, mountains, and woods, etc.  But note:  many of the outdoor scenes were actually filmed in New Zealand.  In the town of Taranaki, to be exact.

Now, a brief history lesson.  Japan was a divided patchwork of provinces ruled by battling warlords until the island nation was finally united under one hegemony by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 at the famous Battle of Sekigahara.  From then until 1867 Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family head  -  the “Shogun,” meaning general, or supreme warlord  -  while the Emperor remained a sequestered and powerless figurehead in Kyoto.  By law, during this Tokugawa Period, the nation was isolated from the outside world. Shipwrecked foreigners were generally executed.  Japanese fishermen accidentally washed away by the tides and storms were forbidden to return.  The sizes of permissible ships were severely controlled so as to prevent Japanese from deliberately journeying abroad.  Then in 1853 U.S. naval ships under the command of Commodore Mathew C. Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay.  Negotiations were forced to open supply ports in Japan for foreign whaling vessels, and that is the beginning of modern Japan.  The Boshin Setsu, or Boshin Civil War of 1868-69 brought the downfall of the Tokugawa government and the restoration of direct rule by the Emperor.  The teenaged Emperor  -  named Mutsuhito, but known as Emperor Meiji  -  relocated to Edo from Kyoto, and Edo was re-named Tokyo, meaning “East Capital.”  Then a massive and fast-paced modernization program was launched to bring Japan up to speed with other, mostly Western nations, and thereby avoid the fate of China and Indochina, cut up as colonies by European powers:  schooling, railways, gas and electricity, western dress, modern police, law enforcement, and a standing military, a parliamentary government with a written constitution, western style architecture, national roads, coinage, a standardized language, and so and on.

I almost cringed when I heard Captain Algren’s military colleagues in America introduce the idea of traveling to Japan as a military consultant with the horribly politically incorrect statement, “Japan’s got it in its mind to become a civilized country.”  Ouch!  Yuck!  Later, thesame colleagues describe Algren’s winter-long captivity in a samurai village as life among the “savages,” just because the samurai cling to the traditional weaponry  -  swords, bows, etc.  In the film the association of international military arms deals tied to economic trade-and-assistance packages comes across exactly as we still see it today on the front pages of the newspapers.  For the exclusive right to supply Japan with modern arms, America will reward it with trading rights.  Almost exactly what Washington still does today.

Some of the feudal samurai lords resisted many of the demands of modernization.  The Seinan no Eki, or “Military Campaign in the Southeast” led by Samurai of the Satsuma clan in what is now Kyushu island took place throughout much of 1877, and it is this conflict that The Last Samurai is playing on for its story.  The samurai of Satsuma were led by Saigo Takamori who is, I guess, the historical model of Ken Watanabe’s character, Katsumoto.  Typically, this rebellion came in the island of Kyushu, far from the center of power in Tokyo and hence kind of on the periphery of the country.  It shows that despite more than two centuries of unified rule under the Tokugawas in Tokyo there were still strong regional “daimyo,” or military governors who sought for, and took advantage of opportunities to wrest power from the center.  It was a useless struggle, though, that pitted armor-clad, sword wielding samurai against massed firearm-bearing troops.  An interesting social note:  the new armies of modern Japan were conscripted.  That means that they drew largely on the peasant class of society.  So in clashes between samurai rebels and the new army, the former feudal lords were set against their former social underlings, and the social underlings won.

About the title:  “The Last Samurai” might make a lot of people think that the character Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, is himself the “last of the samurai.”  But that is not its meaning.  The plural of “samurai” is also “samurai,” and this film deals with the disappearance of the samurai as a noble warrior class in Japanese society, not with one individual man.  In the course of the publicity surrounding the film I got the impression that Americans tended to view the meaning of the title as the latter, not the former.  I suppose you might say that the samurai class was officially dissolved in 1876 when they were prohibited by new sumptuary laws from wearing their swords  -  the long one called the “katana,” and the short one called the “wakizashi”  -  which had always been a great symbol of their social status and was by itself the catalyst of many small, regional rebellions.

About historical errors:  North American audiences probably will never recognize or suspect factual errors.  But I can find a few first because I live in Japan, and second because I am just such a knowledgeable guy.  The story of Captain Algren is a true story, but the real character of history was a French military officer, not an American one.  But that is Hollywood, isn’t it?  U.S. moviemakers change real stories by throwing in some Yankees to give them an American angle to better appeal to big cash-spending U.S. audiences.  They did it with The Great Escape(Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough), which in reality was based on a book by Canadian veteran Paul Brickhill about a totally British and Canadian POW escape.  They did it with U-571 (Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton), which in reality was a totally British operation to capture a Nazi Enigma coding machine from a German U-Boat.  And many more.

Admittedly, the samurai sword fighting techniques in this film are superb, and Tom Cruise received high praise for his performance.   However, a samurai sword is not a throwing weapon, as his character Captain Algren uses it in the climactic battle scene.  The story begins in July 1876, and I was happy to see that the director did not overlook the fact that summer is the Rainy Season in Japan.  Accordingly, there was lots of rain.  But Edward Zwick failed to give us a sense of the awful humidity of Japanese summer.  Beware the overuse of myths and worn stereotypes of traditional samurai:  talk about honor and shame, purity, minimalism, the warrior spirit, discipline, etc.  It sounds like the screenwriters read Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.  Emperor Meiji, played by Shichinosuke Nakamura in the film (a young kabuki actor in real life), actually speaks to Captain Algren (in English) during an audience.  Even more, he kneels in front of him during a personal exchange in the final scene.  Such things would never, ever happen in real life.

There was but one main female role in the film, the sister of Katsumoto who helps nurse Algren back to health in her home during a winter of captivity following his capture.  I noticed that she sported bright white, modern teeth.  It is a footnote in history books that Japanese women of old blackened their teeth (a practice called “ohaguro”), and that this custom waned and died slowly, with others, during the forced modernization.  I think it would have been an interesting detail if the director had decided to include blackened teeth among what few women there were.  (The reason for the blackened teeth is that traditionally the teeth were considered to be ugly bone sticking through the flesh.  Blackening the teeth was a strategy to cover the ugliness in the name of feminine beauty. Traditionally Chinese women of a certain class bound their feet. Japanese women blackened their teeth.  American women shave their body hair and have a tan.  Canadian women rub their skin with seal blubber.)

About a third of the film is in Japanese.  My Japanese is not so good that I can understand it all, and unfortunately for me, in Japan the English subtitles of the Japanese dialogue are removed because audiences here do not need them.  So I missed out on a lot of the Japanese dialogue.  If I had seen the film in Canada on video or in the cinema I would have benefited from the English subtitles.  The same is true of other American movies that use Japanese dialogue  -  the Pearl Harbor movie Tora, Tora, Tora! is a good example.  I cannot enjoy them to the full.  Anyway, many of the foreign characters in The Last Samurai speak at least some Japanese, and I must say that to my ear Tom Cruise’s pronunciation is quite good.  I myself probably speak with a terrible accent, slaughtering what is supposed to be a beautiful language.  But my ear is good enough that I can easily hear when other foreigners are slaughtering the language  -  in film and in every day life.

My favorite character is expatriate Englishman Simon Graham, played by Timothy Spall.  He came to Japan as part of the British diplomatic delegation.  But because he had the indiscretion actually to speak the truth  -  or, rather, to say exactly what was on his mind (“honne”)  -  in a land where people did not (and still do not) do that, he lost his employment.  So he makes his living as an expatriate using his fluent Japanese to accurately translate the lies of others.  It is in this capacity that he falls in with Captain Algren.  Mr. Graham is the kind of person I like, a Japanophile “henna gaijin” (“strange foreigner”) who speaks the language perfectly and has fallen in love with the country and all of its oddities.  I love it when he convinces Japanese prison guards that Algren is the American President in order to bluff their passage into a prison to meet the captured Katsumoto and help him escape back to his mountain village.  Graham is typical of many foreigners of that time who found their way to the newly opened kingdom of Japan.  Just as there was a jaded, so-called ‘Lost Generation’ after World War One there was a similar generation of disillusioned people in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865) who took the chance to go someplace new and unspoiled (or, so they thought).

All–in-all, Captain Algren reminds me of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves.  Both men are American military veterans of the Indian Wars, haunted by the horrors they saw and perpetrated.  Each seeks salvation in communities outside of their own:  Dances With Wolves finds peace and acceptance with the Sioux (Lakota) Indians; Nathan Algren, who describes himself as a man “beset by the ironies of my life,” finds his absolution in a Japanese mountain village.

When Captain Algren’s colonel recognizes that his man is “going native” he asks him, “What is it about your own people that you hate so much?”  Then I wondered if the same could be asked of me?  No, it can’t.  Impossible!

The climactic battle scene is fascinating.  It reminded me of the gruesome opening battle scene in Gladiator (Russell Crowe).



( http://www.live-english.com)

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Kill Bill Vol 1 映画評論

Kill Bill Vol 1

starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Julie Dreyfus, Michael Bowen, Jun

Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri, James Parks, Vivica A. Fox,

Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

This is “Volume 1” of Kill Bill.  Volume Two is currently in Japanese movie theaters.  Uma Thurman plays a former assassin out for revenge against a group of colleagues who turned on her, tried to kill her, and left her for dead thinking they had succeeded four years previously.  For that reason the film does not progress as a linear story, but involves a lot of flashbacks, which I think make it hard to follow.  It makes the story an exercise in decryption, which is not really what I want in a movie.  I want to relax and not have to work my brain so hard.  Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still like stories to make sense.  Anyway, in Volume One she succeeds in dispatching only two of her would-be killers – Lucy Liu (of Charlie’s Angels and Ally McBeal fame) and Vivica A. Fox.  The others, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine  -  possibly the coolest human being alive  -  get theirs in the next movie.  Why did her, one-time cohorts in assassination turn against her?  Presumably we learn that in Volume Two, which I haven’t seen yet.

I waited with some anticipation to see this movie for a few reasons.  First, it is Quentin Tarantino’s first film in a long time.  Next, there has been so much hype about it.  Third, I was eager to check out how Japanese elements came across  -  Japanese dialogue, Japanese anime illustrations, clothes, fencing style, yakuza depictions, and more.  A spate of films in recent years are sometimes put forward by some commentators as examples of how Japanese culture -   especially pop culture like weird fashions, anime cartoons, and technological gadgets  -  is being popularized/has exerted its influence abroad and is making its way in the world.  Kill Bill; The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise);  Lost in Translation (Bill Murray);  Ronin (Robert di Niro);  Wasabi (Jean Reno);  Samurai (Forest Whitaker); Black Rain (Michael Douglas);  Rising Sun (Sean Connery); Last Man Standing (Bruce Willis), and many more. Of course, The Magnificent Seven (Yul Brynner) is the classic example, although it is about 40-years old, and not recent.  Plus, the success of anything by Kitano Takeshi (especially in France, where judges at the Cannes Film Festival seem to think that he is a great artist, rather than a mere criminal).

Quentin Tarantino’s respect for/debt to Japanese pop culture and film culture have been played up tremendously.But I think there are still grounds for interpreting this movie in another direction.  I think that the point needs to be made that Tarantino is not paying homage to Japanese culture-  pop culture or high culture  -  so much as he is paying homage to cheap 1970s Kung Fu flicks churned out in Los Angeles and Hong Kong.  Not only in this film  -  but in this film especially -  Tarantino flexes his obsession with everything 1970’s.  Sounds and sound effects.  Gimmics and costumes.Camera angles and lighting.  Many of his films seem intimately, obsessively tied to the 70s somehow.  He is fascinated by the decade he grew up in.  Tarantino and I are of a similar age, and I probably watched a lot of the TV that he watched as a kid, which helps me recognize the source of many of his film elements.  At the same time, his knowledge of those elements is encyclopedic.  He draws deeply from pop cultures far and wide.  He uses arcane film techniques.  He deserves a lot of respect for the ways he puts them all together.  But he is not a walking encyclopedia of high art films so much as he is a walking encyclopedia of 1970s B movies and comic books.

Typical of a Tarantino film, there is a lot of blood and violence in Kill Bill.  And like his other movies, the violence is mostly cartoonish super-violence  -  in this case accentuated  with some really  groovy Japanese anime.  Maybe some American conservatives protest his work and point to it as a sign of the depravity of the industry and the age, and the potential danger it represents for impressionable youngsters.  But for those who understand what he is doing there is less cause for alarm.

The climax of this film is in the last thirty minutes, the big samurai sword fighting scene set in a Tokyo restaurant between Uma Thurman and the yakuza army of Lucy Liu (O-ren Ishii), dubbed “The Crazy 88s.”  The sword choreography was directed by Sonny Chiba, who appears in a cameo.  I loved this segment so much that I watched it repeatedly before having to return the video to the shop.  I also loved the all-girl band playing in the restaurant  -  The 5,6,7,8s.  They are a real Tokyo bar band.  You can go see them in Roppongi or Shibuya if you want.  The tunes they were singing in the restaurant scene were so neat and catchy that even my children went around for the next day singing, “Go, go, go, ga-ga-ga-ga-ga yeah!” and “Oo-oo, Ooo-oo-oo, Oo-oo, Oo-oo-oo!” in imitation.

Tarantino must have watched the same Sam Pekinpah sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus circa 1973 that I watched, because throughout Kill Bill he repeatedly uses the same hilarious fire hosing blood-splattering trick.  You know what I mean.  Lop of an arm, a pair of hands, or a head with a samurai sword and then blood shoots everywhere under pressure like a garden hose for a minute while the wounded person scurries around in a deliberately silly manner  -  faux death throws.  I laughed when I saw the Monty Python sketch the first time.  I laugh now when I see it on Monty Python videos, and I laughed again to see Quentin Tarantino using it.

And finally, a note about samurai swords.For the most part they are single-edged blades designed for slashing more than stabbing.  But good for chopping, too.  I don’t see how a person can die immediately just by being slashed, but Japanese “samurai dramas” are filled with sword fighting scenes in which actors collapse and die all over the place after a good slashing.  In fact, there are actors who specialize in such scenes.  There is a word for it, “the slashed guy,” or something.  As a Westerner, I don’t appreciate the etiquette of sword fighting.  I figure, if you want to kill a guy, then go ahead.   Use overwhelming force, never accept an “even playing field” and get on with it.  Don’t play around with swords.  Better get a good gun and do it right.  But no, the etiquette of sword fighting is that even if a single person is surrounded by a horde of adversaries, only one-on-one battles are permitted at a given time.  So, there I am shouting at the TV screen urging the other samurai to rush the guy, and my wife keeps telling me “that’s not how you do it.”

Japanese fencing is not like European fencing or saber fighting.  You do not stand erect and swing your sword.  Maybe because of the traditional shorter stature of Japanese  -  I don’t know  -  the center of gravity is lower, and samurai bent their knees and crouched lower than a European swordsman would.  The fight choreographers in Kill Bill, and Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai got this right at least.

Grant Piper ( registeredalien.weebly.com)

Live English House (www.live-english.com)

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The Third Miracle 映画評論

The Third Miracle

starring Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Armin Mueller-Stahl,  Charles Haid,

Michael Rispoli, Jams Gallanders, Jean-Louis Roux, Ken James and Barbara Sukowa

written by John Romno and Richard Vetere

directed by Agnieszka Holland

Based on the novel of the same title by Richard Vetere (who co-wrote the screenplay), this is the story of Roman Catholic priest Father Frank Shore, who is suffering a mid-life crisis of faith.  Fr. Shore’s job is working as a “Postulator Advocate” for the Archbishop of Chicago.  That is the Church functionary whose job it is to investigate reputed miracles  -  the kinds of religious events that we periodically read about in the media:  unexplained events like bleeding attributed to statues, healings attributed to prayer directed to the soul of a deceased pious person, etc.  – and either recommend their cause to the Congregation of the Saints in Rome, or else to put the kybosh on it.  Frank’s job requires him to exercise the toughest evidentiary criteria, the profoundest intellectual investigation, and the latest scientific methodology to rule out any possibility of events occurring by anything other than divine intervention.  Naturally, most unexplained phenomenon can eventually be explained when investigated like this, and Postulator Advocates can reputations for themselves as “saint killers” more than saint makers. This is Fr. Shore’s reputation.  He reminds me a little bit of the priest in The Exorcist, Father Kelly, utilizing every effort of his psychiatric training to rationally explain the afflictions of Linda Blair in that movie, and also of Antonio Banderas as the priest in last year’s movie The Body.

Set in 1979, after the ascension of the current Pope John Paul II, Fr. Shore is faced with the case of Helen, a deceased local housewife (a European immigrant), who is credited by local parishioners of the miraculous cure of a local girl of terminal lupus.  Helen’s favorite statue in the church school’s playground is said to cry tears of her own blood  -  but only during the month of November, and only when it rains.  Predictably, this attracts crowds of the simple faithful, people who don’t care about the rationality of it all, or the doctrines of the Church, but are imbued with simple faith and hope.

There are three stages in the process of recognizing a Saint.  (I cannot say “making a saint,” because, as the movie points out, the Church does not “make” saints.  God makes them.)  The first stage is called Veneration.  Next is Beatification.  And, finally, Canonization is the official declaration of sainthood.  The process takes years and years, and the final step cannot be taken until at least three miracles can be suitably demonstrated and attributable to the person one is praying to.  That is no easy task, since the Church is very rigorous in its requirements and evidence.  Who, or what is a saint?  A saint is a person who was filled with a love beyond what people are thought capable of such that, when they die, they are considered to be “friends of God,” immanent with God in heaven.  They are love incarnate.  And so, prayers directed to that person are thought to be granted because of the saint’s ‘special’ relationship with God.  That’s the idea, anyway.  Most people probably are not interested in these things, but I really dig them.  I studied theology, after all.

During his long reign over the Holy See Pope John Paul II is responsible for elevating a large number of people to sainthood  -  a surprising number, actually, when set against the context of the widespread cynical doubt of our secular age.  John Paul’s canonization program probably is best viewed against his conservative agenda for the Church and his desire to bolster Catholic traditions in these secular times when disbelief is common, and religious belief is considered an eccentricity. He wants to keep the message of the Church current, by canonizing greater numbers of modern people and  provide role models for the times.  Plus, he selects a great many candidates from the developing world where most of our population growth occurs.

There have only been a handful  -  less than five  -  American saints.  That, and the fact that the woman, Helen, was a layperson of no particularly pious reputation during her lifetime, weakens her case.  But Frank, who enters the story as a skeptic after previous investigations of reputed miraculous events, is swayed to the veracity of her case.  Two miracles can successfully be attributed to her intervention (with God).  By the end of the film the process of canonization is in stasis as a third miracle is awaited.  Figuratively speaking, maybe we can say that the restoration of Fr. Shore’s faith and vocation is the third miracle.  Where once he complained to a friend, “How does faith get away from us?” by movie’s end he is happily ensconced as a parish priest with a revived sense of vocation and faith.   Halleluiah!

Grant Piper

Grant先生のブログ: registeredalien.weebly.com


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