March 15, 2004 I re-read an article by Thomas Hibbs, author of Shows About Nothing, which really set my low art loving furnace aflame. I had to respond to Hibbs degredation of the Last Samurai and the films of Quentin Tarantino (whose work I firmly find to be high art, not low). Without further ado, here is that first article.
In the Shadow of Kurosawa
By Christian Johnson
I can still remember the first time I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show. There I was, a “virgin” watching rolls of toilet paper flying and getting wet from squirting water when I realized that I was sitting surrounded by an audience that didn’t “get it.” Here they were talking, mocking, and interacting with a film that was hilarious on its own merits. Somewhere in all the chaos I managed to watch a parody of some of my favorite classic Hollywood horror films. I had a similar, though drier, experience when I watched John Water’s Cecil B. Demented in a theater full of people who didn’t know who William Castle was.
I experienced the same frustration when I read Thomas Hibbs’ recent article regarding Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film Kill Bill vol. 1 and the Tom Cruise blockbuster The Last Samurai ( Kurosawa Kills Bill). In particular, I took issue with his claim that “despite their critical acclaim and their purported desire to be faithful to Japanese sources, these films are but vulgar distortions of Japanese film culture, especially the work of Akira Kurosawa.” I was surprised by my reaction because I have more respect for Professor Hibbs than I do for most of the celebrated “cinerati” who, like me, enjoyed these two films. You see, I think that the Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture is on to something with regards to America’s elites having a disturbing affection for nihilism. So my reaction did not originate from a disagreement about the merits of these films with regard to virtue or an expression of human excellence. To be fair, I don’t know what his opinions are regarding The Last Samurai as a film about virtue, but I have a fair idea regarding Kill Bill. My frustration stemmed from his accusation that these films were “distortions” of a genre “especially” the work of Akira Kurosawa.
This leads me to ask two questions. First, are these films a “distortion of Japanese film culture?” Second, are these films “especially” referencing the work of Akira Kurosawa? I refuse to address any other of the statements made in Hibbs’ article because they provide a wonderful introduction to the works of an inspirational filmmaker. Though I do think that Hibbs was remiss in not mentioning Chushingura by Hiroshi Inagaki as another wonderful film about feudal Japan.
Kill Bill is exactly what it purports to be, a celebration of Japan’s b-movies in the Chambara genre (and to some extent the Wuxia and Kung Fu films of Hong Kong). While Akira Kurosawa’s films (among them Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran) are great films about Samurai culture, they do not stand alone nor are they in the b-list of this genre. Tarantino’s film is closer in tone to the Lone Wolf and Cub and Zatoichi films, but he adds the bloodiness of the films of Kinji Fukasaku whose recent film Battle Royale (based on the book of the same name) is a brutal combination of Lord of the Flies and the Survivor television show. One need only watch a few Sonny Chiba (who stars in Kill Bill and is referenced in True Romance) films to understand that Japan, like America, has an appetite for graphic violence. You cannot claim that a film is a vulgar distortion of a culture based on a case study, a more random sample is needed. I think that if Professor Hibbs takes a random sample of Japanese cinema post 1970, he will find more Hanzo the Blade than Throne of Blood.
Typical of Tarantino, any celebration requires examples of a genre’s influence on Western film. So we have a perverted “Charlies Angels,” called the DiVAs, based on the Five Deadly Venoms by the Shaw Brothers. We have the exaggerated camera use of Sergio Leone used in the fight scene between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu (the snow covered ground of which directly references the final fight in Chushingura). Tarantino gives us the Tokyo of Black Rain and Godzilla visually reminiscent of the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. We hear the theme song to The Green Hornet and Uma Thurman dressed like Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Through his director’s eye the audience sees the way Western movies, largely b-movies, have influenced Japanese b-movies, which have in turn influenced Western b-movies. We are presented with a dialogue, not a distortion, between two arguably vulgar cultural representations of the action genre.
The Last Samurai is more difficult to defend from Professor Hibbs’ criticism. While the film is infinitely less vulgar than Kill Bill, Edward Zwick appears to be imitating rather than celebrating what he thinks a film about feudal Japan should look like. The palette is reminiscent of Ran as is the tragic nature of its Japanese protagonist. The Last Samurai isn’t a film about feudal Japan, rather it is a film about how an American reacts and views feudal Japan. The framing device makes it apparent that we are watching the memories of an American Civil War veteran struggling to understand Japanese culture. The director has the difficult task of combining genre and cultural messages. How do you balance the need to show both Western and Eastern concepts of military virtue? How do you do this through the eyes of a character who has forgotten Classical virtue and is a product of Machiavellian prudential virtue?
The conflicts for Cruise’s character prevent the director from fully utilizing the Japanese cultural setting and so he abbreviates it. There are moments in the film when Cruise’s character is given advice from the Book of Five Rings a classic samurai text. The advice given him to him regarding sword fighting mirror advice from the 2nd chapter of the Hagakure (published in 1716 at a time when Japan’s Samurai class had experienced 100 years of relative peace), “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” The Last Samurai converts the advice into a physical representation during one particular duel between Cruise and a number of ruffians. The camera’s eye captures a perfect combination of single-minded concentration and void.
In the end though, these arguments regarding the merits of Kill Bill and The Last Samurai as examples of Western art encountering Japanese art may be unconvincing to the viewer who might believe that these films represent how we have come to “prefer sorrow over pain, suffering over peace.” To that viewer I can only offer the following.
My first example is one of hope. It is the moment in The Last Samurai when Katsumoto tells Nathan Algren that one could do worse than to spend one’s life looking for the perfect blossom. In this moment, we are told that the pursuit of beauty is a better profession than the pursuit of war.
The second example is one of caution, for it shows that man’s love of pain and suffering over peace isn’t a new one. It is a quote from the 10th chapter of the Hagakure, “If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured.”
If the first moment is merely a pretentious effort to seem profound, maybe we truly have abandoned the pursuit of a summum bonum. I dread a world in which it is “not the natural sweetness of living but the terrors of death [that] make us cling to life.”
I didn't mention in the article, because I didn't think of it at the time, while Hibbs is right that Kurosawa influenced American Film, let us not forget that Yojimbo was a Samurai version of Dashiell Hammett's story Red Harvest.