Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Last Samurai

Mark Ravina’s The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori is a splendid biography of the historical figure who inspired the character of Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, in the film The Last Samurai.

Ravina is particularly good at conveying the ins and outs of Japanese politics in the period before, during and after the Meiji Ishin (Meiji Restoration). He is equally good at dealing with context and characters, so one doesn’t lose track of either who is who or the structures within which they are operating. The highly federal nature of Japanese government under the Tokugawa bakufu is brought out very clearly.
It is also fun seeing what incidents the film makers used to put together The Last Samurai. Tom Cruise’s character seems to have been completely made up. French and later Prussian (after Prussia won the Franco-Prussian War) military advisers were used to train Japanese troops but Ravina makes no mention of Saigō capturing any foreign military advisers. There was a rebellious group of samurai who refused to use modern weapons and stormed a government fort, but they were put down after a few days and were not directly connected to Saigō Takamori’s own rebellion. Even though his rebellion was in part motivated by concern over the loss of status of the samurai. Indeed, precisely as the film intimates, due to concern of loss of virtue based on honour. Nevertheless, Saigō Takamori’s own forces during his final rebellion used modern weapons, but were greatly handicapped by having no modern base of logistical support for them. He also had a commanding physical presence, was a noted teacher, greatly interested in classic literature and a poet.

Just as Katsumoto is clearly Saigō Takamori, Minister Omura is clearly based on Ōkubo Toshimichi, who wasn’t dismissed by the Meiji Emperor but rather was later assassinated by vengeful samurai from his (and Saigō Takamori’s) home domain (han) of Satsuma. He did, however, go on an overseas mission, was an avid moderniser, did dominate the government and was instrumental in a ban on samurai wearing swords in public. And, along with Saigō Takamori and Kido Takayoshi (who was responsible for the education of the young Meiji Emperor) was one of the three great nobles responsible for abolishing the bakufu and creating the Meiji Ishin.

The sage status the film gives Katsumoto is very much in line with the view of Saigō Takamori in his own lifetime and, even more, after his death. Indeed, the film The Last Samurai’s greatest homage to Saigō Takamori’s role in Japanese popular culture may well be precisely its reinterpretation of events to provide a more congenial image.

Ravina begins and ends his book with a discussion of what happened to Saigō Takamori’s head. A somewhat macabre subject matter one may think, but one which Ravina uses very deftly to illustrate the complexities of Saigō Takamori’s life and role in Japanese culture. He was at once a major figure in the modernising of Japan and very concerned about—indeed, in the end, violently resistant to—the modernising of Japan. Display of heads of defeated opponents had been a traditional feature of samurai warfare. After his assisted suicide, Saigō Takamori’s head was hidden by a friend but later recaptured and placed on his body. This seemed all very unsatisfactory a narrative, so the events have been since reworked and re-imagined so that it is represented that his head was washed, displayed and cried over. Thus Ravina frames his continuing discussion of the contradictory pressures that beset Saigō Takamori and which he ultimately resolved by “dying for principle”.

The book is a complete biography, so Ravina takes us through the entire course of Saigō Takamori’s extraordinarily eventful life, incorporating dramatic rises, dramatic falls, a failed suicide, periods of exile, periods of great power and, throughout it, increasing cultural prominence. He weaves the sourcing of evidence neatly into the narrative, along with deft discussions of the historiography. A highly readable and informative biography.

No comments:

Post a Comment