The Last Samurai star Ken Watanabe defends the Tom Cruise-directed film against criticism that it exemplifies Hollywood’s white savior trope.
The last Samourai Star Ken Watanabe is defending the acclaimed Tom Cruise film after a backlash over the portrayal. Released in 2003, the film starred Cruise as U.S. Army Captain Nathan Algren, sent to Japan in 1876 as a military adviser to help the Emperor put down a samurai uprising after the Meiji Restoration. After losing his first battle, Algren is captured by Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto (Watanabe) and shown the ways of the samurai. Knowing a change of heart, Algren rides alongside Katsumoto into battle to help retain their freedom from the Emperor.
Upon release, The last Samourai was well received by critics and earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Watanabe. In subsequent years, however, the film was criticized for its romanticization of Japanese culture and samurai, ignoring crucial aspects of the Meiji Restoration, and its adherence to the white savior trope, in which a white hero plays a crucial role. in releasing non-whitespace characters. Examples of this trope can be found in films such as dangerous spirits, in which a white teacher enters a disadvantaged school of minority students, or dance with wolveswhich sees a jaded Union Army lieutenant become a member of the Sioux nation and help fight both their Pawnee enemies and the invading American military.
In an interview with The GuardianWatanabe stands up for The last Samourai, pushing back against its perceived use of the white savior trope. The actor conversely sees the film as a progression in Hollywood’s portrayal of Asians onscreen and a step in the right direction after decades of overtly racist portrayals. Read what Watanabe has to say below:
I didn’t think of it like that. I just thought we had the opportunity to represent Japan in a way we never could before. So we thought we were doing something special. […] Before The Last Samurai, there was this stereotype of Asian people with glasses, broken teeth and a camera. It was stupid, but after [The Last Samurai] came out, Hollywood tried to be more authentic when it came to Asian stories.
Watanabe’s stereotypical depiction of Hollywood’s past Asian portrayal references the much-maligned portrayal of venerable actor Mickey Rooney’s Japanese character, Mr. Yunioshi of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Although the film was embraced upon release, the character was widely criticized as one of the most racist in Hollywood film history. Watanabe views the romantic depiction of Katsumoto and the samurai as a positive step forward in correcting the past of the American film industry.
Although Hollywood has improved its portrayal of Asians in film since The last Samourai, positive roles for Asian actors have been rare. Typically relegated to henchmen, bookkeepers or side kickers, it’s only recently that Asian actors have landed major roles in big movies. 2018 boobies rich asian was hailed as a landmark film for a representation of Asian culture unheard of in Hollywood. In 2021, Simu Liu became the first Asian lead role in a Marvel superhero film with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. And this year Pixar’s animation turn red offered a heartwarming coming-of-age tale to the heart of the Asian community in Toronto, Canada. While there have been major advances in recent years when it comes to Asian representation in Hollywood, the industry still has a long way to go to further distance itself from its racist past.
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Source: The Guardian
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