Musical Representations of Ethnicity in
The Last Samurai:
Is Native American and Japanese music really the same?
The Last Samurai is an archetypal quest story. An American Captain, experienced fighting Native Americans on the Western frontier, is sent to a very different frontier in the East to fight the same type of war. Quest and colonization movies are especially popular with American audiences and always will be. Such stories deal with the very essence of what most people think it means to be American.
The music is primarily focused on the white male protagonist, Nathan Algren, who is played by Tom Cruise, even though most of The Last Samurai is set in Japan. This is evident when looking at scenes where Algren transitions between sleeping and waking. When he is asleep there is no music, but music immediately commences as he wakes. Additionally, the audience’s exposure to Japanese culture is contingent on Algren’s exposure. As he becomes more familiar with Japanese culture, more Japanese music is played. Below is one of the first scenes in the movie that features what is presented as Japanese music:
Here is traditional Native American flute music:
There are many similarities between Native American music and the music portrayed as Japanese music in the movie. Why is this? Remember all the music is from the perspective of Algren, the white protagonist. Is there a reason Native American and Japanese music are indistinguishable in Algren's mind?
The Last Samurai begins by recounting Algren's experiences fighting the Native Americans. Later in the movie, when staying in the samurai village, he experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder induced night fits as he recalls the battles. His presence in the village induces the tremors. The Western and Eastern frontiers have the same meaning for Algren and Western audiences. Every new culture is yet another conquest and all its music is purely exotic and indistinguishable.
The main theme Hans Zimmer composed to represent the Japanese samurai is called a Way of Life. Rather than using a traditional Japanese scale it relies on the A-aeolian mode and traditional Western minor harmony. Often minor scales are used to represent foreign and exotic music in the place of more authentic, traditional solutions. The clip below shows the "Way of Life" theme in action:
The Japanese cultural representations are exclusively there to serve the white protagonist. Algren defeats four samurai masters simultaneously. They have studied martial arts their whole lives, while he has only studied it for a few months. How is he able to master such a complex art so quickly? Are we being forced to believe it is because he is white? We must ask who is truly the last samurai referred to in the title. Is it Katsumoto, based on the great real-life samurai Saigo Takamori, or is it Algren, the white protagonist who by the end of the movie is able to pass for a samurai? Why does the experienced Katsumoto die while Algren survives? Katsumoto and his followers are the reason Algren survives as they look after him and invite him into their culture. Often in Hollywood films, Asian characters who help the white protagonist are rewarded at the end of the movie, so it is surprising that Katsumoto is punished at the end of the movie.
In the case of this movie, traditional Hollywood Asian stereotypes dictate character outcomes. The samurai are presented as a combination between the perpetual foreigner stereotype and the yellow peril stereotype. Initially, they are viewed as dangerous to the future of Japan as they are unable to adapt to a modern way of life. Algren is sent to essentially eradicate them. As the movie progresses, they are shown to be moral and their way of life is shown to have value. Although, this is not enough to redeem them in the eyes of Hollywood. They ultimately are defeated and killed in battle near the end of the movie. During the final charge of the samurai, we hear the "Way of Life" theme once again. The Western theme reflects more the sympathy of Algren and the white American audience towards the samurai rather than anything symbolic or representative of Japanese culture.
The Last Samurai was made during a time of revived anxiety towards Eastern cultures. The beginning of the twenty-first century saw the rise of China and the economies of many other East Asian countries such as Japan, and Singapore. I believe this movie reflects the West's growing fear of Asia during this time. This fear still exists two decades later but it is generally considered less acceptable to overtly express it in such a literal way. While Algren is sympathetic to the struggle of the samurai, he is also part of the problem. He is a subconscious agent of white colonization and the destruction of traditional cultures. His position is representative of the American public's predicament. We admire diverse and foreign cultures, but we desire for everyone to assimilate into our dominant culture. All of us had ancestors who were once part of another culture. For example, most Europeans were once considered Celts and barbarians before they assimilated into Roman culture. Are we forever destined to continue to inflict the same trauma of forced assimilation that our ancient ancestors experienced?
Pollard, Tom. “Hollywood’s Asian-Pacific Pivot: Stereotypes, Xenophobia, and Racism.” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 16. No. 1-3 (2017): 131-144.
Tierney, Sean M. "Themes of Whiteness in Bulletproof Monk, Kill Bill, and The Last Samurai." Journal of Communication 56 (2006): 607-624.