Cultural Analysis of "The Last Samurai"

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An Old Movie in a New Light

"The Last Samurai" is one of my favorite films; I have watched it at least ten times. This time around, I was forced to watch it from a completely different point of view. I had never realized how much you can learn about the Japanese culture from this movie. It depicts the Japanese culture very well, and shows the contrasts between that culture and American culture very blatantly. Although the main conflict of the film lies within the Japanese culture, it encompasses the loss of cultural identity, and the movement of some Japanese to embrace a more modern, western culture. By doing so, it pushes the cultural differences to the forefront.

This film is set in Japan during the 1870's. During this period of time Japan was engaged in a civil war. While some of the country desired a more modern, western way of life, the samurai, the traditional warriors and protectors of Japan, felt that the change was occurring to quickly and at the expense of the nation's cultural identity.

Traditionally, Japan is a collectivistic culture in which the well-being of the country, and one's family is placed above an individual's desires. They live in the same village as their ancestors did, and they rely on other family members greatly. This, of course, is not the point of view of American culture. We are an inherently individualistic culture. Japan also values certain aspects of a masculine and a feminine society. This is defined in our textbook as: first, the degree to which gender-specific roles are valued; and secondly, the degree to which a culture values traditionally "masculine" or "feminine" values. The Japanese value gender-specific roles highly. Katsumoto, the dominant male, is the leader of the warriors in the village. The other men in the village devote their time to practice and providing for their family. Women, on the other hand, are responsible for raising the children, keeping the house, and educating the kids. One example of this is a conversation between Katsumoto and Taka, his sister-in-law. Taka is so ashamed to be sheltering Nathan, she wished to kill herself. In order to do so, she needed to ask Katsumoto for his permission. They do, however, exhibit feminine values. They value quality of life and service to others more than achievement and material goods. In fact, samurai means "to serve." Some Japanese are struggling to move to a more western society. This assimilation is personified in Omura. Omura is an advisor to the Japanese emperor. He is the main supporter of modernization in Japan. In so doing, he also stands to make a considerable profit. He obviously values material goods and wealth above the good of the country. This loss of cultural identity is visible in the language and style of dress, also.

Omura, along with a lot of the inhabitants of the larger cities, wear western clothing, and many of them can speak English. Katsumoto, on the other hand, dresses in traditional clothing. So do everyone in his village. Katsumoto is the only person in his village that can speak English. The differences between the cultures is most prominent however, in the styles of both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Americans are a very direct people when communication style is considered. We ask very specific questions and say very straightforward things. We do not soften things or "sugar-coat" them in order to save someone's feelings, or to "save face." The Japanese are very different. They are an indirect culture. They are very ambiguous at times. Katsumoto demonstrated this when asked by Nathan Algren, an American soldier, "What do you want from me?" Katsumoto's response was "What do you want from yourself?" Katsumoto was very evasive about answering such a direct question.

Japanese culture also has a very high-context style of communication. You would have to know the subject of the conversation in order to understand what is being said. It...
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