"The Tiger's Eyes Are Like My Own": Depictions of Japaneseness in Contemporary American Movies

Iris-Aya Laemmerhirt

In our highly visualized world today, movies often serve as windows on other cultures, pretending to show real slices of life. Social theorists like Arjun Appadurai position the media at the center of their discussion of the global present. In Modernity at Large, Appadurai suggests a new role for the imagination in the present. He writes: "The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order" (31). The almost universal access to media images makes resources available for almost everybody to imagine different cultures and thereby has democratized the global imagination. Nevertheless, media globalization is often seen as a negative, threatening process and Hollywood's role as distributor of mass images, has given American productions the power to decide how to portray other cultures, among them the Japanese.

In the introduction of his book Asian America Through the Lens, the author Jun Xing points out that "films offered a special way of explaining a culture – a way that, in some respects, was more powerful than printed words alone" (13). It is important to keep in mind that, although movies seem to show pieces of reality, indeed, everything is constructed. What the audience gets is an myth in images – the nations depicted in movies are only imagined nations, imagined by those who have the power to decide what is depicted and, sometimes even more important, what is not depicted. According to Jacob and Aviad Raz "Hollywood has created a system of discourse which constituted the 'Japanese' […] as 'imaginary other' who were simultaneously categorized, […] excluded and included within the Western framework" (154).

This including and excluding of a supposed "Other" is one of the key concepts of Orientalism, which is also frequently used in films in order to differentiate the Oriental, the exotic, the East, i.e. the Other, from the Occidental, the familiar, the West, i.e. the Self. By this creating of an "Other," a Western "normality" is secured, since the East is depicted as sinister in the opposition. There are many different depictions of Japan in Hollywood movies but at the core, the Japanese always remain indifferent Orientals. As Raz notes: "as a monster and a model, Japan has long captured the Western imagination" (153).

Until recently, most depictions of Japanese characters in Hollywood were highly stereotypical. Japanese people were dominantly represented as unpredictable, dangerous, exotic, oriental "Others." The so-called yellow peril stereotype in To End All Wars (2001) or Pearl Harbor (2001) depicts the Japanese as extremely cruel and sly, and as war machines in form of Kamikaze pilots with no emotions. Another popular stereotype of the Japanese in America is that they are an economical threat. Movies like Gung Ho! (1986) or Rising Sun (1993) depict shrewd and unfair practices of Japanese businessmen who become a threat even within the United States, echoing the public fear of Japanese corporations gaining too much power in the United States in the 1980s. These movies suggest that the Japanese coming to the United States are trying to take over the nation, as for example in Rising Sun, the elevator voice in the Nakamoto Tower, the American headquarter of a Japanese enterprise, announces the floors in Japanese. In the midst of Los Angeles, it seems as if the Japanese have succeeded in "japanizing" America (Raz 155). One of the most popular depictions of Japanese in Hollywood movies is that of Japan as the exotic Orient, a mythical land of Zen with beautiful Geishas available for every Caucasian man seeking a sexual adventure.

But today, the immense success of Nintendo video games, the popularity of Hayao Miyazaki's animated movies like Princess Mononoke (1997) or Spirited Away (2001) as well as the Pokémon craze some years ago, make Japan interesting in the realm of popular culture in America. Recent remakes of Japanese horror movies like The Ring (2002) or The Grudge (2004) as well as movies like Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) demonstrate how Hollywood starts to look East for inspiration. This new image of a "cool Japan" in the United States changes the role of Japan in Hollywood's imagination. The Last Samurai (2003), Lost in Translation (2003), Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) change the representation of the Japanese from former Hollywood productions. In all movies named above, a white American faces the challenge to go to Japan. In The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, an American teenager is forced to live in Japan, the female protagonist in Kill Bill wants to eliminate a Japanese enemy, while in Lost in Translation an American actor has to shoot a whiskey advertisement in Japan and in The Last Samurai a white American protagonist is hired to fight against rebellious samurais. All American protagonists make the same experience of being in a country that is very different from their homeland and where they are strangers – but they all react differently: the American teenager in Tokyo Drift learns the Japanese way of streetcar racing, the female protagonist in Kill Bill learns to fight with a samurai sword, and the actor of Lost in Translation learns nothing at all. In all movies, there is something an American can learn from Japan. Streetcar racing in Japan is more developed than in the United States and it takes the American protagonist some time to learn this way of driving. Japanese sword fighting is portrayed as a complicated art form and the only protagonist who does not learn anything at all is ridiculed. Although many Japanese characters seem strange to a Western audience, the stubborn American protagonist in Lost in Translation is the real source of humor in the movie. However, the differences between America and Japan in these movies are always portrayed from the American point of view and what all these movies have in common is that they depict the clash of two cultures: no or only a minimal cultural assimilation takes place. This distinguishes the movie The Last Samurai from the latter ones and makes it worth analyzing in more detail.

The Last Samurai is a 2003 Hollywood epic, a Japanese-American co-production, which tells the story of Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), an American Civil War soldier, who goes to Japan. Disillusioned by the American Civil War and the Indian Wars, in which he fought and lost his ideals and moral values, Algren becomes an egoistic, greedy, permanently drunk soldier, who has no respect for himself or anyone else. At the same time, thousands of miles away, Katsumoto (Watanabe Ken), a Japanese Samurai warrior, has to witness how his world falls apart when Japan becomes more and more westernized. Analogous to the Native Americans who are driven away by modernity in America, a new army is replacing the old class of the samurai in Japan. The two men meet when Algren is called to Japan to establish a modern imperial army for the Japanese emperor. He is caught by the samurai during a battle and lives among them for one winter. The American soldier is impressed by their code of honor and way of life and finally finds peace and his lost identity in the samurai village. In a final battle, Algren supports the samurai, fighting with them for their traditional values. The movie is set in the late 1870s, the Meiji Restoration, a time, when Japan was trying to catch up with the West by adapting Western arms and lifestyle. Although the movie is very accurate in details like swords, armors and architecture of the period, it does not claim to be a historical documentary: the story as well as most of the characters are fictional, only inspired by 'real' events and people. The Last Samurai is first and foremost a story about the meeting of two different cultures and a story of redemption. A Caucasian man in an alien culture learns the customs of the foreign land and in the end, with new spiritual beliefs, goes into a battle. This storyline has already been used in American movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dances With Wolves (1990) or maybe most strikingly The Last of the Mohicans (1992). What makes Samurai interesting is the unusual way America and Japan are depicted.

The first shot of the movie shows a beautiful Japanese landscape. The audience travels with the camera through nature and fresh green fields towards the sea. Katsumoto, a samurai leader, who represents ancient Japan, is meditating in the midst of this landscape. While meditating, Katsumoto sees a warrior in the dust, a single fighting white tiger, a scene that foreshadows the first meeting of him and Algren later in the movie. Japan is represented as a peaceful, harmonious and slightly mysterious place. In harsh contrast to this peaceful scenery, the second shot introduces the audience to America: we see a drunk and shabby soldier, Nathan Algren, in a dark, dusky room, crammed with crumbled flags and trash, somewhere in San Francisco. Space works here to set up a binary opposition: the rural beauty of Japan (the East) versus the corrupted city in America (the West). Algren is by no means an enlightened, civilized hero who comes to save the savages but obviously he is the one who needs help and spiritual guidance. In contrast, the Japanese warrior is represented as a dignified man of honor, which is underlined by lighting in the movie. When Katsumoto first appears meditating in nature on the screen, the scenery is light and clear while Algren sits in a dark room, surrounded by decay. The first thing Algren says is very telling: "I'm sick of this." The American Civil War hero is sick of his life and sick of America and sick of his job to advertise Winchester rifles. He has killed Native Americans and lost his honor by not protecting the weak (women and children) but witnessing a massacre. He does not feel like a hero but like a murderer, who kills on behalf of a country that promised democracy and peace. When he is called to Japan, Algren is once more hired to kill for money. Although he is not aware of it at first, for Algren, Japan serves as the new frontier he needs to conquer after his experiences in the American West.

At the end of the nineteenth century, in his book The Frontier in American History Frederick Jackson Turner described the significance of the frontier in America not only as a geographical dividing line between what he termed "wilderness" and "civilization" but also as an important starting point for the shaping of an unique American national identity. His essay is characterized by one of the main symbolic movements in creating a U.S. cultural identity, namely by "othering" (which means a positive self-definition through a negative definition of the other). Turner establishes a typically Euro-American binary opposition, which also characterizes the Japanese-American relationship in The Last Samurai. Different from former movies, in The Last Samurai it is not the civilized West against a barbaric East, but the other way round. Japan serves as a new frontier for Algren, and although it may seem at first sight as if The Last Samurai is just another movie, where a Caucasian (American) can solve the problems of the natives (Japanese), there is more behind this fictional encounter of East and West.

During his stay in Japan, Algren has to cross borders – geographically and mentally – in order to understand Japan and the samurai. While he is moving geographically from West to East, the new (Japanese) territory questions what counts at home. Algren changes because he realizes that his old, American values are not valid for him anymore. He no longer wants to be an obedient soldier who is paid by the country to kill, but he wants to be a warrior who fights for the things he believes in. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, striking American characteristics like strength, inventive turn of mind and restless, nervous energy are related to frontier experiences (37). However, in many cases the American frontier experience was a violent one, since the North American continent was not uninhabited and the Native Americans were not willing to give up their land. Thus, the American character was formed on a battlefield, taking away land from its legitimate owners. In The Last Samurai this American myth is questioned. For Algren, the American frontier experience has turned his life into a nightmare. He has lost his dignity and needs a new frontier, a place of redemption. Unlike frontiersmen in the American West, Algren does not want to civilize and thus Americanize Japan, but in contrast, he wants to save the Japanese way of life. By this, Algren does not show a colonial but a more open, transnational attitude. The final redemption takes place when Algren decides to fight with the samurai instead of returning to America, because he believes that there is nothing as valuable as the way of the samurai. "What could be more important than this?" he asks Katsumoto.

Already at the very beginning of the film, the dignified Japanese warrior is contrasted with the corrupted and greedy American soldier. Throughout the movie Katsumoto is depicted as a friendly and wise man, who treats his enemy with respect, while the American soldier behaves arrogantly and ignorantly. In the beginning of the movie, the Japanese protagonist is much more sympathetic than his Western counterpart. He is open towards the American culture and wants to learn about it from Algren. When they have their first conversation after Algren is captured, he introduces himself and asks him his name. When Algren does not answer he first thinks that he said something wrong: "Are my words not correct?" he asks. Although Katsumoto is a powerful samurai leader, he is aware of the fact that he can make mistakes, too, and he tries to understand Algren and his culture. He explains to Algren that he wants to improve his language skills and asks him for help: "I will practice my English with you, if you will honor me." Although Algren is his prisoner, the samurai leader treats him with great respect and is open to a dialogue with his enemy. The American is not chained but lives more like a guest in the house of Katsumoto's sister, Taka. Through the conversations with the samurai leader, and his life in the village, Algren learns a lot about Japan and the old traditional culture – and he falls in love with a Japanese woman.

The relationship between Algren and Taka is complicated from the very beginning, since he killed her husband during the battle against the samurai. Taka is the only central female character in the movie and she does by no means fit traditional Western stereotypes of a Geisha or Madame Butterfly. Taka is portrayed as a strong woman who is first disgusted by Algren and his behavior. She remarks in Japanese that he "smells like a pig" and although she takes care of him, it becomes clear that she only does so because her brother asked her to and because she is samurai. She is not a Japanese woman who instantly falls in love with the handsome American. Moreover, it is Algren who is attracted to her first. There is no sexual encounter between the two and Taka never asks Algren to stay with her. In the end, he is the one who decides to go back to her. Unlike Madame Butterfly she is not left (pregnant) by her American lover or depicted as a sexual toy but she is depicted as a strong, proud, loyal samurai woman.

Not only Algren but also Katsumoto crosses cultural and mental frontiers. Both are affected by the encounter with a foreign culture and although they come from different cultural backgrounds, they share similar experiences and ideals as warriors. This is emphasized in one of the key scenes of the movie, when Katsumoto starts to write a poem about his encounter with the American. The poem starts with the lines: "The tiger's eyes are like my own. But he comes from across a deep and troubled sea." By this, Katsumoto expresses that he and Algren, as warriors and human beings, are very much alike and only come from different cultural backgrounds. These different cultural backgrounds, however, are not depicted as something threatening or something that has to be changed. Instead of preferring a westernization of Japan in the movie, the Japanese culture is represented as something that should be appreciated and saved. Neither Algren nor Katsumoto try to impose their way of life on the other. They are more interested to learn about and from the other culture.

Imagining Tom Cruise as the last samurai, or a samurai at all, may at first seem ridiculous, if not a "mission impossible." But the movie turned out to be more sensitive about the topic. Tom Cruise, or his character, is not meant to be the last samurai. This is the role of Katsumoto, who until the end fights for the code of honor he believes in. At the end of the movie, after the death of Katsumoto in the final battle, Algren offers Katsumoto's sword to the Japanese emperor. This act prevents the emperor to sign a new treaty with the Americans to buy more weapons and therefore extend Western influence in Japan. Instead, Algren makes the Japanese emperor aware of his own cultural roots. However, it is not Algren who brings the emperor to his decision, but the death of Katsumoto who was a friend and devoted servant of the emperor. When the American offers him the sword, the emperor realizes that he was close to erasing his own culture by adapting more and more to the Western way of life. Although Algren, dressed in samurai armor, fights with the samurai for their values and during the movie more and more incorporates their way of life, he goes to see the emperor dressed in western clothes. After all, he does not claim a Japanese identity. This clearly distinguishes him from Lieutenant John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves who in the end neglects his Caucasian identity and turns into a Native American. Algren may have learned and incorporated some of the traditional samurai values and he might, as the movie suggests, stay in Japan with Taka, but he has not turned into a Japanese samurai and he never could claim this identity, because he is an American and "comes from across a deep and troubled sea."


Dances with Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Perf. Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene. Tig Productions, 1990.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Dir. Justin Lin. Perf. Lucas Black, Zachery Ty Bryan, Brian Tee. Universal Pictures, 2006.

Gung Ho!. Dir. Ronald Howard. Perf. Michael Keaton, Gedde Watanabe, George Wendt. Paramount Pictures, 1986.

The Grudge. Dir. Takashi Shimizu. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, William Mapother. Senator International,2004.

Kill Bill Vol.1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox. Miramax Films, 2003.

The Last of the Mohicans. Dir. Michael Mann. Perf. Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeline Stowe, Russel Means. Morgan Creek Productions, 1992.

The Last Samurai. Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003.

Lawrence of Arabia. Dir. David Lean. Pref. Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif. Horizon Pictures,1962.

Lost in Translation. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Perf. Scarlett Johansson,Bill Murray, Akiko Takeshita. American Zoetrope,2003.

Memoirs of a Geisha. Dir. Rob Marshall. Perf. Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Suzuka Ohgo. Columbia Pictures, 2005.

Pearl Harbor. Dir. Michael Bay. Perf. Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckingsale. Touchstone Pictures, 2001.

Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime). Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Dentsu Music and Entertainment, 1997.

The Ring. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Perf. Naomi Watts, Noah Clay, Aidan Keller. Dream Works SKG, 2002.

Rising Sun. Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel. Twentieth Century Fox, 1993.

Spirited Away. Dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli, 2001.

To End All Wars. Dir. David L. Cunningham. Perf. Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Carlyle, Ciarán McMenamin. Goldcrest Films International, 2001.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1996.

Raz, Jacob and Aviad Raz. "'America' Meets 'Japan': A Journey for Real Between Two Imaginaries." Theory, Culture & Society 13 (1996): 153-78.

Turner, Frederick Jackson (1920). The Frontier in American History. New York: Dover, 1996.

Xing, Jun. Asian America Through The Lens: History, Representations and Identities. Walnut Creek: Altamira P, 1998.