After white man Tom Cruise played The Last Samurai (2003), an
oxymoronic film, we have the rendition of geisha to a location outside
Japan (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005). Movie audiences can now be
subtly worked over by the neo-geisha image displayed in a lowest
common denominator of visual globalization—the Hollywood pic.

A generation ago, actors with painted faces—redskins and black skins—
became offensive to thinking people and, eventually, to the wider
audiences who supported those charades of fictionalized history.

All yellow people are still interchangeable in Hollywood. Each of the
three geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha are Chinese (two from China and
the third an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia). Also, Thai King Mongkut
(Rama IV, 1804-68) in Anna and the King (1999), a remake of The King
and I (1956), was played by the Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat,
perhaps a graduated improvement over white man Yul Brynner, who
had played the king during the first go-round.

Blue-eyed Tom Cruise was literally the “last samurai,” dying on the
battlefield before the closing credits, despite the fact that real samurai
were a class of military men and bureaucrats who made up about 7% of
the population and received stipends from the central government’s tax
coffers. The samurai class was abolished in 1876 by a law depriving
them of their right to carry swords and hence their elite status. In
exchange, the new administration shrewdly persuaded them to back the
government by paying them off with bonds that would enrich them only
if the revamped economic system succeeded. The rebellious ones
were left on the sidelines while the acquiescent had a viable stake in the
future. There was no last samurai; they were all last and lost together.
And no white man ever managed to become a samurai; the concept
itself is phantasmagorical.

Westerners in their bang-their-heads-against-the-wall school of hard
knocking tend to romanticize geisha as etherealized, high-class whores
in kimono. But the real whore is the superb actor Watanabe Ken, who
gives both films a wispy fragrance of authenticity. One Japanese lead
or supporting actor is enough to legitimize the rest of the phony
enterprise to a clueless audience.  

For 150 years Westerners in their orientalizing fantasies have been
reducing all Japanese to samurai (male) and geisha (female)—that was
bad enough but recently they’ve even emptied the categories of
Japanese. When the “Japanese economic miracle” occurred with US
backing from the 1960’s-80’s, Japan profited by the so-called “Vietnam
War” (in Vietnam it’s called the American War; there is likewise no Iraq
War as reported by the media, it is simply another American War, this
time on location in Iraq). Over the past century and a half with the rise of
numerous technologies, the reading and then viewing public has been
dumbed (clubbed?) down. Despite the fact that in English there have
existed several first-hand accounts—memoirs and diaries—of real
geisha who have described the rarified world from the inside, it took a
sensationalized account by white man Arthur Golden writing in the first
person to captivate his own people’s imagination. The novel topped the
best-seller list for two years and was translated into 32 languages.
Sales of the Japanese translation of Memoirs of a Geisha, however,
were lackluster. The directors of The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a
Geisha are both white men from the USA.

As the largest market outside the USA for Hollywood films, Japan in its
normally comfortable cocoon of self-orientalizing is requested to
consume this white man’s hallucination of its heritage. After watching
the self-righteous buffoonery of George W. Bush with his incoherent
speech and actions over the past five years, Japanese finally are
starting to question and reject their role as the USA’s top Asian lapdog.
If in their shoes, would USA citizens go to see on their silver screen, for
example, an actor from Finland playing George Washington and
speaking in Arabic? Or would they think consider it over-the-top
garbage cranked out for dimwits?

No one can blame Hollywood for conveying a scintillating illusionism,
but the churning out of false stereotypes by casting based on a
marketing strategy to earn the largest box-office gross reflects on the
low consciousness of both the filmmakers and the audience, the latter
expected to be stupefied into numbness by the glamour of the
costumes, sets and cinematography. In these cases “artistic license”
implies that anything can be warped to produce tears or laughter;
Hollywood’s depictions of history, no matter how silly, are given a carte-
blanche pass because they’re merely entertainment.

In the smugness of the early 21st century we look back
condescendingly at the embarrassing mindset that allowed red-faced
Injuns, minstrel shows, Amos and Andy, Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre), Charlie
Chan (Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters) and other
awkward depictions of oppressed races. If future generations notice,
they should be equally embarrassed by the pathetic interchanging of
Asians and the inept casting of geisha, samurai, Thai kings and all the
rest. This nonsense becomes neutralized (and perhaps excusable) only
when the opposite also occurs, namely that all whites from the USA—
starting with the President—become perceived worldwide as mere
cowboys and cowgirls. Until then, hold onto your horses.

John Solt

December 11, 2005