There are three movies/TV shows I watch annually: The Last Samurai, Lost in Translation, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (specifically season 8, episode 6 entitled “Japan with Masa”).
The Last Samurai came out in December 2003. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically Dances with Wolves…but in Japan. Or, James Cameron’s Avatar…but in Japan (note to future writers, this is a recipe that works). In 2003, I was a young, impressionable 7th-grader who was just beginning to dabble in the thoughts of my identity and how I reflected that back to the world. Before watching the film, I think I had set my expectations so high that it was a recipe for utter disappointment. I distinctly remember watching the trailer for The Last Samurai and being amazed to see Ken Watanabe’s face on the screen, internally screaming “that’s me, that’s my face!!”
As an impressionable 7th grader, I was torn by what I saw: Tom Cruise, a white man, trying to teach ME about my language, practices, and other cultural nuances. And in some ways, Ken Watanabe’s character was a sidekick to Tom Cruise, as he explored this “strange and mysterious land” where the warriors were “savages with bows and arrows.” At the end of the film, he joins the rebel tribe as they fight against western imperialism (I’m all for that). But what killed my hope for the film was when Tom Cruise threw his katana at the end. Ugh!
Lost in Translation also, strangely, came out in 2003. If you haven’t seen it, it follows Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (a young Scarlett Johansson) as they explore Tokyo in the early 2000s. Being from different worlds back in the U.S., the film captures the friendship they kindled through their loneliness, jet lag, and insomnia. We see Bob Harris attempt to navigate Tokyo culture and its people, all while poking fun at the “silly” things he and Charlotte witness. Now, I didn’t really watch this film until high school and even back then, I was so upset at how the Japanese cultural values and the verbal/non-verbal communication was portrayed. At 16 I was asking myself “why the heck is white Hollywood trying to teach ME about my culture? Why can’t WE do it ourselves without the lens of white actors and directors?” In 2022, I’m sure we’re all aware of the bamboo ceiling barriers in entertainment, so I won’t go there. BUT, I think the question still stands, why aren’t Asian people, let alone Japanese, helping us understand these inherently cultural things?
I followed Anthony Bourdain’s docu-series career throughout high school and college. Whenever No Reservations or Parts Unknown had an episode in Japan, you bet my butt was on the couch watching it. And while I was excited and eager to watch this white man show me different parts of Japan, I was also so upset that THIS WHITE MAN WAS SHOWING ME AROUND DIFFERENT PARTS OF JAPAN! As the host, he was narrating and walking us, the viewers, through various traditional and contemporary Japanese practices. To this day, I wonder “couldn’t the Travel Channel or CNN just put translations on the screen and have Anthony’s face/voice in the background?” Which brings me to the Parts Unknown episode that I annually view. The “Japan with Masa” episode starts off with Anthony Bourdain doing his typical narration, highlighting his guest, the guest’s accolades, and teasing the show. After the intro, though, the episode primarily focuses on Chef Masa Takayama and his journey traveling back home to the inaka (countryside) where we get to visit his mother and daughter. Beyond the in-language and translated interactions we see, my favorite aspect of this episode is that Anthony Bourdain is like a wallflower, narrating when needed, but otherwise, just on the sidelines watching Masa and his family/friends reminisce.
While authoring this I had a chance to watch Tokyo Vice starring Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi, and Ansel Elgort. The show gives me post-City Pop vibes while also covering the underground parts of Tokyo that are carefully constructed by law enforcement, journalists, and of course the yakuza. Seeing all of the billboards and advertisements around LA, I was honestly skeptical of the show. This white kid on the front of the poster with Ken Watanabe’s profile in the background.
But to be frank, after watching the show, I really enjoyed it. Strangely, Ansel Elgort’s spoken Japanese wasn’t bad (I was impressed!). According to Access Hollywood, he apparently practiced Japanese for 9 hours a day leading into production. Again, I was thrilled to see the 90s Japan underground portrayed on a major studio streaming platform. But also, I was torn by learning about this world through a white kid’s lens! At the end of the day, though, I have to remind myself that it’s pure entertainment.
As a Yonsei/Shin-Nisei, it was movies and TV shows like these that helped provide a foundation for my understanding of my world. I can be mad at Tom Cruise, Bill Murray, and Anthony Bourdain all I want but the truth of the matter is, is that if they hadn’t shown me the way of Bushido or how complicated the Tokyo hospital system is or how to appreciate the humbleness of inaka food, then I probably would not be the well-traveled person I am today.
The Last Samurai taught a whole generation about Meiji-era family structure, the push-pull away from samurai culture, and its influence to today’s Japanese/Japanese American culture. If you think about it, many of the Issei came to the US right after (like 30 years) the Last Samurai-era ended. So many of the Japanese American cultural values and practices are vastly shaped around this Meiji-era culture and mindset.
Lost in Translation taught a whole generation about how vastly different Japan, specifically Tokyo, can be depending on where you travel. One minute you could be relaxing at the Park Hyatt listening to a live band sipping on Suntory whisky and the next you could be at gambling away your life savings at a pachinko facility. Also, Charlotte’s trip to the Kansai area, specifically Kyoto, shows us a more traditional (and slower pace) Japan.
Their travels pushed me to seek out truth and knowledge of my cultural roots and history and even pursue a career path that helps others find theirs. Don’t get me wrong, I hate that it was a Hollywood white savior movie script, like The Last Samurai, that taught me my most practiced mental health mantra “Too many mind, no mind.” Or it was Bill Murray who taught me that traveling abroad doesn’t have to have a jam-packed itinerary and that there’s beauty in wandering around. Also, Lost in Translation has one of the best soundtracks–that’s Sofia Coppola though!
As I was explaining my interest in writing this to a close friend recently, she reminded me that “the Kent of then had different needs than the Kent of today.” And I truly believe that's the case. 12-year-old, 16-year-old, and 20-year-old Kent were very different–lost in his identity, trying to navigate the world with this new toolkit from college. The Kent of 2022 now has the ability to sit and let the story resonate. I look back on how fired up I was and can laugh it off. Why? Because that’s just too many damn mind!