On Sunday night, Academy Award-winning director-producer Edward Zwick ’74 surreptitiously sat at the rear of the packed room witnessing the audience’s response to a preview screening of his new film, The Last Samurai, which opens nationwide December 5.
Co-sponsored by the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program for visiting artists, Zwick’s visit concluded the following day with an appearance at Professor of Japanese History Harold Bolitho’s Literature and Arts C-42, “Constructing the Samurai.”
After spending the greater part of three years devoting himself wholeheartedly to the film as its co-writer, co-producer and director, Zwick knows quite a bit about the samurai.
The Last Samurai, set in the late 1870s, chronicles the fall of Japan’s revered samurai warrior class as the country modernized, wiping out lingering traces of its feudal past. Starring Tom Cruise as an American civil war veteran hired to train Japan’s first modern army and Ken Watanabe, it is a film intent on celebrating the samurai way of life, which is governed by the principles of its honor-based moral code, “bushido.”
“Given that it’s impossible to have any kind of life that’s lived according to consistent precepts,” Zwick says of the bushido, “I think the idea of trying to codify an idealized way of life is a very beautiful thing to contemplate. Even if that only stands as an exemplar in the abstract, it’s still beautiful.”
The bushido is just one of many aspects of the samurai that attracted Zwick to the film. His enthusiasm for Japanese history and culture blossomed from an academic interest to an personal one that included trips to museums—the feel of fabrics and swords and a slew of conversations with historians brought to life what had, until then, existed for him only in the abstract. Eventually, he says, his interest brought him to Japan.
Reflecting on a career that includes Oscar-nominated films like Courage Under Fire and Glory, Zwick says that his interest and decision to focus on a specific historical era can be an unpredictable process. The decision to move ahead with a certain project, he says, is “one of those fundamental questions that is finally ineffable.”
“Why the Gulf War, why an African American regiment, why the Civil War? It’s a little bit like falling in love. You don’t know who you’re going to fall in love with until you meet,” he says, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Zwick says that if there’s any one link between his film and television endeavors—he has also worked on network shows including “Once and Again” and “My So-Called Life”—it’s his preoccupation with cultures and societies in the midst of a transformation. He says he found Japan’s route to modernity to be a “particularly wrenching transition,” and thus chose to zoom in on an aspect of it in The Last Samurai.
His eye for shifting social conditions manifests itself in several of his other works, including Glory, which recounts the story of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Composed of black soldiers and led by a white man, the regiment spurred the recruit of other black men in a war that ultimately led to the abolition of slavery.
Zwick continues to slip into transitional phases in a variety of projects that don’t involve a war backdrop, such as “My So-Called Life.” Angela Chase, the 15-year-old protagonist and narrator of the series, gave audiences a glimpse into the tumultuous halls of her high school and adolescence. The series inspired a cult following that endured long after its early cancellation, prompting MTV to pickup the rerun rights.
The voice-over narration device that guided the unfolding events of “My So-Called Life” is echoed in The Last Samurai, as well as in Glory. In the two films, however, the narrator is mostly reading from personal letters written about war’s hardships and rewards. Zwick believes that the voice-over technique is not just a narrative device, but also a vehicle for authenticity.
“In ‘My So-Called Life’ there was an unreliable narrator. She wasn’t necessarily giving the most accurate portrayal of her experience, and that was part of the point. But in the case of The Last Samurai and in others like Glory, it was an epistolary age,” Zwick says. “People did write their thoughts; they kept journals. Sixty percent of the West Point class of 1854 published journals, nonfiction accounts of what they had done. I felt that this was in keeping with the character and the time.”
Faithfully portraying the lives and events that inspire his historical epics is crucial to Zwick, who framed Samurai around the life of the legendary warrior Saigo Takamori. His reverence for historical fiction stems from his attempt to recover the wonder of past events.
“It is about the theater and theater of ideas,” Zwick says of historical fiction. “The notion that in some antique circumstance, there existed themes and relationships that are contemporary. That there is such a thing as the living past.”