The Last Samurai: Ken Watanabe 'Step Forward' for Asian Representation

There's no debate as to how much 2003's The Last Samurai pushed the narrative of the "white savior" of a foreign culture. However, as far as its value in the long term is something that can be attested to star Ken Watanabe, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor his role as Katsumoto. While promoting his TV series Tokyo Vice on HBO Max, the actor spoke to the Guardian about how the Edward Zwick film benefitted his career in Hollywood and other Asian actors in Hollywood since with improved representation and better roles.

The Last Samurai: Ken Watanabe 'Step Forward' for Asian Representation
Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai (2003). Image courtesy of Warner Bros

The Warner Bros film follows an American military advisor Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise. He used his expertise from the American Civil War to train and help modernize the Japanese army from a band of resistant samurai led by Katsumoto (Watanabe). It became a significant crossover and box office success in the US and Japan, garnering numerous awards in both markets in the process. The Last Samurai allowed Watanabe to maintain relevance in Hollywood with roles like Inception (2010), Batman Begins (2005), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and the Godzilla franchise. As far as the white savior discourse over The Last Samurai, "I didn't think of it like that," he said. "I just thought we had the opportunity to depict Japan in a way that we were never able to before. So we thought we were making something special."

Watanabe believes it was a turning point. "Before 'The Last Samurai,' there was this stereotype of Asian people with glasses, bucked teeth, and a camera," he said, evoking Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). "It was stupid, but after [The Last Samurai] came out, Hollywood tried to be more authentic when it came to Asian stories." Not that there weren't numerous other opportunities in place following the Bruce Lee-starred Enter the Dragon in 1973, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor in 1987, Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club in 1993, or even 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from Ang Lee to name a few that could have easily done that.

One trend that American audiences haven't seen since the silent era films of Sessue Hayakawa was the Asian romantic lead, which are coming out in the form of genre comedies full of well-rounded characters with the success of those like 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, 2019's Last Christmas, and 2022's Everything Everywhere All at Once. For more on the Watanabe's series Tokyo Vice, battling cancer and career, you can check out the full interview here.

Enjoyed this? Please share on social media!

About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
Comments will load 8 seconds after page. Click here to load them now.