Imperial Palace – Tokyo, Japan
"An Ode to the Samurai"
April 4, 2016:
The Imperial Palace, the seat of the Japanese Emperor, rests on the grounds of former Edo Castle. It was here that Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate – the longest shogunate in Japan's history.
In the year 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle of Sekigahara, a decisive moment that ushered in the longest era of peace in Japan’s history: 250 years of consolidated power under the Tokugawa shogunate centered at Edo Castle.
In the year 1868, a chain of events set off the Meiji Restoration, a reestablishment of power under the emperor that started the modernization of the Land of the Rising Sun.
The latter of these events was romanticized in the film “The Last Samurai”: Lord Katsumoto, a fictional character in the film, leads a rebellion against the restoration because he believes the old ways of duty and honor are being displaced by the increasing modernization and Westernization of Japan. During the film’s opening monologue, a British translator in Tokyo with an interest in the Samurai states:
“They say Japan was made by a sword. They say the old gods dipped a coral blade into the ocean, and when they pulled it out four perfect drops fell back into the sea, and those drops became the islands of Japan. I say, Japan was made by a handful of brave men. Warriors, willing to give their lives for what seems to have become a forgotten word: honor.”
Critics note director Edward Zwick’s commitment to researching Japanese history and casting well-known Japanese actors. At the same time, some Japanese scholars dislike the film's idealistic, "storybook" portrayal of the samurai. Many samurai, they point out, fought against the restoration not for altruistic reasons but because it challenged their status as the warrior caste.
But I confess, I love the storybook. I love the film’s idealization and sentiment. The representation of the samurai as honorable and perfection-seeking. “From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue,” Tom Cruise’s character says.
I love the epic score, created by living legend Hans Zimmer (which I am listening to while I write this, of course). I love the dramatic action scenes. The mystical opening fight in the forest and the climactic charge at the end.
But, as a photographer, the thing I love most is the cinematography. And one setting shot in particular: a view of the Edo Castle grounds. And so my photo is an ode to that shot, that film and that time period. The castle grounds became the Imperial Palace and home to the emperor to this day, and so the area represents both the modernity and history of Japan.
“I have dreamed of a unified Japan. Of a country strong and independent and modern,” Emperor Meiji proclaims at the end of the film. “We have railroads and cannon, Western clothing. But we cannot forget who we are. Or where we come from.”
A country pushing the bounds of technology forward, yet relishing in an honorable, iconic history – when I think about Japan, that’s the storybook I think about.