Ken Watanabe responds to ‘white savior’ criticism of Tom Cruise role in ‘The Last Samurai’

  • Japanese actor Ken Watababe, who starred with Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” recently responded to criticisms of the 2003 film’s alleged portrayal of the “white savior” trope.
  • “I didn’t think of it like that,” Watanabe 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 praised how the film prompted Hollywood to be “more authentic when it came to Asian stories.”

Though the 2003 film “The Last Samurai” has previously come under fire for allegedly perpetuating the “white savior” trope, its star, Ken Watanabe, recently revealed that he doesn’t see it that way.  

“The Last Samurai” follows the exploits of an American military officer, played by Tom Cruise, hired to train the Japanese Army in modern warfare, which brings him into direct contact with their samurai leader, Katsumoto, played by Watanabe.

When the film first released in theaters, it was met with criticism for allegedly portraying the film’s lead character, played by Tom Cruise, as a “white savior” rescuing non-white characters from a position of superiority.

Watanabe recently reflected on the film’s backlash and legacy in an interview with The Guardian.

“I didn’t think of it like that,” Watanabe told The Guardian, “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.”

The Japanese actor also underscored the film’s role in changing the narrative of the portrayal of Asians in film by breaking stereotypes set by performances such as Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 classic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Before ‘The Last Samurai,’ there was this stereotype of Asian people with glasses, bucked teeth and a camera,” continued Watanabe. “It was stupid, but after [‘The Last Samurai’] came out, Hollywood tried to be more authentic when it came to Asian stories.”

Following his performance in “The Last Samurai”, Watanabe has played supporting roles in big-budget blockbusters like “Batman Begins” and Inception.” He plays the lead role in the HBO-max crime drama series “Tokyo Vice.”

Featured image via The Last Samurai

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