East has been meeting West in the movies from time immemorial and though it’s often assumed that the traffic is only running in one direction, in reality the river runs both ways. Kihachi Okamoto was always fairly open about his love of Hollywood westerns, particularly those of John Ford, and even mixed a fair amount of wild west style action to his 1959 Manchurian war movie, Desperado Outpost. Returning to the theme almost 40 years later in East Meets West (イースト・ミーツ・ウエスト), Okamoto retains his wry, ironic eye but adopts a tone much more in keeping with the slightly silly exploitation cowboy movies of the ‘70s.
The tale begins with an American voiceover explaining the intricacies of the time period. It’s 1860 and America has been putting pressure on the recently opened Japan to agree to a trade deal. A delegation of two ships is shortly to arrive in San Fransisco which has also undergone many changes in the last few years after the influx of hopefuls during the 1848 goldrush transformed it from a peaceful fishing town to a dangerous prospector’s paradise. The situation in Japan is also turbulent and those who object to the recent foreign influences have a number of plots in motion. Once the boats leave a band of former samurai will assassinate the remaining official. The men on the boat will not hear of this until they return and the revolutionaries have also placed an assassin amongst those who will travel to America with the ultimate aim of assassinating the diplomat in charge of the delegation who was also responsible for the deaths of a number of “resistance” members in Japan.
However, everything gets derailed when a gang of bandits rob the bank just as the Japanese are about to deposit the money they’ve brought to seal the trade agreement. The group’s interpreter, Kamijo (Hiroyuki Sanada), takes advantage of his samurai training to cut down some of the bandits saving his own life but is unable to prevent them making off with the money. Taking to the road in the company of the young son of one of the bystanders who was killed, Kamijo becomes every inch the cowboy, standing apart ready to take his revenge. However, his mission is at times aided or hindered by an ace ninja working as a servant to the delegation, Tamejiro (Naoto Takenaka), who has accidentally ended up with a Native American wife.
East Meets West is a very silly film, it has very little in the way of serious intent but offers a fair amount of zany fun as its fish out of water samurai try to adapt to the ways of the Wild West. In many ways, it’s the classic cowboy movie as a bunch of strangers arrive and proceed to clean up the area which has become threatened by out of control bandit gangs. You have your mainstays like the lazy sheriff, meek vicar, and drunken doctor-cum-undertaker, the only difference is that the strangers are Japanese adventurers who fight with samurai swords and out of ideals of honour and justice rather than of survival or frontier values.
Indeed, it’s a little strange that East Meets West turned up in 1995 just a few years after Hollywood itself began to re-examine the western, re-injecting it with a little more realism and the grittiness and cruelty which filled frontier life but had been all but erased from the sanitised, romantic vision of the movie cowboy duelling pistols world. East Meets West references the classic western with its associated myths and tropes of clearly defined good guys taking down clearly defined bad guys to save the townspeople from moral and physical ruin. There are plenty of horse stunts and gunfights all offered with a kind of good natured (if sometimes black) humour that’s much more John Wayne than it is Clint Eastwood.
That said, there is a degree of cross cultural critique as the guys try to get used to their New World lives. Because English speakers have a problem with foreign names, Kamijo quickly becomes “Joe” and Tamejiro “Tommy” with Kamijo ending up with a little blond surrogate son and Tamejiro an enterprising Native American wife with whom he seems to develop quite a bond despite sharing no common language. Kamijo may have come to America with one singular mission in mind but once under the wide open skies he finds a kind of individual freedom that he hadn’t previously experienced and gradually loses his adherence to the rigid social codes of the samurai, exchanging them for the seemingly endless vistas of the ever expanding frontier.
Okamoto mines the dualities for all their worth – the chaos of the Meiji era contrasted with the organised lawlessness of the Wild West, yet East Meets West never quite transcends its western pastiche origins. With plenty of inventive and keenly observed comedy plus some nicely choreographed action scenes and excellent performances from the committed cast from both the English speaking American side and the Japanese actors, East Meets West proves an often entertaining experience but perhaps fails to offer the same level of social critique found in Okamoto’s previous work.