Friday, October 1, 2010

Unfinished Thoughts for Week Two of The Last Samurai

I’ve been swamped by work and a few other things recently, but I did finish this week’s reading for the ongoing group read of The Last Samurai and would like to get down a few bullet points at least.
  • First, I also managed to finish watching Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. DeWitt offers summary of tidbits from the first part of the film (but only the first part so far) in the novel itself. Is seeing the movie essential to reading the book? That might depend on what you mean by essential. No, to the extent that as far as we’ve read, I don’t think a lack of knowledge of the film could impede an enjoyment of the book. Yes, to the extent that a viewing of the film would inevitably allow at least some connections in terms of theme, etc., that you probably couldn’t get only from Sibylla’s summary. One very broad connection I am finding between the two is the sense of humor despite serious situations.
  • I will also say, though I’m not sure yet if I agree Sibylla’s reading of the film is correct, that she is right about one thing: that woman on the tube who thinks Seven Samurai is about an elite band didn’t watch the film (p. 128 in my edition).
  • After last week’s reading, the passages emphasizing chance have dropped off some, although obviously parenting is still front and center as a focus through the end of chapter ii. Or rather: Sibylla’s increasingly apparent dislike for parenting. She extracts some promises for good behavior that Ludo finds his way around without recrimination, and then of course she doesn’t even notice for an unknown amount of time that he leaves the Yamamoto performance, and talks herself out of being upset about it. She really does not like having to say no to him. At the same time, his walk home and his turn toward self-tutoring is already making her superfluous, and she seems to feel that lack of need when she keeps looking for something to offer to his understanding of Japanese. Is her rewatching of Kurosawa at the end of this section a moment of grasping for stability?
  • What do we do with this Yamamoto business, anyway? I felt like Yamamoto’s discussion of fragmentation and repetition comes across as a sincere description of what great art should do. Partially I buy it because of what his performance does to Sibylla; also, though, it appears to fit the aesthetic of the book. For example, while I think the writing here is great, I wouldn’t call most of the prose “lyrical”; but every once in a while we get a burst of lyricism that stands out precisely because of its placement amongst the other voices in the text. My favorite so far is Sibylla’s description of looking at herself among many images on the tube security monitors (p. 117, go read the whole thing), which I take to be a reflection on our engagement with books. (Actually, maybe I’ll say more about this another time, because as a possible reflection on how or why we would read, the passage is fascinatingly morbid.) Nonetheless, the artist who expounds this style can’t be bothered to care about the genocide he has witnessed first-hand, and his exemplary viewer (Sibylla) ignores the basic needs of her own child to feel the effect of the performance. I guess at least in the book equivalent, the reader can choose when to take a break.


  1. I haven't had a chance to view the film. But considering that it was "replayed" so many times in the book, to the point of overkill, I didn't find distracting that lack of context that the film may provide. I felt as if I've watched it already. Or at least certain scenes in it. I'm curious as to how DeWitt integrated the Kurosawa film, an acknowledged "work of genius," into her themes and how its repeated viewings contributed to Ludo's perception of mastery and empathy.

  2. Thanks, Rise. Yes, I think a couple of scenes from the film really do get repeated enough to make you feel like you've seen it. I was interested, though, that Ludo ends up telling Sibylla that the translation is oversimplified in various ways. This happens all the time in the writing of translated subtitles I think, but what struck me was that Sibylla suddenly has to face the idea that she might not know the film as well as she thinks--even if a work of genius, that genius might come across differently and suggest other meanings in its original language.

  3. I noticed that too when I watch movies! The subtitles are compressed version of the actual dialogue. Superficially, I guess it's the problem of space. Too many letters eat up a lot of the TV screen space. And for certain action scenes, reading long words and phrases may get in the way of appreciating the fast-paced narrative. Perhaps this subtitle thing is DeWitt's way of differentiating the contextual appreciation of Sybilla and the comprehension of her son. The paradox of "lost in translation" is extended from language as visualized words to film as visualized images. Is genius lost in translation? If yes, is it any less genuine?