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A few years ago, as I was driving south down I-95 late one night, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, I saw a house on fire.  The highway was mostly empty, and I slowed to look.  Emergency responders were already on the scene, but they seemed on stand-by—the house looked like a total loss, and they were on-hand to keep the fire from spreading.  It was eerily beautiful, the way the flames ate away the night.  In my car, I could only imagine the intense heat, the smell of the cinders, the smoke of a person’s life in the air.  When I drive by that area now, if I remember, I look to see if I can find where the fire had taken place, but I can never find it.  Another house has already grown over that spot, I imagine, like scar tissue.

In The Hidden Fortress, revelers at a fire festival intone an existential prayer as they slouch their way around a bonfire.

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it in the fire
Ponder and you will see the world is dark
And this floating world is a dream
Burn with abandon

And at that last line, they dance in a frenzy.  And as a fortune in gold is added to the fire, a princess and her bodyguard, who have been trying to evade capture with the gold, abandon their worries and dance.  The two peasants who have been helping them, however, look at the fire with sadness and dismay—the gold they’ve tried to protect is now melting, and as the bonfire blazes, it burns away their hopes, their dreams, their futures.

I tell myself that if I ever suffer a catastrophic house fire, I won’t rebuild.  The things that can be replaced, I won’t replace.  The books, music, and movies that I’ve spent a lifetime collecting and curating, I will no longer need.  If I’m ever reduced to zero, I’ll somehow make peace with zero.  As 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide writes:

Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon.

Tonight, I returned home from a long day at work to find the house lit up with paper lanterns—the Harvest Moon Festival.   I walked in to see, in our dusky living room, warm, glowing colors, floating in space.  Each lantern a constellation, a nebuIa, a galaxy.  I hesitated:  Is this my house?  Yes, it was.  Matthew had used up the last of the tealights, including the red ones that smell faintly of bayberry.  Dinner was warm on the stove.  Afterwards, as we prepared to retire upstairs, Matthew said, Oh, the lanterns! and even though there was no risk of them catching on fire and burning the house down,  we went back to blow them out.  And from the second floor of the house, in the room we call the library, where I keep my autographed books and my Criterion Collection DVDs, we got a better view of the rising moon.


C___, my college boyfriend, once paraphrased Winston Churchill to me:  “If you’re not a liberal by 20, then you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by 40, then you have no brain.”  He was mocking my political passion, the type that comes when you’re in a safe environment away from home.

I don’t recall what the exact issue was:  most likely something minor, such as my refusing to eat a ‘fun-sized’ Crunch bar because I was boycotting Nestle for its baby-starving practices (never mind that their chocolate tastes like candied wax).   But Nestle-denial was only one of many causes that I had taken up as an undergraduate:  gay rights, reproductive rights, racial equality, preservation of the environment, workers’ rights — I knew I had to do something, but not exactly what that thing should be.

In that way, I was like the one of the young samurai in Sanjuro:  idealistic, class-bound, and rather bone-headed.  The meetings with my fellow liberals could have been a scene right out of the film:  the group of us, deep in thought, each person pacing in his or her own direction.  We didn’t have an older, wiser mentor (like the titular hero himself) to guide us, but we did get the occasional old Baltimore hippie popping into a meeting to see what was up.

When you’re young, everything seems like a cause for a march, a protest, a rally — idealism is the province of the young.  I became an expert at making banners with large brush markers, spacing letters out legibly and evenly so that the last few words weren’t crammed together.  But being a 1990s radical was very different from being a 1960s radical.  There wasn’t the Vietnam War to unify the disparate groups; we’d had 30 years of progress; Clinton was in office and he was doing a pretty good job overall.  Sure, racism and sexism and homophobia still reared their ugly heads, but no amount of chanting was going to eliminate them, no matter how well-lettered my signs were.

I wasn’t losing my fervor — but it was changing.  In the fictional years between Yojimbo to Sanjuro, Mifune’s ronin transforms, as well.  Sanjuro no longer hacks up the bad guys with glee; in the latter film, he’s more circumspect about violence, as if he’s realized that there’s more corruption in the world than his sword can excise.  But, nonetheless, he fights on.

Now, four years shy of 40, there’s still nary a conservative bone in my body, and from what I’ve heard, C___ himself hasn’t become conservative.  (And if anyone was destined for Log Cabin-style craziness, it’d be him; consider:  he’s a commodities broker living in New York City, he’s half a month older than I am, he’s an asshole.)  Injustice still rankles me, and if it appears that my liberal zeal has abated:  don’t be fooled.  I know what my nineteen year-old self didn’t know:  how to pick my battles.

Also, I still don’t eat Nestle chocolates.

  1. Early in Yojimbo, there’s a scene where the wandering ronin Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), looks in horror as a dog trots by carrying a severed hand in its mouth.  At first, I thought, Oh, cool, I’ve got a scene like that in my book, and then I thought, Oh, shit, I’ve got a scene like that in my book.
  2. It’s been at least 5 years since I last watched Yojimbo, and I had honestly forgotten about that scene.  Maybe it had implanted itself in my brain, like an earwig burrowing to lay eggs, and I sub-consciously replicated it.  Or maybe I had come up with it on my own and emulated that scene by coincidence only.  Having been reminded of it, however, I’m willing enough to chalk it up as an homage to Kurosawa, even if my novel lacks samurai swords flashing about in a flurry.
  3. This is on my mind because of the numerous plagiarism scandals that rock the literary world, most recently involving 17 year-old Helene Hegemann, who claims the “Kathy Acker” defense, attributing her nimble-fingered lifting to post-modernity and intertextuality.  Sorry to break it to you, but this only works if the two texts have a meaningful conversation with one another, which to me, means some acknowledgment of the earlier source.  David Shields might disagree, but I’m not the one announcing the death of the novel.
  4. As Stephen Prince points out in his commentary, Yojimbo derives from (or, if you prefer, draws upon) earlier works, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest and Stuart Heisler’s film The Glass Key, also based on a Hammett novel.  Indeed, the scene where Sanjuro receives a beating and crawls away from captivity mimics a scene from the Heisler film.  One can assume, as Prince does, that Kurosawa copied Heisler on purpose (or, if you prefer, pays tribute to).
  5. Yojimbo itself has also been remade:  once as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and against as Walter Hill’s Last Man StandingKurosawa sued Leone, who denied similarities between the two films.  Remember:  it’s an homage only if you admit to it.  Walter Hill is much more forthcoming about his appropriation (or, if you prefer, borrowing).
  6. Therefore, let this serve as a public announcement:  there’s a little bit of my novel which resembles a little bit of Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, despite the differences in the context, mood and format.  Any further little similarities (to Dashiell Hammett, Stuart Heisler, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill or to other films that feature a dog carrying a severed hand [including but not limited to Eurotrip and Wild at Heart]) are purely coincidental.
  7. Copying or distributing this written admission without attribution or expressed consent will be considered copyright infringement.

Attempt #1 to watch High and Low:  Long day at work, followed by returning to campus for Ben Yagoda‘s lecture about the “truthiness” of memoirs.  Yagoda lambastes what he terms “schtick lit,” which he traces to Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia.  These memoirs feature an author who document his attempts a certain feat for himself (for example, live according to the Bible for a year, become an environmental douchebag) over a certain time frame.  I squirm uncomfortably and later steal a wedge of brie from the reception afterward.  At home, I pop the movie into the player, get 15 minutes in, and decide to close my eyes — for a little while, I tell myself.  I wake just in time to stop a missile of drool from hitting the couch and officially go to bed.  Matthew is shocked that I come to bed before midnight.

Attempt #2:  Wake up in the afternoon, then lunch at Costco.  Hey — even Julia Child liked their hot dogs.  Pay my phone bill, walk around Christiana Mall.  Later, dinner at a friend’s house to celebrate Matthew’s tenure and promotion.  Matthew has a glass of brandy (not cognac, my friend insists, since it didn’t come from the cognac region), and I take a sip off of his.  We watch the season finale of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and, after hearing so much hype about it, I’m disappointed there aren’t more penises.  Get home, too tired to concentrate on Akira Kurosawa.  So instead, I watch Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman.  My cat head-butts my mouth.

Attempt #3:  A warm day that turns cold.  I stop into by a store for Independent Record Store Day and pick up my limited edition 4AD 12″.  I’m unable to secure, however, a copy of the Mountain Goats DVD, so I console myself by going to the Video Americain closing sale in Newark, where I pick up 4 Krzysztof Kieslowski films for myself and 4 Merchant-Ivory films for Matthew.  Then off to a pizza party with Matthew’s colleagues.  After two slices of pizza and a large piece of Carvel’s ice cream cake, I feel soporific, but still go to a beer-tasting, at which I taste no beer.  We arrive back home at 8 p.m., and I promptly and uncharacteristically go straight to sleep.

Attempt #4:  High and Low!  Its viewing remains somewhat in doubt throughout the day:  an afternoon in Philadelphia, a dinner of hand-drawn noodles in Chinatown.  At home, Matthew wants to watch Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, and knowing his love of Merchant-Ivory, we do.  But I still have energy for a film about child kidnapping, heroin overdoses, seedy Yokohama alleys, and bars that cater to shore-leave sailors and dope smugglers.

If nothing else, High and Low introduces what I now call the “Mifune” test:  a pair of shoes must be “comfortable, durable, yet stylish.”  And if they don’t pass muster, Toshiro will tear them apart in with his bare hands.  The Japanese — they have that quality control thing down to a science.

Wednesdays are the days between classes, and they’re reserved for killing time, avoiding class prep, and haircuts.  I’ve been avoiding finishing edits for a chapter because I’ve hit that point where I dislike everything I’ve written.  According to Kenneth Turan, Seven Samurai took Kurosawa and his screenwriters six weeks to write.  And I’ve been working on this novel for almost two years?

Seven Samurai clocks in at almost three and a half hours, but that’s three and a half hours not spent editing, I suppose.

In any case, I knew I was being terribly verbose when I wrote the chapter so some judicious trimming is in order.  It’s a matter of cutting out lines as ruthlessly as one cuts marauding bandits.  I always take perverse pleasure in the scene where the women of the village come out from their shelter, armed with spears, rakes, and other pointy domestic objects, in order to perforate a fallen bandit.  For a film in which women’s primary roles are either menial labor, samurai seductresses (despite the pageboy haircuts) or bandit favors, seeing them take the initiative — as bloody as it is — is refreshing.  Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the whole pinky violence subgenre as well.

Hmm, I have drifted off-topic. Imagining girls wielding swords will do that.

This must be at least the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen Seven Samurai, and yet, strangely, each time, I can’t remember which samurais live and which ones die.  Well, I know for sure that three live and that at least three die, but the fate of the seventh one is always up in the air for me.  That’s a testament to either Kurosawa’s engaging storytelling or my crappy memory.  As it is, I remember clearly that, when I was younger, our PBS station in Denver (Channel 6!) used to play Kurosawa movies start to finish, no commercial interruptions.  And this, if anything, was my introduction to film as works of art.  I eagerly waited with my fingers on the “record” button of the VCR to preserve Throne of Blood (we read MacBeth my senior year of high school) and Ran (which didn’t fit onto one tape) for posterity.  Rashomon too, as I recall.  Not that I ever watched any of them again once I had recorded them, but that’s the way it was in the days of VCR.  Rewinding those tapes was just too onerous.

But as much as I want to say I saw Seven Samurai that way too, I can’t say for sure that it happened.  Odd — the more I try to remember if it showed or not, the more the only thing that sticks in my mind is the Japanese character for “intermission.”