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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.

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In his preface to the 1904 Tauchnitz edition of Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn explains that most of the stories he retells are taken from old Japanese manuscripts.  Some may have had Chinese origins, he suggests, but “the Japanese story-teller, in any case, has so re-coloured and reshaped his borrowing as to naturalise it.”

The unnamed author of the introduction writes:  “The Japanese… have possessed no national and universally recognized figures as Turgenieff or Tolstoy.  They need an interpreter.  It may be doubted whether any oriental race has ever had an interpreter gifted with more perfect insight and sympathy than Lafcadio Hearn has brought to the translation of Japan into terms of our occidental speech.”

Oh, we lucky, lucky Orientals.

*

In fourth grade, my teacher assigned the class to write a Halloween story.  I used my brother’s computer, a heat-spewing bludgeon with a black-and-cyan monitor.  After seven pages, however, the cursor froze at the edge of the screen, forcing me to go back and wrap up my story quicker.  The next day, I discovered that my classmates’ stories hardly went up to two pages.  My teacher flipped through my dot-matrixed creation warily.

For me, ghost stories were second nature.  I’d read the anthologies in my elementary school library — 100 Great Ghost Stories; Tales of the Supernatural — the page edges brown and warped from moist fingertips.  I’d come across, time and again, the same Victorian and Edwardian writers:  Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Walter de le Mare, Algernon Blackwood.  (Lafcadio Hearn must surely have been among them.)  I absorbed the stories, ingested the prose until the word ‘eldritch’ became part of my every day speech.

And yet, my story read like a collection of horror movie clichés:  full moon; someone impaled on a television antenna; tame gore; someone falling into an open grave.  I wonder now:  what had happened to those eminent Victorians?

*

The final segment of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, “In a Cup of Tea,” comes not from Hearn’s Kwaidan, but instead from Kottō: Being Japanese Curios.  In introducing his story, Hearn relies on classic Gothic imagery (“Have you ever attempted to mount some old tower stairway, spiring up through darkness, and in the heart of that darkness found yourself at the cobwebbed edge of nothing?”) before starting his narrative.  But the story itself is incomplete:  Hearn ends the fragment with an ellipsis.  “I am able to imagine several possible endings;” he writes, “but none of them would satisfy an Occidental imagination.  I prefer to let the reader attempt to decide for himself the probable consequence of swallowing a Soul.”  Kobayashi, for his part, ends his film by showing the story-writer himself, trapped in a cistern of water, as if to suggest that this is the answer:  one becomes what one consumes.

Did Lafcadio Hearn disappear into a cup of green tea for swallowing the Japanese soul?

Will I disappear into a pot of orange pekoe?

I am able to imagine several possible endings, but none of them would satisfy an Occidental imagination.

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.

Sequels.  Not a summer goes by without sequels buzzing around like thick, bloated horseflies.  Some are become a part of the atmosphere, annoying but harmless, content to go their own way and to have you ignore them.  Others insist on being noticed:  flying in front of your face, landing on your food, zooming by your ear — in other words, begging for you to reach for the flyswatter.

Samurai III:  Duel at Ganryu Island should nominally be considered a sequel, but since it’s part of a larger work — the life story of samurai Musashi Miyamoto — it can be given a pass.  The same goes with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But how many sequels are conceived with a narrative arc that encompasses several films, and how many simply add on the Roman numerals like unsightly deposits of fat on their waistlines? Can anyone justify the existence of the Star Wars prequel trilogy?

When I was in high school, I was an avid reader of genre fiction — particularly of science fiction and fantasy.  But I was lukewarm towards series, particularly the canonical ones.  I took to some of them, but rejected others.  Thus, I finished Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series but never got into Frank Herbert’s Dune series.  I read through the first two trilogies of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever but stopped Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings midway through The Two Towers (too many damn songs).  I hear Piers Anthony’s Xanth series continues even after his death. And V. C. Andrews has been writing via ouija board for years now.

In the shopping center near my high school, there was a small used bookstore that specialized in paperbacks.  They offered a deal:  trade in two paperbacks, take out one.  When I could, I stopped there after school.  Most of the shelves were packed with Harlequin Romances, the author names repeating in different shades of soft colors.  But there was also a small science-fiction/fantasy section against the wall, still with a number of recurring author names, but with more fanciful fonts on the spine.  I took my sister’s romance books — she had more than she needed, believe me — and traded them in for sci-fi novels.  And more often then not, when I got home, I would discover that I had somehow picked up “Book 3 of 7” of a Series Fill-in-the-Blank.

Even after I learned to open to the “Also by this author page” and scan for the “Other books in this series” column, I found that it became increasingly impossible to find stand-alone novels.  Everything seemed built around the franchise model.  So I found myself drawn more and more towards short story collections and “legitimate” literature.  But that doesn’t meant that I sometimes don’t still dream about cashing in on my as-yet-unrealized 10-volume fantasy epic.  With any lucky, it’ll write itself after I’m dead.  After all, it worked for Robert Jordan.

After grad school, I worked at a movie theater in Colorado in Tamarac Square.  Madstone Theater was a movie chain that also had aspirations as a movie production company as well.  But the production end of the business folded (not enough naked Michael Pitt in its only feature, Rhinoceros Eyes, would be my guess) and took down the theater chain with it.

One of the last films to play at Madstone was Kill Bill, Vol. 2, and for months after the theater had closed, when I walked through the mall, I saw the Kill Bill poster from behind its plexiglass.  If ever a samurai sword could seem forlorn, this was it.  And now, Tamarac Square itself is slated to be demolished.  Luckily, my favorite Indian restaurant in Denver, India’s, moved across the street to Tiffany Plaza, where it will be sheltered by the gargantuan Whole Foods, like an egg under a mother bird.

Tamarac Square was never glamorous or particularly noteworthy; it rose up in the early 80s heyday of mall-building and lingered like a weed in the crack of a sidewalk — unsightly, but still alive.  Even when Madstone was there, half the mall seemed deserted:  there was a Starbucks, an optician, an eccentric old lady accessories shop, a shop that specialized in spine-saving footwear, and, nearer to the end of Madstone’s life, a sari emporium.  When malls die, they die slowly, one shop shuttering after another, the gated and empty storefronts like missing teeth in a smile.

I bring this up because Quentin Tarantino should pay Hiroshi Inagaki royalties.  Tarantino is a notorious cinematic magpie, filching bits and pieces to build his own nest.  But in this case, Kill Bill, Vol. 1‘s two most spectacular set pieces borrow directly from the two most engaging set pieces of Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple.

In particular:  Kill Bill‘s duel between The Bride and Go-Go Yubari reflects Samurai II‘s opening duel, in which Toshiro Mifune pits his ni-ten-ichi-ryu against a chain-and-sickle wielding warrior.  But while a chain-and-sickle isn’t quite as flashy as a bladed metal ball at the end of a flail (not to mention that Eijiro Tono can’t quite compete with Chiaki Kuriyama in a schoolgirl outfit), the general idea is the same.

Later, Toshiro Mifune must dispatch 80 or so Yoshioka-school disciples, much in the way Uma Thurman must dispatch 88 mask-wearing, Lucy Liu-worshipping disciples — only not in a rice paddy, with better lighting, and with copious arterial spray.  Mifune realizes that discretion is the better part of valor, while  Tarantino, of course, would never have one of his protagonists back out of anything, but the truth for both of our heroes is that they need to survive — for the sequel.

I make no secret of my love of Chinese buffets.  While in the hinterlands of Wyoming in January, not a week passed that I didn’t want to go into the Dragon Wall restaurant, next door to the Albertsons in which I bought provisions.  On the way to the liquor store at the end of the strip mall, I’d peer in the windows, trying to judge what they might have bubbling in their steam trays.

And just this afternoon, on a trip to ShopRite, I noticed a sign announcing that Hibachi Sushi and Buffet had moved in.  No one can resist the siren’s call of seven meat products (chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, etc.) mixed with seven possible sauces (black pepper, Szechuan, black bean, mysterious goopy red stuff).  Five different colors of Jell-O!  When the heat lamp hits the Jell-O just so, it almost looked like a stained glass window.

I also like the democratic nature of buffets.  More than any other restaurants I’ve been to, you see what seems to be an authentic cross-section of Wilmington:  African-American women still dressed in their church clothes, Hispanic clumps of men, Caucasian families — all of them served by brisk, smiling Chinese waitresses with nametags that read “Tina,” “Layla” or “Cherry.”

All-you-can-eat buffets are Papal dispensations for gluttony; what seems like a ridiculous amount of food at home becomes acceptable — no, a requirement.  When I was younger, my parents would mentally keep track of how much food I’d eaten to make sure that I had at least made back the cover charge.  Otherwise, that would have been a waste of money, somehow a greater sin than a waste of food.  We ate until we had to slouch in the booths and undo the top button of our pants.

When my relatives from Oklahoma came into town, and the whole family piled into a restaurant like a ravenous horde of Vietnamese locusts (my dad sneaking in a bottle of nước mắm), my cousin Truong and I engaged in competitive eating, with a stack of empty plates bearing witness to the endless capabilities of our intestinal capacity, jaw strength, and metabolism.  Though once, as we left the Hans Brinker smorgasbord in Denver, he had to stop on the wooden bridge beneath the windmill to vomit.  I was elated.  That meant I won.

My metabolism isn’t what is used to be.  Must cut down on the coconut shrimp next time.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is somewhat of a Asian cinematic buffet.  It has all the elements you could want, all steaming hot:  grand war battles, samurai-on-bandit violence, crafty Japanese women, pursuits through green forests, totally passive Japanese women, wild renegades, wise monks, chastened warriors.  And it’s all on one plate.  Best of all, if you haven’t had enough, you can return for seconds.  Thirds, even.  Go on.  You paid for it.

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.”

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