Now that we’re into the meat of this book, I think it’s time to talk about a theme I’ve been tracking for a while and that has really taken center stage in our third section. That would be cultural literacy.
You can see it in there throughout the book as a sort of correlate to Ludo’s genius–yes, yes, he can learn to track down strings of letters and to put them together into groupings of sound and meaning, but can he actually tell you what they say?
We get a couple of strong developments of this theme in week three’s chunk of text. The first that I noticed is the entry of Kurosawa’s first film, Sugata Sanshiro, into the discussion. The film is about judo and Sugata is a judo prodigy, and though I haven’t seen this film, from DeWitt’s discussion of it the film seems to tell a coming of age tale about Sugata, his judo mentor, and a villain. Sugata is very much an “unformed” man, in that he constantly keeps learning and aspiring, whereas the villain has reached an endpoint in his development, something that is implied to be an essential part of his villainy.
What struck me most was a quote from Donald Richie’s The Films of Kurosawa Akira. It’s a long quote, and I’m not going to copy it all here, but here are two very interesting statements in it:
One of the attributes of all [Kurosawa’s] heroes, beginning with Sugata, is that they are all unformed in just this way. For this reason, all of his pictures are about education–the education of the hero. . . .
To suggest that peace, contentment, happiness, follows a single battle, no matter how important, is literally untrue–and it would limit Sugata precisely because of the limitations suggested in the words “happiness” or “judo champion.” 
Te other place I see this theme is in Sibylla’s strange little test for Ludo: she exposes him to three pieces of deficient art (notably among them, the piano music of Liberace), and challenges him to tell her why they are bad, promising to reveal his father if he can. Ludo, lacking the cultural knowledge to understand what she’s getting at, rather pathetically flails for an answer and fails.
This struck me as a little mean on Sibylla’s part and also very fable-like (pitching the form of this subplot around a quest bound up with coming of age seems very much like a knight errant tale).
More examples of this theme abound: Ludo’s failure to integrate into a classroom setting, his freaky, and very astonishing but also mechanical, abilities to calculate extremely large numbers through ingenious applications of the distributive principle.
All this is beginning to make me wonder: is Ludo a genius, or more of a savant?
So on to other things: Now that we’re a ways into this book, has anyone tried to make sense of the words, phrases, and numbers that occur at the beginnings of new sections throughout the book? There seems to be some underlying system or meaning to them, but I myself haven’t gone back to rigorously look through them and see what pops out.
And lastly, I wanted to bring up some Seven Samurai references in this section. We’ve already had some interesting discussion of this film as a surrogate father for Ludo, and now the film’s role in the book seems to be evolving into new territories. First of all, I found Sibylla’s repeated viewing of the film a little bit odd . . . she seems to resort to it in times of stress as a sort of way to distract herself and distance herself form the world, even as she avows its importance as a masterpiece of modern cinema.
And a couple of key scenes where this film comes into play. First of all, when Sibylla and Ludo’s kindergarten teacher are discussing the problems Ludo is having with school. This quote starts with the teacher talking:
“It has got to stop. Stephen [Ludo] has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
I said, “Does that mean I don’t have to go to school any more?”
Sibylla said, “I couldn’t agree with you more, we have been watching Seven Samurai on a weekly basis for about a year.”
Miss Lewis said, “I beg your pardon?”
Sibylla said, “Well, as I’m sure you know the whole issue of a skill in Kurosawa is highly– Why look, you’ve got a little book about samurai in the classroom, how marvellous!” 
First, note the oddness of reading this exchange (which I gather Ludo doesn’t entirely understand) via a transcription of the incident from memory in Ludo’s journal.
And now on to the quote itself. Obviously the key question is where Sibylla meant to go with that remark about skill: why exactly does she view the film as so important to Ludo’s development? And what is her definition of Kurosawa’s concept of a skill (partially explained, I would imagine, in the discussion of Sugata mentioned above)?
The second incident of Seven Samurai I want to call out is the scene toward the end of this week’s section [pp. ~ 259-65] where Ludo is translating from the Japanese for Sibylla as she watches the famous scene where Kikuchiyo makes a fool of himself while trying to “prove” his noble paternity to the other six titular samurai. (For those who haven’t seen the film, it later becomes evident (and quite central to Kikuchiyo’s character) that he is an orphan, i.e. without a father.)
I loved this scene for the way that there are about five different things happening in parallel: 1) the film screening on TV; 2) Ludo’s discussion of Japanese grammar; 3) Ludo’s translation of the film; 4) the subtitles’ (very different) translation; 5) Sibylla’s attempts to make sense of it all at once. I don’t want to get into too big of an analysis of this exchange, but I will say that a lot of what’s going on here seems to tie together various thematic and plot/character threads that have been running through this book. It seems like a rather central scene that we’ll be thinking about again as we read.
More from Conversational Reading:
- The Last Samurai References and Annotations Thread: Week 3 Last Samurai-ers--you know what to do. And here's a thought that occurred to me from last week's section....
- Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt So what is The Last Samurai and why did I choose it?...
- The Last Samurai: The Author as Woman Inevitably, we've already had a couple of references to Helen DeWitt's gender in the comments to the first week of The Last Samurai discussion, so...
- The Last Samurai: The Burden of Genius For instance, the section starts out with the piano-playing dreams of the narrator's mother (and I like how each of our sections has begun by...
- The Last Samurai: Chance, Blocked Geniuses, and Irregular Grammar Based on the evidence of the first section we're reading of The Last Samurai, I think it's fair to say that Helen DeWitt likes to...
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