The Last Samurai: Week 4 Notes and Annotations

We’ve pulled into the nice, fat middle of The Last Samurai. Here are a few notes I found for this section–add yours in on the comments.

Tyrone Power school of acting. Now hat Sibylla has mentioned the “Tyrone Power school of acting” more than a few times to deride certain individuals, I thought I’d pull up an image to we can see what she means when she says, for instance, “and he did change, but only in the way that someone from the Tyrone Power school of acting would show maturity: mouth set, furrowed brow, this is someone thinking tough thoughts.” [318]

Hugh Carey and Raymond Decker. If you’ve gotten this far yet, Week 4 has a wonderful story about two geniuses going to school in Oxford: Hugh Carey and Raymond Decker. Sibylla introduces them as though they are real people, though if you do a quick Google search you won’t find anything for these names resembling the individuals described in The Last Samurai.

Sibylla and Ludo. Even since we encountered the named of the lead and her son, I’ve been meaning to see what references can be dug up for each. Here’s what Wikipedia has to offer.

Sibylla has a ton of entries to disambiguate from:

* Sibylla of Jerusalem, queen regnant of Jerusalem
* Sybilla of Normandy, queen consort of Scotland
* Sibylla of Acerra, queen consort of Sicily
* Sibylla of Lusignan, queen consort of Armenia
* Sybilla of Burgundy, duchess of Burgundy
* Sibylla of Anjou, countess of Flanders
* Sibylla of Armenia, princess of Antioch
* Sibylla of Anhalt, duchess of Württemberg
* Sibylla Schwarz, a German poet
* Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, mother of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden
* Sibylla Budd, an Australian actress

Sibylla might be too:

* Sibylla (genus), a genus of mantis
o Sibylla pretiosa, one such species
* 168 Sibylla, an asteroid
* Sibylla (fast food), a classic fast food concept marketed in Sweden

There is also the Sibyl, which seems the most promising, a word from Greek meaning “prophetess.”

As to Ludo/Ludovic, here’s what I found:

The boy’s name Ludovic \l(u)-do-vic\ is a variant of Louis (French, Old German) and Ludwig (German), and the meaning of Ludovic is “famous warrior; famous fighter”.

Ludovic has quite a bit of disambiguation:

Ludovic is a given name, and may refer to:

* Ludovic (opera), by Fromental Halévy
* The main character in Ma vie en rose, a Belgian film

or to the first name of the following:

In sports:

* Ludovic Assemoassa, French-born Togolese football defender who currently plays for Ciudad de Murcia
* Ludovic Badey, French race car driver
* Ludovic Butelle, French football goalkeeper
* Ludovic Giuly, French footballer who plays as a winger
* Ludovic Mercier, French rugby union footballer
* Ludovic Obraniak, French-born Polish international footballer
* Ludovic Roux, former French Nordic combined skier
* Ludovic Turpin, professional road racing cyclist

In literature:

* Ludovic Halévy, French author
* Ludovic Kennedy (1919-2009), British journalist, broadcaster, and author

In politics:

* Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox, Scottish nobleman and politician
* Ludovic Vitet, French dramatist and politician

In other fields:

* Ludovic Arrachart, French aviator
* Ludovic Lindsay, 16th Earl of Crawford, prisoner at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1644 and 1645
* Ludovic Zamenhof, eye doctor, philologist, and the initiator of Esperanto

And then Ludo:

“Brit a simple board game in which players advance counters by throwing dice
[from Latin: I play]” (defined here)

* Ludo (board game), a board game of the Cross and Circle game family
* Luděk Mikloško Czech football goalkeeper.
* Ludwig II of Bavaria, nicknamed ‘Mad King Ludo’, a king of Bavaria who reigned between 1869 and 1886
* Ludo Bagman, a character from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
* Ludo (band), a band from St. Louis, Missouri

* Ludo (Ludo album), the self-titled debut album by the band of the same name

* Ludo (album), a 1967 album by Ivor Cutler
* Ludo (character), a character from the 1986 film, Labyrinth

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“Now we are six.” (page 189 of the Miramax paperback)

“Kurosawa is right,he can turn on a dime and watching quicksilver Mifune stern Shimura ardent Kumura I suddenly realise that everything is going to be all right, I am providing my fatherless uncleless boy not with 8 role models (6 samurai, 1 gate-crashing farmer’s son 1 fearless farmer) but 16 (8 characters 8 actors) 17 including Kurosawa who does not appear. Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art but all 8 actors and the director who does not appear show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 role models (not including the extras.)

Scott has offered us lists that need to be counted one by one, and lists they conjur the abyss of infinity and ultimately of getting lost in the counting. This is close to the novel, dangerously close. It contrasts with the sudden access of joy and confident certitude that hits Sib like something self-evident. He’ll be all right, and it’s because I was resourceful; I didn’t give in. This has to be one of the cruxes or cruces of the novel we are reading. There’s a lot of counting going on here, as there is just about everywhere else in the novel, and outside the novel in possible references and ties to culture at large. Counting is always significant, as significant as any combination of words or themes. Example: there is never, never, any trace of the number seven in this novel, except for the seven drums over Africa. Before you disagree (before, then, I lose your attention and good will), let’s give the floor to Sib who states with considerable authority that The Seven Samurai is not about Seven Samurai at all, but about a fearless farmer with burning eyes who sets everything into motion. There’s never any mention of Ludo’s seventhy birthday, despite the fact that this birthday in certain cultural contexts is supposed to be the threshold of the age of reason. Sib was one year early on this one, as she was one year late on school inscription. (The only birthdays mentioned and celebrated are Ludo’s sixth and eleventh, but there is a lot of counting going on when the characters say “nine times out of ten,” and when Ludo remembers the benefit of the doubt he was willing to afford his father at age eight.) Seven does not exist, when you follow the precepts of the novel, that is, the precepts of the film on which it is based.

What goes for the figure 7 goes for the figure of the samurai too. There are no samurai in this novel. (Please wait before beginning to disagree) Quicksilver Mifuine is playing the role of an orphan who could never in a million years or in a nanosecond achieve the official rank of samurai. Stern, admirable, and husbanding Shimura is playing the role of a ronin with no followers and a melancholic attidude striking disimilar to the samurai’s, and, to put a final nail in his non-samurai coffin, he does something no legitimate samurai would ever dream of doing: he cuts off his pony-tail. Young ardent Kimura is playing the role of someone too young to be a samurai, someone who hasn’t fought yet. Even his girlfried senses that from her point of view (obviously ridiculous) this is not a “real” samurai, despite his aristocratic bearing.

So why are these figures so powerful? What makes them stand out for Sib, and perhaps for us? What qualifies them as father surrogates? Why does the author single them out with characteristics that apply to both the characters and the actors playing them? (one exception: the perfectionist; but Sib points out that the actors and the director are every bit as perfectionistic as the master swordsman) These questions take place in a flurry of counting (6+1+1 times two = 16+1– 17; The sum will not remain as positive nor as optimistic as it is here. It will later be used to indicate the specific gravity of Saturn, the planet of melencholy brooding!)

My answer, that I would like to submit to discussion (this is a bit like wanting to win the national lottery) is that these three actors and their characters, thus singled out, MAKE NOTHING HAPPEN. This is a big deal. If you go now to the commemorative poem by Auden at the occasion of the Irish samurai Yeats’s death, you’ll see that even there, in the presence of this quite unpleasant aristocrat, the question is once again that of a village to be rescued! this is a true crux in the story of The Last Samurai, because it is a true crux is the story of humanity. There’s something universal going on here, but the trap is in naming it. Getting drunk and getting your head bashed in because you couldn’t avoid the cliché.

To be a samurai is to be nothing at all. This is the calling of the samurai, as all the priests and former samurai theorized it, once their swords had become artistic artefacts. To be a samurai is to aspire to nothing, to hop onto a becoming like Mao said you could hop on the back of a tiger, and once you’re there there’s no getting off. At least not in this life. Getting off belongs to the Tyrone Power school of acting. Getting off belongs to the dimension and realm of grades, diplomas, and legions of honor. Being of consequence outside this sphere involves being able to turn on a dime: being that quick, that nimble, that resouceful and that willing to refuse your leaden or marbled installation as hero or model. Perhaps the closest thing we have to quicksilver Mifune is Rameau’s nephew and the absent director who counts despite or because of his absence would be int he wings ewpounding the paradox of the comedian. Ludo would eat this stuff up, and digest it the blink of an eye.

There’s a beautiful travel book that he might have read. It’s by Nicolas Bouvier. Its title in English is Japanese chronicles. Bouvier cannot stand the very idea of a samurai. To a certain point, and historically speaking, he’s got a point. (One imagines the reaction of a Karl Marx or a Fred Jameson to such a figure.) There is a huge animus againt the sumurai throughout the chronicles: they are nothing more than pretentious pricks living off the hard work of the peasant classes, and playing homo-erotic games and growing more and more useless as time goes by. This is perhaps the perspective from which to appreciate the achievement of Helen DeWitt. There are no samurai in her book. No elite body of brave warriours. No buts in tight jeans. And no bonded group with each a separater specialty.

Let’s move to the title once again. Who are the last samurai? How many of them were there at one given time? How many of them are there now? Are there others to come? Is this a permanent possibility inscribed in our DNA? One of the stupidest passages in an otherwise enjoyable novel about samurai called Cloud of Sparrows, there is a recurring attempt to conjoin the samurai and the gunslinger. Sib is absolutely ruthless with this kind of slipshod thinking, and her son is careful to go and see for himself. The shadow of Val Peters makes them both rather circumspect. There is, despite the difference in quality between the samurai and the cowboy, a clear zone of overlapping between the two sets, between samurai and gunslingers in our respective traditions. Both are concerned with the problematic of the end of the line, of their line. What it is like to be one of the last, to be extremely, tragically late in realizing that your time is past?
One of the signs that both samurai and gunslingers wxill soon be at the end of their line is that both begin to engage in uncustomary lines of work and engagement, such as rescuing villages and teaching kids how to fight and how to become, if need be, war machines. Now, who is it that feels most deeply, most sincerely, without every looing over their shoulder to see if it’s politically correct or not, the lot or situation of such characters? Answer: children moving like Ludo into the wider world, children for whom the memory of having lionized, idolized thesze men and women stays on slightly longer than for most kids — the mark, if not of genius per se, that at least of talent, luck and curiosty beyond the bounds of normality. Curiosity and talent in the pursuit of longings of the mind and heart. Ludo is a rememberer. His Jewish and Greek background stand him in good stead here. His genius is in a well-nigh unbroken canvas of ten years’ activity, leading to a moment of decision, one the one hand, and to an absolutely happenstance event on the other. Of course we meet up here with the spoiler line, which I would love to split down the middle with some kind of sword. I will, what the hell! Just you wait till you see the poor kids’ head rolling down the circle line, with blood spluttering all the way down the platform, and the diabolical laughter of one of the more beautiful members of the New York neo-Geisha organisation filling the emptiness with nihilistic glee!

I still wonder how desire plays out for this mother. I hear her saying: “I don’t want you to forget the tales you’ve heard and the huge steps you’ve taken over so much ground you’ve left unexplored, but I can’t tell you everyting. I want you to be as priceless as you are for me: I want everyone to validate my hunch and my confidence in you, but I can’t pay just any price for this.” Of course Ludo will jump into this space with his own imperious desire.

There is a huge mistake in the French translation of the last sentence in chapter seven, entitled “The End of the Line.” (This is also an 80s style book of criticism by Neil Hertz that shows why women have to be removed from the spotlight in favor of other narrators, as happens in this novel) In English, we read Now we are six. The French reads: “maintenant nous sommes six.” This is the howler all translators lose sleep over. How would you translate it? How did you read it? (I suspect you didn’t give it much attention. I forgive you, don’t worry. This time. But the next time! off with your head!) If you think for a nanosecond that the figure six concerns in any way a number of samurai, you’re dead wrong. This reading will not pass mustard. The six is a figure of desire about to turn on a dime and become a commonplace and fleeting instance of hatred between two people who have been together for six years as of this evening. Sib is including herself in this birthday celebration; it is also her celebration of six years that don’t look bad at all, after all. She is saying to herself, and to her son, without smoking the cigarette that made this a nationwide commonplace, “we’ve come a long way, baby.” The correct French translation would be something liek “nous avons six ans d’expérience ensemble.” But this will turn out to be the end of the line. The spoiler line rises from its ashes, and reasserts its sovereign right to respect.

Tom, your numerology is fascinating. Now that you mention it, there are an awful lot of other numbers and an awful few 7s for a book that revolves around Seven Samurai.

In your analysis of the translation of “Now we are six”, it’s important not to overlook that the line is almost certainly a reference to the A.A. Milne poem:
I had not realized before that the title of the poem is The End!

A couple other references:

The movie that Sibylla calls “Tall Men in Tight Jeans” (p. 276) is “The Magnificent Seven”:

The poem that Hugh Carey translated into Greek (p. 319) is “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns:
(This poem is the origin of the phrase usually rendered as “The best laid plans of mice and men…”)

Many thanks to Lisa for these additional references. I would like to briefly (sic!) make one additional annotation to the novel, in hopes of being able to count on people’s experience. I’m fascinated by the fact that, unlike the Tyrone Power school of acting, there are no, absolutely no descriptions of people’s faces in this novel. I happen to agree with Byatt when she says that Sib and Ludo are characters that come to count for us. Yet we have no mental pictures of them. The author seems to have taken her sword to the very idea of “seeing” in this sense. Can this be taken further? Can the author be considered in a school of non-depiction? I suddenly realised the extent of this radical refusal (or simple boredom with the standard techniques of description) to depict as I was trying to put together a post on the ejection of Sib alongside the ejection of Daniel Deronda’s mother. There are, to say the least, many descriptions of people’s hair, faces, expressions, bodies, etc., in the 19th century novel. But even that for me is a hasty generalization without any reliable knowledge to go upon. What do you think about this particular stylistic feat of Helen DeWitt?

One more annotation, to the names on the list. I’ve asked a Japanese friend to comment on the way Ludo would look, first in hiragana, then, perhaps in Kanji. I was blocked for awhile before proposing this angle, because the syllable “LU” doesn’t exist in Japanese. (I keep on saying how many things don’t exist! Strange!) But then I remembered that it would be written RUDO. At that point, the language opens to interesting possibilities. Thanks to Scott for the most interesting of the European cognates: Ludo the warrior!

The Boy of Winander and the Kurosawa Kid

There was a Boy, ye knew him well, ye Cliffs and Islands of Winander! many a time at evening, when the stars had just begun to move along the edges of the hills, rising or setting, would he stand alone beneath the trees, or by the glimmering Lake, a
nd there, with fingers interwoven, both hands press’d closely, palm to palm, and to his mouth uplifted, he, and through an instrument, blew mimic hootings to the silent owls that they might answer him — and they would shout across the watery Vale, and shout again, responsive to his call, with quivering peals and long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild of mirth and jocund din!

Then sometimes, in that silence, while he hung listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise Has carried far into his heart the voice of mountain torrents; … the visible scene would enter unawares intohis mind with all its solemn imagery, its rocks, its woods, and that uncertain heaven, receiv’d in the bosom of the steady Lake.

This boy was taken from his Mates, and died in childhood, ere he was full ten years old. — Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot … and there, along that bank, when I have passed at evening, I believe that oftentimes a full half-hour together I have stood mute — looking at the Grave in which he lies.


Kids get killed in The Last Samurai. Not only do they die before they’re ten, but they are killed. The novel is suffused with a violence foreign to the universe of Wordsworth, at least the Wordsworth of the manuals — the Wordsworth of inaccurate memory.
I haven’t put this page from a copybook here to bring everyone back into the fold of Romanticism. I’ve done it for an urgent reason. I have nightmares, now that the end is drawing near, of people posting feelings that somehow Ludo’s narrative of his renewed and reconstructed search for a father somehow doesn’t hang together. I know that I’ll react, innwardly, violently, imagining not having the time to express my minority view. The joy of the boy from Winander is everywhere present in the final sections we’re reading, or will read, or are reading again. So is the scandal of premature death. What ties them together is the gentle shock of mild surprise that creates a shuttle between an inexistant heaven and the dark surface of the novel clicking. There is no getting over the death of a child. This makes heaven a lie and the lake a sea of permanent misfortune. But these deaths are encrypted in hearts and in memories, even after they have provoked despair and worse. And at this crux in anyone’s, everyone’s life, there is the gentle shock of mild surprise of there being a way through hell. 4 warriors are dead at the end of The Seven Samurai. I have a stupid, asinine pleasure in symmetry, so I will write from memory that there are four kids dead at the end of The Last Samurai. There is no getting around this. This is one of the places where the bla bla stops. But there is, also, something like a gentle shock of mild surprise, what my friend Richard Beardsworth called, citing Wordsworth, a touch of memory.

Annotations to the Sugata Sanshiro passages on pages 195, 235 and 476, and the epigraph/epigram of Section iii:


Donald Richie: “One of the attributes of all of [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. After this superb battle — one might expect the picture to end with some kind of statement that he has at last grown up, that he has qarrived, that he has become something — the great judo champion.”
This is, so to speak, the first declension of the nothing becoming the real samurai, the nothing suitable and proper to his mind and his quest. One might expect that he has become something, but he has become nothing at all, he is yet unformed, although much more “polished” than before. (Polished is the term Kurosawa uses in his biography when he writes about his preference for unformed characters. Accomplishments are set out in terms of polished nothingness)
Compared to the villain, Sugata is all thumbs. Just as we all have a preference for the formed individual, we are ill at ease with the unformed person. No one is more unformed than Sibylla. She unravels in the second part of the novel. She too begins to ask the individualistic twin of Lenin’s question: what is to be done? In her “mouth” this is WHAT SHALL I DO? The question must be taken in in all senses, and quite literally. “I DO” when you’re looking at it rather than understanding it is the point of separation between “I” and “LU,” both on the path (DO). “What shall I do?” is always the rational and anguished future-looking counterpart to “Has It All Been in Vain, has it all come to naught?”

Nothing is what is suitable for the unformed. Nothing is the gift that is so often inpretated as the poison in need of a remedy. Poetry makes nothing happen. In the middle of one of their most violent face-offs, Ludo and Sib exchange thrusts around the character of Sugata Sanshiro. Ludo feels that if he gets the question right, he won’t have to go to school. (p. 235) Here the individualized revolutionary question jumps out at us, in the capital letters of the typeface. Ludo keeps getting it wrong. “I said, ‘It is literally untrue to suggest that peace, contentment, happiness, follows a single battle, no matter how important, and a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.’ Here is Ludo the monkey, the monkey he’ll have to shake off his back.
Sibylla said, ‘A hero who actually becomes what?’
And Ludo spins off answers so patently wrong that a general collapse is to be feared. “I DO” becomes a capital affair. I no longer know what to do.

When Sib is no longer listening, when she is distracted and distraught with her question, Ludo finally finds his way, and it is the way fitting, becoming, for a young warrior. The young warrior we all are in our waking moments: “I think what it’s really saying is that you can’t understand something until you go through it. You think you know what something is about and that’s why you do it but when you do it you realise it’s about something else. What it’s saying is that that’s why it’s important to study judo.”

What Ludo likes about math are the numbers that are almost other numbers, like the number 9, almost 10. The nothing creates the satori when you “realise it’s about something else.”

The Symposium is filled with praise from privileged Athenian teachers and youths convinced of the superiority of homesexual love and male friendships. Women are meant to serve. Then Socrates takes the floor and introduces the real or fictive teacher of his youth, Diotima. A typical move in Zen teaching amongst the powers in place. Here’s the “DO” in that. It doesn’t make anything any easier, including the task of listening to Sib despite and through her multiple defaults and her default settings:

“For the mortal nature seeks … to become deathless and eternal. But it can only accomplish this desire by generation, which for ever leaves another new in place of the old. For, although each human being be serverally said to live, and be the same from youth to old age, yet, that which is called the same, never contains within itself the same things, but always is becoming new by the loss and change of that which it possessed before; both the hair, and the flesh, and the bones, and the entire body. And not only does this change take place in the body, but also with respect to the soul. Manners, morals, opinions, desires, pleasure, sorrows, fears; none of these ever remain unchanged in the same persons; but some die away, and others are produced. and what isyet more strange, that not only does some knowledge spring up, and another decay, and that we are never the same with respect to our knowledge, but that each several object of our thoughts suffers the same revolution. That which is called meditation, or the exercise of memory, is the science of the escape or departure of knowledge; for forgetfulness is the going out of knowledge; and meditation, calling up a new memory in the place of that which has departed; preserves knowledge; so that, tho’ for ever displaced and restored, it seems to be the same.” (translation P.B. Shelley)

Ludo (on page 347) will reject all this emphasis on the teachings of Sanshiro’s master, so close to the teachings of Diotima. He’ll say something very funny, to the effect that he’d do almost anything to avoid having to hear about Sanshiro again! There is resistance to what is to be done.

“RD had read Plato’s Gorgias even before he came up, and being the type to take things to heart he had taken it to heart.” (page 321)

@ Tom, who reads too fast.

Here are a few occurences of physical descriptions you seem to have overlooked. The first is quite astouding, it’s as if a parachuted passage from the 19th century found its way into this 21st century novel:

“His (HC’s) face was creased and brown and there was a badly healed scar down one cheek. His eyes blazed blue. His eyebrows were shaggy, he had s straggling moutache. His hair was bleached very light, and there were white hairs in it.” (page 350)

“Eyes like a burnished blade of a sword blazed in his hard face. I was dead.” (p. 351) This may not have met 19th century standards. But there it is, anyway!

Now two on Sib’s face, very late in the day:

“Her face was pinched and grey. Her eyes were burning.” (page 440)
“Her face was as dark and empty as the screen.” (page 448)

Tom should look before he leaps. Go and see what’s there instead of taking his own intuitions at face value.


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Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

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5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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