The Last Samurai is an exceedingly long and complex novel, and I don’t want to try and attempt a full and rigorous reading of it here. But I do think I can say a number of useful and interesting things about the book without going quite that far.
I think it’s worthwhile to consider how Samurai might be a variant of the quest novel. That’s what I’m going to explore right here. It might be a little slow-going at first, but bear with me and I think you’ll find that there is a payoff at the end.
The books starts out with the line, “My father’s father was a Methodist minister,” the first of many indications that the main theme of Samurai will be a quest for the father. Other clues abound: the book’s first half is girded by Ludo’s reading of the Odyssey (the example par excellence of the classical quest story, and a quest for a home, if not a father). Samurai also returns repeatedly to the point in the movie Seven Samurai at which the samurai Mifune presents a false ancestry to his peers. (Indeed, the fatherless character Mifune is mentioned numerous times in this context.) And of course the story of Ludo’s mother, Sibylla, centers around her (mis)conception of Ludo with a man she ultimately deems unworthy, which then causes her much anxiety over hiding his identity from Ludo.
So there are lots of hints that quests and fathers will be important to this novel. I like to think that each of the book’s two halves (Sibylla’s half and Ludo’s half) is involved with a great quest. We can look at Sybilla’s quest in two different ways: an aborted quest to understand her familial roots (we are given glimpses that indicate something bad happened that forced her to flee from her family in the United States, and it seems that the novel begins with a broken-off attempt to understand it); and Sybilla’s other “quest,” the raising of Ludo, which then turns into a long preparation for what ultimately becomes Ludo’s quest to find his father (and which is the quest that takes up the second half of this long novel). In essence, Ludo’s quest swallows up Sibylla’s quest, and the book is really the story of Ludo’s quest, from its deep beginnings to its “completion.” (More on why I scare-quote that later.)
Helen DeWitt has meticulously chopped up The Last Samurai into a system of sections and subsections, and these section breaks form a very useful framework for seeing where the novel is headed. If you look at them as a whole, they provide a sort of road map by which to read the novel’s quests. Here’s my interpretation of them:
To start, let’s look at the first few section breaks. The novel starts with a “Prologue” (Sibylla’s father’s father’s story), which then gives on to section “i.” Section i begins with two quotes: one from Seven Samurai wherein the farmers discuss a futile scheme to kill the bandits, and a long quote from film critic Donald Richie that overviews the plot of Seven Samurai. Section “i” is then divided into one subsection labeled “1” (and titled “Do Samurai Speak Penguin Japanese?”) and a number of unnumbered subsections titled by the name of the book Ludo is currently reading (most frequently, the Odyssey).
What does all this mean? I take that first quote about the farmers and the samurai as indicating Ludo’s nascent dilemma–how to go to town (as the farmers do) and “recruit” a worthy samurai as father? Further sections (e.g. “Penguin Japanese,” books of the Odyssey, etc) point toward the tools he will bring to bear in his quest to find a father. At this point in the novel Ludo is approaching his sixth birthday, and fittingly all of this is very sketchy, and none of the principle characters really see where things are headed. Yet, DeWitt’s makings on the subsections provide some direction, and as things develop they get more precise.
At the end of section i we are given an “Interlude” in which Sibylla tells the story of her mother’s father–like her father’s father, it is a story of stifled genius, indicating another theme and bringing us back to the novel’s beginnings. Then we have section ii, which starts with subsection 1, titled “We Never Get Off at Sloane Square for Nebraska Fried Chicken.” As the subsections mount up (6 in all) we get as subsection titles variants on “We Never . . . ” mixed with numbers counting down from 99 (e.g. 99, 98, 97, 96), which represent the days counting down to Ludo’s sixth birthday. Befitting this mixture of subsection titles, this is where Ludo and Sibylla begin trading narration duties. The “We Nevers . . .” culminate in subsection 6, “We Never Go Anywhere,” which is where Sibylla narrates the night in which she takes Ludo to hear the pianist Yamamoto. In my opinion, this subsection 6 is the thematic and narrative heart of the novel: it gives us the first glimpse of the “genius as adventurer” that will obsess Ludo as he grows older; it also gives us our first look at the “last samurai”; and it verges into Ludo’s sixth birthday, a major scene told from both Ludo’s and Sibylla’s perspectives in which the seeds of the search for the father are clearly planted. Notably, in Sibylla’s telling the birthday scene culminates with a viewing of the part of Seven Samurai in which Mifune claims his false paternity, which causes Sibylla to have the epiphany that she has given Ludo “a total of 17 role models” (8 characters, 8 actors, plus Kurosawa).
After section ii this we have sections “iii” and “iv,” which narrate, respectively, Ludo’s failed schooling and the histories of various samurai/genius adventurers/father figures that inform the kind of man Ludo will go looking for in the book’s final section, “v.” Notably, section iii opens with another quote from the film critic Donald Richie, this one about Kurosawa’s film Sugata Sanshiro, which Richie declares “one might expect . . . to end with some kind of statement that he has at last grown-up . . .” The film in fact doesn’t, which is a point DeWitt harps on. This is the second time such a quote has been at the front of a section break, and it both foreshadows The Last Samurai’s own ending as well as providing the main question we should be thinking about as Ludo grows up: just what is he learning with his prodigious brain-power, what is wrong with the idea of achievement as commonly construed, and what exactly has Ludo achieved at novel’s end?
That’s the end of my look at the layout of Last Samurai. Now I’d like to say a few words about Last Samurai in relationship to the quest story. (And I hoped the foregoing has proven to you that this is a variant o the quest story.)
The concept of quest story has been usefully divided into classic and modern versions–the Odyssey is the best example of the classic quest, where the hero ventures out, defeats some enemy, end eventually makes it back home. The modern quest might be typified by Kafka’s The Castle, where the hero’s quest ultimately turns into the realization that an ending will be endlessly deferred.
Seven Samurai strikes me as combining both of these visions of the quest into a beautiful symmetrically unified whole: the farmers represent the classical quest, as they venture out, recruit the samurai to defeat their enemy, and than are shown happily planting crops the next spring, their enemy defeated and their quest brought to a conclusive end. By contrast, the samurai embody the modern quest: as they triumph over the bandits only to fight another day, and at film’s end one gets the sense that no matter how many triumphs they win, it will always be only to fight another day.
I would argue that The Last Samurai also fuses the classical and the modern quests, albeit in a much more lopsided way than Seven Samurai (with a decided preference to the modern). Certainly Ludo’s best role models embody the modern quest (for example, Red Devlin, whose adventures only end in suicide); similarly Ludo’s quest for a father is a modern quest; even Sibylla (who seems to have indefinitely abandoned her quest) strikes me as a modern hero. Yet there are indications of the classical quest–there is the Odyssey, the first book that Ludo reads, and the Circle Line that Sibylla and Ludo endlessly ride brings to mind the tidy conclusion of the classical quest (albeit, also the futile nature of the modern quest).
Of course, this is only the barest skeleton of what is a very complex book. What makes The Last Samurai very rewarding is how each of the components I just described (plus many I have not) feel like their own idiosyncratic, particular narratives. They each join together to unify into a satisfying work along the lines of what I’ve just laid out here, yet they are each also their own objects, and so they provide a very rich field for individual readings. This is indeed a very rich and complex book, a book that stands as a successful work of art.