Monthly Archives: March 2011

How not to do it

Paul Fussell called it the Author’s Big Mistake. John Scalzi calls it the Author Review Implosion. No matter what name you use, it sure ain’t pretty.

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The sociopathic swordsman

“The sword is the soul. Evil mind, evil sword.” Those words, uttered by a foursquare and honorable fencing teacher in late 19th-century Japan, are at the core of The Sword of Doom, a 1965 samurai epic that stands out as much for its relentlessly downbeat tone as its beautifully composed dueling scenes.

The sword and soul belong to Ryunosuke Tsukue, a blank-eyed murderer who starts the film with the casual butchery of a defenseless pilgrim and goes on to dispatch at least a dozen more victims before a climactic bloodbath in which he cuts down what seems like a hundred frenzied opponents.

Though it is far from a satisfying film — there are long stretches of near tedium, and a cat’s cradle of unresolved subplots left dangling by the abrupt ending — The Sword of Doom has moments of greatness. In particular it has a fascinating lead performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Ryunosuke as a man who seems hollowed out by motiveless evil, reinforced by Ryu Kuze’s subtle and intriguing swordfight choreography.

If the first requirement of a great swordfight film is that its action sequences reveal character and advance plot, The Sword of Doom meets that requirement in a most intriguing way. Ryunosuke’s deceptively passive-looking technique is as gripping to watch as Archie Cunningham’s sadistic flash in Rob Roy. Instead of putting on a show of bellowing aggression, Ryunosuke lowers his blade and seems to have his mind on other things, drawing out his opponent and inviting an attack that he answers with blinding speed. It’s a technique that spooks the other swordsmen, who call it the “silent stance,” and even Ryunosuke’s dying father denounces him as a cruel and deceitful man. When Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune), the only swordsman who seems capable of matching it, declines to fight Ryunosuke, it seems less a matter of fear than distaste — he almost seems to think contact with Ryunosuke will taint him, even if he wins.

One of the happiest surprises of watching Sword of Doom was the realization that I’ve been admiring Ryu Kuze’s dueling choreography for years without connecting him to particular films. He mapped out the swordplay in two of Akira Kurosawa’s most celebrated films, Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro, and he played a thug in Kurosawa’s Red Beard. He also choreographed the duels in Chushingura, Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic retelling of the story of the 47 loyal ronin, and ended his career with The Challenge, an above-average action flick released in 1982. That film climaxes with a close-quarter office duel between a master swordfighter and his hopelessly overmatched American opponent, who just barely wins the day through a combination of dirty fighting and blind luck. It’s a bruising, breathtakingly intense clash with interesting similarities to the finale of Sword of Doom, which erupts within the confines of a geisha house — triggered when Ryunosuke realizes that the woman sent to attend him is the granddaughter of the man he killed at the start of the film.

There is a strong sense of the supernatural running through The Sword of Doom, and at times Ryunosuke seems to be acting as the merciless hand of fate: his first attack comes in answer to an old man’s prayer for death, and his next comes during a kendo match in which his opponent (an enraged husband who has learned of his wife’s infidelity with Ryunosuke) makes an illegal attack. At times, Ryunosuke behaves honorably, taking in the widow of the slain husband (and enduring her complaints about their shaky finances), though he satisfies his taste for blood by joining a band of gangster samurai scheming to prevent the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate. This leads to one of the film’s greatest sequences, in which the massed samurai attack a kago they think is bearing a government reformer, only to find it is carrying Shimada, whose Olympian disgust proves almost as lethal as his sword. As Ryunosuke watches the carnage, there’s a brief shot in which his blade seems to trying to slip out of its scabbard by itself, which raises the question of whether the man or the sword is the true master. When Shimada, giving him a sidelong glance, utters the “Evil mind, evil sword” line, Ryunosuke reacts like a man who has been given a glimpse into his own soul — and found hell staring back at him.

The Sword of Doom was meant to launch a  series of films, based on a meandering serialized novel that rambled on for decades in Japanese newspapers. Presumably, the roots of Ryunosuke’s cruelty would have been explored in greater detail, and a long-simmering revenge subplot would have come to a satisfactory conclusion. But I’m not sure further chapters would have been an improvement. Personally, I think the closing slaughterfest, and the freeze-frame that ends the movie, are the perfect conclusion: a man hollowed out by violence and casual savagery, locked in a private torment that may never be broken.

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Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones, a children’s author better known in the U.K. than on this side of the pond, died last night at 76. She had been fighting a long battle with lung cancer, and had herself taken off chemotherapy this past June.

Over here she is best known, if at all, as the author of the book that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle. The movie is quite different from the novel, but Jones praised it to the skies anyway.

She was old enough to have attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford, and in her nonfiction work she was amusingly tough on the cliches of fantasy fiction. Her  “Chrestomanci” series, about a group of enchanters tasked with regulating the use of magic throughout the parallel universes, was frequently compared with the Harry Potter novels, and the popularity of J.K. Rowling helped bring some of her work back into print.

On her Web site you will find a page of advice on writing that is both helpful and entertaining. Here, for example, is how she advises novices to flesh out their characters:

People are even more important. They are the ones that make the story happen. You have to SEE them even more clearly than places. You have to know the shape of them and if their breath smells and how their hair grows. In fact, you have to know twice as much as you put in the story. Sit and think and SEE them before you start. And HEAR them too. Everyone has their own special way of talking. Make them talk like they should – and do remember that people don’t talk proper sentences and that they shout or they mumble, and try to get them doing this. If you have trouble, put a real person in your story. If you have an Aunty May or an Uncle Joe whom you don’t much like, use them as the vampires and they will come out wonderfully real. You won’t need to describe them, just do the way they talk and move. (You don’t need to tell your aunty or your uncle either).

Writers could do a lot worse than to follow that strategy. And readers could do a whole lot worse than get acquainted with the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones.

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Does this mean I have juice with the Library of America?

Now that’s what I like to see — results. I blog about how Kurt Vonnegut deserves to be enshrined with his own Library of America volume, and see what happens. Nice going, guys!

Now let’s see some motion on those other writers I mentioned. Would it speed things along if I reminded everyone that Vonnegut was a big fan of John D. MacDonald? I should hope so.

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Friday finds

Anthony Burgess once said he would have preferred to be thought of as a musician who wrote novels, rather than a novelist who wrote music on the side. This interview with composer-conductor Paul Phillips includes samples of the late author’s symphonic and choral works, and touches on Burgess’ use of musical structures in his novels: e.g., A Clockwork Orange was patterned on the sonata form. It’s all interesting enough to make me hope Phillips’ book about Burgess and his music, A Clockwork Counterpoint, comes out in a much less pricey format.

What’s a nice waterfront property in Iceland going for these days?

A meditation on the wonder of the guitar, sparked by current shows at both the Met and MoMA.

Allison Flood goes forward in time to critique an unreleased and (by her) unread Stephen King novel about going back in time.

Frederik Pohl remembers Ian and Betty Ballantine, the couple who turned Ballantine Books into a paperback publishing giant.

For the day after St. Patrick’s Day, a brief animated biography of the man of the hour.

Brian Malow talks about Hollywood’s intensifying love affair with the works of Philip K. Dick. At the risk of sounding repetitious, I still think Christopher Nolan’s Memento is the film that comes closest to capturing PKD’s tone, even if it isn’t based on one of his stories.

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Good for Wisconsin

With every year, the thesis of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine — that conservatives and Milton Friedman corporate feudalists see  disasters as opportunities to ram through their economic doctrines  gets more timely.   So now that the conservative religion of deregulation has the economy flat on its back, the Republican Tabernacle Choir — which only a few years ago was singing “Deficits Don’t Matter” under Dick Cheney’s baton — is bawling for spending cuts and painting teachers and state employees as the source of all the nation’s ills. As even the New York Times can recognize, these cries of “We’re broke!” from the Republican pews are hollow scare tactics. So godspeed to the demonstrators in Wisconsin, and congratulations to the union members who turned out in force yesterday in Trenton.

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