Musashi and the Flies

You Don’t Have to Draw a Sword to Prove Your Swordsmanship

I had forgotten the movie in which this scene took place until I viewed the DVD this morning. The great masterless samurai, Musashi Miyamoto (played by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune), is holed up in a cheap inn in which a loud group of gamblers was partying. When Musashi’s disciple, Jotaro, goes out and tells them to shut up, they decide to teach Musashi a lesson. They charge up he stairs to his room, where Musashi is calmly eating a dish of noodles with his chopsticks. He is not much bothered by the gamblers, but he is irritated by the flies buzzing around him and his meal. Without sparing a glance elsewhere, he reaches out with his chopsticks and kills several flies, one after the other. The gamblers are awestruck at Musashi’s demonstration of icy control and quietly back out of his room. In fact, their ringleader, Kumogoro, insists on becoming Musashi’s disciple.

The film is Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), the third film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy.

Although the Inagaki trilogy is by no means the greatest of samurai films, I have so many happy memories of seeing the films that I have invested them with perhaps more merit than they deserve. They are, in fact, quite good—particularly at influencing a 21-year-old who had just arrived in Los Angeles and found the whole genre congenial to him.

Samurai Swords

Toshiro Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

The above scene is an evocative moment in Musashi Miyamoto (1954), the first film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. Musashi, heretofore called Takezo, has been imprisoned in Himeji Castle by the wily (and wise) Buddhist priest Takuan for three years. He has just stepped out of the castle for the first time and takes a look back at the walls that held him while he learned to tame his wild impulses.

I first saw Inagaki’s trilogy at a seminal point in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles to start studying film history and criticism at UCLA. Before my classes  began in January 1967, the Toho La Brea theater began screening Musashi Miyamoto. In the following months, Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)—the remaining films of the trilogy—were to be shown. Although I had seen many films at Dartmouth College, I was just starting to get into the whole jidai-geki genre.

Also, I fell in love with Kaoru Yachigusa, the perennially frustrated love interest in the trilogy.

In fact, I got so much into it that, in June, I moved to an apartment on Mississippi Avenue, right in the heart of the Sawtelle Japanese-American neighborhood. At that time, there were two Japanese restaurants around the corner, the O-Sho and the Futaba Grill, where I frequently dined, learning how to tame those unruly chopsticks. My ignorance was still pretty much in evidence: I took the squares of tofu in my miso shiru soup to be shark’s fin.

Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu, the Love Interest in the Trilogy

Before long, I was going with my film friends to all five Japanese movie theaters in Los Angeles: Not only he Toho LaBrea, but the Kabuki (Shochiku Studio) and Kokusai (Daiei Studio) near Adams and Crenshaw, and the Sho Tokyo (Daiei Studio) and Linda Lea (Tohei Studio). Now all five theaters are gone, but back then, I collaborated with two of my friends (Alain Silver and Jim Ursini) in a column for The UCLA Daily Bruin entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which commemorated not only the Japanese theaters, but some of he others. We wrote under the collective pseudonym of Tarnmoor.

The Criterion Collection has released DVD and Blue-Ray editions of the Samurai trilogy, which are well worth your while.

“This Must Be Thursday”

The Richard Riordan Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles

The entire quote is from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.” And that’s the way I felt when I was working full time in an accounting office. I never did get along very well with my boss (nobody could), so when he cut me back to two days a week, I saw that as an opportunity. I said, “Okay, I’ll work on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Those were days when our late tax manager worked, so my boss couldn’t use me as a highly unqualified ax manager, which he was not above doing.

One Thursday in June 2016, I took the Expo Line downtown and hung out at the Central Library on Fifth Street. Just by chance, I noticed that there was a regular Mindful Meditation session conducted by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), and I attended.  And I’ve been attending ever since. I read for a couple of hours in the Literature and Fiction Department on the top floor, and usually check out a couple of books. Then I go to Meeting Room A on the ground floor where the sessions are held.

In more ways than one, the Central Library has become a part of my life. I feel energized by these meditation sessions. Afterwards, I go for lunch either to the Grand Central Market on Hill Street, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, or Olvera Street. Then I take the Big Blue Bus R10 freeway flier back home.

So now I can say I get the hang of Thursdays. It’s one of my favorite days of the week. That leaves Mondays and Wednesdays for doctors’ appointments and miscellaneous explorations of this gigantic city of which I am becoming more of a part as time passes.

 

Alienation Effect

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Today was a strange day. It was beastly hot and humid, with a Mexican Monsoon effect. Having no air conditioning in our apartment—and living in an area that regularly gets hit by power blackouts—Martine and I decided to go to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.  The lobby was crowded with young tourist couples seeing the displays about American Horror Story, a series on FX with which I was previously unacquainted. These guys (and their women) were heavily tattooed, wore their baseball hats backwards, did not know to flush toilets, and led with their smart phones taking pictures of everything in sight.

I suddenly felt old. Here I was with a large group of young people that made me feel alienated. And here I was going to see a couple of Playhouse 90 episodes from 1959. I might has well have been talking in Armenian to a group of prairie dogs. Did I feel bad about that? In a way I did, though I would not have considered going far to seek common ground with them: The gulf between me and them yawned as big as the Grand Canyon.

But I felt delighted with the Playhouse 90 episodes I saw, shot in consecutive weeks. The first was “The Town That Turned to Dust,” written and introduced by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer. The story was about a lynching in a small Texas border town called Dempseyville of a Mexican youth who was accused by William Shatner, as the local dry goods merchant, of beating up his wife Fay Spain and robbing the store. The sheriff who is powerless to prevent the lynching is Rod Steiger, in a powerful role, with James Gregory as a visiting newspaperman.

The other was a dramatization of “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Ryan as Gatsby and Jeanne Crain as Daisy May Buchanan. Rod Taylor was excellent as Nick Carraway. Rod Serling introduced the episode, which was directed by Franklin Schaffner.

Although I do not watch much (if any) current television, I have a great deal of love and respect for the early days of the medium. Back at the beginning, they not only knew how to produce superlative entertainment, but used people who knew how to act, not just nod their heads meaningfully.

Discovering the Long Scroll

Excerpt from the Long Scroll of Sesshū Tōyō

For the first time in my life, I away away from home, alone. I was seventeen years old when I found myself at Dartmouth College. The only person I knew from before was Frank Opaskar, with whom I had gone to Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. But I quickly found myself becoming estranged from Frank because of his anxiety about his complexion. I had the top bunk in our dorm room, and Frank insisted in smearing himself with Noxzema. Every night, I was wafted into sleep by the medicated stench of his facial preparation.

Naturally, I was desperate to lift my mind from the humdrum life of study and Noxzema. Fortunately, I found several ways of escape. One of them was art….

In my first year at Dartmouth, the Hopkins Center for the Arts opened. One of the first shows in the art gallery was of the Long Landscape Scroll by Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), a Zen Buddhist master whose art work made me feel at home. I don’t know why: I had had no previous exposure in my Catholic education to Zen ink and wash paintings of the Muromachi school.

But what I saw was magical. It was a landscape of mists and rocks and water in which pilgrims were trekking from one place to another. I loved it at once. Did I see a sudden paradigm of my own life, wrenched from a close Hungarian family into the wide world? I followed the scroll from left to right—not just once, but many times in numerous visits while the exhibit lasted.

If you want to see what I saw, you can see an image by clicking here. Scroll about a third of the way down and scroll slowly to the right. The image doesn’t allow you to get close, but you get the general idea. I bought a copy of the scroll from Tuttle, the Japanese-American publishing house then located in nearby Rutland, Vermont.

You can say it was Sesshū Tōyō  who introduced me to Zen Buddhism. It was a splendid introduction.

A Yankee Way of Knowledge?

Carlos Castaneda’s First Don Juan Book

In the 1970s I was heavily influenced by the works of Carlos Castaneda based on the teachings of a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan Matus. The first book, whose cover is shown above, hit me between the eyes. And for years afterwards, I was kept in a high state of excitation by the books that followed. Although I was deeply influenced by the teachings described by Castaneda, one thing I was not affected by was the taking of mescaline, which played a major part in the teachings.

At the time, I considered myself lucky to be alive. In 1966 I had major brain surgery (a pituitary tumor, or chromophobe adenoma); and I knew I had to take steroids as long as I lived, as my body no longer produced any. So taking mescaline, LSD, cocaine, psilocybin, opium, and what not were strictly out of the question. (I did, however, take marijuana socially, especially in the form of brownies—smoking always made me go into asthmatic spasms.) But, other than that damnable mescaline, the concepts that Castaneda came up with were so damned brilliant that I was in thrall.

This evening, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Peter about those days. It has been years since I even thought about Castaneda. Now I want to re-read his books, which I still have on my back shelves, just to reacquaint myself with the young man that was me some forty plus years ago.

Carlos was actually born in Cajamarca, Peru, and came to this country in the early 1950s, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1957. As critics started looking at his books as works of fiction, it became evident that he had done some cross-cultural comparisons. In place of the Amazonian tribes that take ayahuasca to produce visions, he set his works among the Yaqui Indians of Northern Mexico. Unfortunately, he used Spanish terms that were not common among the Yaqui, arousing suspicions.

There is an anecdote about a patient describing his life to a psychiatrist, who keeps nodding his head and saying, “That’s very interesting!” Finally, the patient gets angry and says, “Well, that’s all a pack of lies which I just made up. What do you think of that?” The psychiatrist does not miss a beat: “That’s even MORE interesting!” That, in the end, is my reaction to Castaneda. I think there are some fascinating truths to be found in his books, along with some things that were just made up.

I will return to the subject as I re-read his books.

 

My Periodicals

The New York Review of Books (Semi-Monthly)

There are four periodicals to which I subscribe which I actually read. They are, in descending order of importance to me:

  • The New York Review of Books, a semimonthly on politics with book and art reviews.
  • The New Yorker, a weekly that has seen better days, but still publishes at least one or two great essays a month.
  • Gilbert, the monthly publication of the American Chesterton Society.
  • Chess Life, a monthly which I scan and about which I entertain a pipe dream of being able to read with the attention it deserves.

The one that is probably least familiar to most readers is Gilbert. Each issue has a couple of rare essays by G. K. Chesterton and other articles on Catholicism and distributism, Chesterton’s pet economic policy that is described at length in several of his books.

A Recent Issue of Chess Life Featuring U.S. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura

I’ve always had this dream of being able to take the time to analyze grandmaster-level chess games intelligently. It takes intense work, and if in public, one is likely to be interrupted by someone who wants to play chess with you. (I would prefer to avoid playing chess with strangers—too much ego involved!)  I don’t actually want to be able to play chess well as much as I want to develop better analytical skills. At my age, I don’t think I can become a much better chess player than I already am, but it is fun to see the decision-making skills of people like Hikaru Nakamura. It’s actually more of an aesthetic impulse on my part.

I also have a library of books with annotated chess games by the great masters. Whether I will ever be able to spend any time doing this remains to be seen. Some people go for golf or fishing. Fior me, it’s chess.