Luke Winikates

20 July 2013

I'll bet if you met Ben Franklin, you wouldn't understand a word he said.

I started watching Kagemusha on Netflix the other night. Kagemusha is a late Kurosawa movie, one of the samurai ones. It’s in color, and unlike a lot of the other Kurosawa samurai movies, it doesn’t seem to pull from American westerns (like Yojimbo or Seven Samurai) or from Shakespeare (like Ran or Throne of Blood). Instead it’s very specific about where it’s set in real Japanese history– the plot revolves around Takeda Shingen, Oda Nobunaga, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. So it’s a Japanese story told in a Japanese form, with fewer obvious references to non-Japanese sources.

I find samurai movies pretty hard to understand. It’s hard to say if “samurai Japanese” in movies is anything close to how samurai would have spoken in real 16th-century Japan. But in any case, samurai in Kurosawa’s movies speak in a put-on, old-fashioned Japanese that usually makes more sense to me when I’ve seen the subtitles and can reverse-engineer the characters for what’s just been said.

I just started reading a book by Amino Yoshihiko, called Rethinking Japanese History. In the foreword, Amino mentions being surprised by his high school students’ unfamiliarity with words like ‘rice seedling’ or ‘leper’. He concludes that

What was considered common knowledge from the Edo period through the Meiji, Taisho, and into the early years following World War II is now almost incomprehensible.

This is a familiar sensation. For one, I’m hoping it partially exonerates me for my confusion trying to listen to Kagemusha’s dialogue and comprehend it. It’s a movie set in a different time, written by and for a generation that had a diminishing but still much stronger understanding of Japan’s previous era than I could. Not only am I not Japanese, but Kurosawa and I are from opposite sides of Japan’s 1960s.

But it also made me think about the difficulty we face reading things written in our own language hundreds of years ago. Shakespeare is incomprehensible without footnotes (it’s a testament to the quality of the writing that some of the jokes still hold up after they’ve been meticulously explained by a professorial footnote.)

There’s also Mason & Dixon. I read it 10 years ago, probably. It’s set just before the American revolution, written in an affected period style. In my case, it took about 100 pages if not more for me to really adjust to the weirdness of the writing.

This Christmastide of 1786, with the War settled and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and small, go aching on, not ev’ry one commemorated,– nor, too often, even recounted. Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose further shores have so vanish’d behind curtains of ice-fog that the City today might be an Isle upon an Ocean.

It’s mostly a wacky adventure about friendship. But I think part of the point of the style – and who’s to say if it’s any more authentic than Kurosawa samurai Japanese– part of the point of the confusing language is to remind an American reader just how far removed we are from the experience of the people who lived in America before it was the United States.

We often pretend to know the minds of our ancestors. But in fact we would probably struggle immensely just to carry on a conversation.