The Barefoot Serpent

Created by: Scott Morse

ISBN: 1891830376 (Amazon)

Pages: 128

The Barefoot Serpent

“I know now what he must have been feeling. He was a brother whom I loved very much and I have never gotten over feeling his loss.”—Akira Kurosawa, regarding his elder brother Heigo.

The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse

I have never personally experienced a close and permanent personal loss. My whole apprehension of such experiences derives from film and literature.11I find song too unwieldy and inaccessible to be a trustworthy source. The poetry of verse backed by the beauty and power of music is so hyperbolic that it seems designed wholly for those already in like circumstances. And so I prefer books and film, which are easier to parse down to the tangible, the believable. Certainly I have lost relatives to the grave—though none of tremendous personal meaning. I have been devastated by the ends of romantic affairs, but even the close of these relationships were tempered by the knowledge that so long as we both still lived, breaches could be shored up and repairs might allow friendship to remain. I was, at one point, led to believe that a close friend from elementary, junior high, and high schools had perished, but it had been more than a decade since our friendship had waned—and then he revealed that he wasn’t dead at all, which took any remaining sting from the news.

The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse

Still, I’m getting older and the odds say that if it isn’t me first, I will with certainty lose those close to me to the permanence of the soil. But as the future is not yet, I still have no real knowledge of this kind of loss—and for that reason, I’m grateful to books that offer a peek behind such a terrible curtain. Not books like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones where the whole object of a character’s end is to sell the plot forward, paying toll at the gates of reader interest—those offer no insight, only titillation. Stories like Jimmy Corrigan or the rending Three Shadows  or even possibly Twin Spica are among those that truly let you walk for a time in another’s shoes. They are stories that prompt you to experience (for even a moment22Of course, a good argument could be made that to experience such things for merely a moment is not to experience them at all. I would want to agree but I think I’d be happier to say that the momentary experience can give taste to something of the reality without bringing about perfect empathy, which is impossible.) something deeply foreign, if you are fortunate enough that this kind of story should still be entirely foreign. And Scott Morse’s Barefoot Serpent joins the muster of stories that aim to treat this trouble for what it is.

The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse

Morse follows a very rough chiasmic structure here, bookending his central story with another and setting his climax in the book’s center. The Barefoot Serpent begins and ends with a kind of children’s picture-book adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s biography. Between these two bookends about a well-regarded Japanese filmmaker of the twentieth century, Morse explores the aftermath of a boy’s death and the toll it takes on his family, particularly upon his little sister. One might be tempted to read this as a story about Kurosawa, informed by an episode concerning a little girl, which makes Kurosawa’s experience from nearly eighty years ago33As The Barefoot Serpent was originally published in 2003, it was released seventy years after Kurosawa’s brother Heigo committed suicide a little more tangible to the contemporary reader. And that may be the case. I, however, am more persuaded that it is Kurosawa’s story that provides the frame for what comes between. This is, after all, a common purpose for the chiasmus—to lead up to a climax that occurs in the narrative center and then back away from it in a manner that will draw attention to the climax and inform our reading of it. I’ll deal with this more explicitly in an end note, but for now, let it suffice that I believe Morse intends us to read this as a human story that merely looks to Kurosawa for thematic purpose.

Morse’s books are always a pleasure to revel in for their artistry. He includes dialogue here, but keeps it off-panel and out of the way, allowing his images to breathe. His characters are cartoony in that way that permits them to be invested with great personality. His illustration technique gives him the opportunity to craft even supporting characters who possess the illusion of well-rounded characterization despite perhaps only being given a single line of dialogue.

The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse

The use of colour, as well, is a powerful device. The two Kurosawa bookends are printed in oversaturated hues and tones on glossy paper and feature sometimes bombastic, fragmented imagery—often more iconic than narrative. The central story, however, is printed on a cheaper matte paper and isn’t even really black-and-white. Instead, the girl’s episode in bountiful, colourful Hawaii is rendered in a smudge of greys. Even the lightest and darkest portions of her pages are at strongest an off-white grey and an off-black grey. When the girl first pulls a prescription bottle from her bag, it’s easy to imagine that pharmaceuticals may be the cause of her story’s dreamlike haze. I’ll leave the reader to find her own interpretation of Morse’s purpose in this kind of colour schematic and simply report that I think it works wonderfully.

As a story, I likewise think The Barefoot Serpent acquits itself admirably. At a terse 128 pages it goes by rather quickly, but if the reader cares to linger I believe he’ll be rewarded by its sweetness and calamity. I have never experienced permanent personal loss of deep significance and I don’t expect reading a book like this will prepare me. But I do feel I’m better off for having read it. It’s an engaging, playful, thoughtful, and hopeful work—one of which I believe Kurosawa would approve.

The Barefoot Serpent by Scott Morse

An End Note

If I have on thing against The Barefoot Serpent, it’s that Morse ends the book with an afterward in which he explicitly spells out a fair number of his influences and intentionalities. This book is, of course, steeped in thematic resemblances to the works and ideology of Kurosawa, which is one of the things I appreciated—having gone through a minor infatuation with the man’s films in the late-‘90s.

The thing is: I wanted some time to sit and consider, to contemplate Morse’s work and intentions. I wanted to be able to pick up on his references myself rather than have them pointed out to me. My wife, on the other hand, has never seen a Kurosawa film44Demonstrating that I have been an awful husband to her. and found the immediate excursion into Morse’s tribute to the director fascinating and helpful and not the least part intrusive.

Another End Note

This one kind of does what I just chastised Morse for (i.e. it talks perhaps too explicitly about What’s Going On). So skip it maybe if you haven’t yet read The Barefoot Serpent unless you don’t care. In which case: sally forth.

If we were to outline The Barefoot Serpent, it might look like this:

A. Kurosawa’s young life

  • Youth
  • Low point
  • High point
B. Family introduced

C. Family crises

  • Intro of ghosts
  • Girl’s crisis journey
  • Mother’s crisis journey
  • Father’s crisis journey
D. Climax at pool

C′. Family catharsis

  • Girl’s resolution
  • Mother’s resolution
  • Father’s resolution
  • Outro of ghosts
B′. Family resolves

A′. Kurosawa’s later life

  • High point
  • Low point
  • Youth

As I mentioned earlier, while the chiasmic structure is present, it’s not rigid. I don’t believe I’m reading the structure into the book, but interpretation is obviously subjective. In any case, applying a common form of interpretation here, point D would be the story climax (which seems to be the case) and everything that emerges afterward is a reflection of what came before. As introduction to the chiasmus, the Kurosawa biography gives us a framework with which to ascertain hope and rejuvenation for Morse’s characters—themes intimate to both Kurosawa’s works and his own life.



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