“Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.”
Ran is a tapestry of guilt, ruthlessness and chaos. Going even further than he had with Throne of Blood, Kurosawa spells out a world of recurring pain and ceaseless ruination; one could even call it decadent in this respect. While vouchsafed in the knowledge that Cobweb Castle is a place that came and went, there is no such silver lining here. We are presented with a steady cadence toward hell-on-earth. Even the Buddhist relic that smiles on Tsurumaru’s family falls off a precipice like so much paper, its icon of the Amitabha weeping against the dying sun becoming the film’s closing image. This is the last of so many setting suns that tend toward apocalypse.
Though Kurosawa has stated that he already began his screenplay before he noticed any similarities with Shakespeare, eventually King Lear would form the narrative skeleton. The primary idea, or the generative one, began with the legend of Monotari Mori, a feudal relic that emphasizes loyalty and filial piety. Indeed, Kurosawa sought to invert this myth by having sons rebel against their aging father, beginning with a powerful metaphor that was culled from the same family legends and made its way into the finished film: the fictional Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) demonstrates to his three sons (Taro, Jiro and Saburo1) the fragility of a single arrow and the resilience of three fastened together, symbolic of each son who will share their father’s power together upon his abdication. In a departure from the mythos, Kurosawa has the youngest son, Saburo, break the three arrows on his knee. This turns out to be the loyal son (or Cordelia in King Lear); he breaks the arrows not because he is dissatisfied with having to share power, but because he finds his father’s abdication rash and has reservations about the loyalty of his older brothers.
Kurosawa, as he had done with “Macbeth”, elides and intensifies his source material, reshaping “King Lear” into the story of a man whose rise to power is predicated on the horror inflicted against others and whose past savagery now seeks to consume him. This theme is pronounced and intensified by the characters of Lady Kaede, Lady Sue and her brother Tsurumaru; while each approximates a character from the play or reenacts symbolic events from it, they are all swept up into Kurosawa’s singular (re)configuration. Lady Kaede was raised in First Castle, but left to marry Taro; Hidetora, utilizing the temporary peace of the family alliance to his advantage, sacked the castle, killing all of Kaede’s male relatives in the process. Her revenge is already set in motion through her marriage to Taro—when Hidetora abdicates power, she persuades Taro to turn he and his retinue away; subsequently, she contrives the assassination of her husband, persuades Jiro to replace him and attempts to extinguish Lady Sue, Jiro’s wife. Lady Sue similarly saw the decimation of her clan by Hidetora after her marriage to Jiro. Sue’s Buddhist calm and willingness to forgive the aged Lord’s transgressions compounds his feelings of guilt, as does the equanimity of her brother Tsurumaru, who had his eyes personally gouged out by Hidetora in exchange for his life.
In other ways, Ran is more like a narrative inversion of Throne of Blood than a careful adaptation of King Lear. Hidetora is like the ruler deposed by Wishizu in that film, or the ruler before that ruler; the difference being that Hidetora bears witness to his own downfall and is forced to relive his crimes as he wanders in living purgatory. Hidetora retraces the path trodden by Wishizu from first castle to third, in Ran the first castle being the one that was once racked by Hidetora on his rise to power and the former stead of the manipulative Lady Kaede. The narrative circularity here seems to be ceaseless, as are comparisons between the two films, yet the basic construction of Throne of Blood is cyclical while Ran slopes downward from high to low. It begins on a lush mountain peak, descends to the castle, then the ugly din of battle and finally the valley of the dead.
Hidetora’s life is saved due to the misplacement of his short sword, the only tool that would guarantee him an honorable excursion to the afterlife. But he dies metaphorically in that castle with flaming arrows and rifle shot exploding around him, unable to end his own life or to have someone else end it. Hidetora’s forgetfulness is a sign among a multitude of signs that he has been unmanned as a warrior-king. His senility is first apparent when he fails to see the designs of his older sons or guess the motives of the youngest; Saburo remonstrates him by saying,
“What kind of world do we live in? One barren of loyalty and feeling… You spilled an ocean of blood. You showed no mercy, no pity. We too are children of this age… weaned on strife and chaos. We are your sons, yet you count on our fidelity. In my eyes, that makes you a fool. A senile old fool!”
When the oldest son turns away Hidetora’s entourage (the last physical vestige of his former status), his comical attendant Kyoami (Pîtâ, who first made a name for himself as the reverse-Oedipal transvestite in 1969’s Funeral Parade of Roses) taunts his sudden decline. Elsewhere, Kyoami spends much of the film deriding his master’s passage into unmeaning as well as echoing Saburo’s claim about his rise to power and misplaced allegiances: “A serpent’s egg is white and pure. A bird’s is speckled and soiled. The bird left the speckled egg for the white. The egg cracks; out comes a snake. The bird is gobbled by the snake. Stupid bird!”
The entire arc of Hidetora’s tale, reinforced by a handful of characters who have been affected for the worse by him, seems to amount to a dialectic that looks something like this: the obsolescence and loss of meaning of a man whose eyes have been opened to the unkindness of a world that he has participated in shaping and nurturing. This is another departure from Shakespeare’s play and most readily anticipated by another film adaptation of King Lear by director Peter Brook: “The Shakespeare play for Brook is less about the fate of royal power than about the vulnerable existence of an individual, irrespective of social position, in danger of becoming and meaning nothing.”2
Kurosawa is a director unusually interested in the specific. He finds something definite, a corollary with actuality that he can take and manipulate with film grammar. Without this corollary he finds he has little interest in what is being filmed. He has to begin with the ostensibly real and work toward a narrative using film technique. Most storytellers begin with narrative and feel belabored if they have to stop and render something essential to its continuity. He begins with detail, stuff—a world in other words—and shapes its presentation to accord with story ideas. Often the way a story is told will be determined solely by what means are at his disposal to record a given unit of it.
With Ran this feels less so. Though he’s able to include specifics in a didactic script, it is plain that he’s working backwards. Detail here is metaphor and signifier; there is a gap between these concrete units and their usual meaning. They illustrate or anticipate the story and its characters, rather than being encountered by the characters. This is a change in his approach that turned many critics off of this film then and now. Kurosawa, they say, is not a pedant; his concerns are human. Indeed, this film may be very close to post-human, coming from a director who is usually more concerned with the fleeting present or the state of being.
The above criticism usually goes hand-in-hand with the jab that Ran lacks the pathos of Shakespeare’s play. Obviously, it has its distances. Kurosawa, continuing a trend that began perhaps with The Lower Depths and continued with his previous film Kagemusha, keeps an ironic distance between audience and subject. He has stated that he wanted this film to capture the perspective of the gods looking down from heaven upon human action, a thesis confirmed at the finale when Tango remarks that the gods are weeping at the things men do to themselves and each other. What the director is after is allegory and a grand imitative representation of human nature; modern cinema tends more toward the special revealing the universal, but Kurosawa begins here with the general in search of the intimate. It’s an approach that may not always work, but like any worthy art the viewer is being asked to shed something, to let their guard down so that magic can work its way.
1 The names of the three sons are the Japanese for ‘first son’ (Taro), ‘second son’ (Jiro) and ‘third son’ (Saburo), again emphasizing that Hidetora’s political priorities and his desire for a successor took precedence over actual, meaningful relationships with his family.
2 from “Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema” by James Goodwin, pg. 198.