Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, and William Shakespeare, 1985

An elderly warlord in 16th-century Japan divides his turf up among his three sons, thinking he can then retire to a life of ease while retaining the privileges of a great lord. The youngest son protests that this is a stupid idea that will lead to a war, and is banished for his effrontery. Sure enough, however, the sons go to war, the father goes mad, and everyone dies. That is to say, it is an adaptation of King Lear.

This is easily one of the most visually magnificent films I have ever seen. When I was at the library looking for a movie to watch I found three copies of this on DVD, each in a different case. Two of the packages were quite dull; the third looked like the image at the top right corner of this page. Naturally I picked that one. Much to my delight, it's not just a random inspiration on the part of the graphic designer: it's emblematic of the film! The three sons are color-coded — yellow for Taro, red for Jiro, blue for Saburo — and while I don't like violence no matter how it's presented, the sight of hundreds of color-coded flags fluttering as the different armies swept across glorious landscapes and into formations was something to behold. Apparently it won an Oscar for costumes; since this is the first movie that has ever made me think, "Wow, look at those clothes! They're gorgeous!", I give that choice a thumbs-up.

I also thought that the changes to the story were an improvement. More on that below.

I took a Shakespeare class in which the professor, Stephen Booth, asked, "Why are Shakespeare's plays among the most admired wrought objects in history?" We can toss out concept, because Shakespeare borrowed his stories from previously published material instead of inventing his own; King Lear is taken from a story in Holinshed's Chronicles. How about plot — is Shakespeare famed for his innovative arrangement of incidents? Nah, not really. Shakespeare's fame rests primarily on theme — observations on human nature, the meaning of life, the ethics of thumb-biting, etc. — and on language.

Prof. Booth thought language was far and away the most important aspect of Shakespeare's work; as far as he was concerned, the plays were essentially tissues of linguistic and ideational rhymes, and that was why people enjoyed them. (Yeah, a pure aesthetician at Berkeley. Go figure.) However, we start running into contradictions when we throw in one extra fact: Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English and it is very difficult for even a very intelligent modern audience to understand what the hell he is saying. Sure, we can get the gist. But let's be serious. Here are the first two lines of King Lear:

KENT: I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
GLOUCESTER: It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most, for equalities are so weigh'd that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.

Go ahead and tell me you effortlessly absorbed that. I will laugh at you. Sure, it's easy to get the gist: it seems that we have a king who's dividing his kingdom between some dukes. But this is not our language. "Affected" doesn't mean "had affection for" anymore. And starting with the word "equalities," I'm totally lost as a listener; as a reader, I'm going to have to puzzle over that for a while and then break out the dictionary to find out what a moiety is. I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that almost every other modern English speaker is in the same situation. Thus, to buy Prof. Booth's theory, you have to assume that people enjoy Shakespeare because they are unconsciously registering language that they do not consciously understand. I think that's pretty far-fetched. That leaves us with two possibilities. Either people enjoy Shakespeare for some other reason, likely to do with theme — and I'll get to that in a moment — or else, as I would contend, they do not actually enjoy Shakespeare all that much.

Again, let's be serious. Who really loves Shakespeare? Not in the sense of "I enjoy seeing Shakespeare plays" or even "I acknowledge Shakespeare as the greatest figure in the history of English literature," but in the sense of "Shakespeare is my favorite writer"? I don't mean this in a highbrow vs. lowbrow "if Shakespeare is so great why does Dan Brown sell better" way. I mean that I've heard people proselytize on behalf of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison; I've overheard people in bookstores anxious to find the latest by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon and Barbara Kingsolver; I've seen Okcupid profiles cite Chuck Palahniuk and Vladimir Nabokov and George Orwell as favorites; I've had people recommend that I read stuff by Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami. But Shakespeare never comes up. Why would he? He's not from the 20th or 21st century, or even the 19th; his work is 400 years old, written in a foreign language, in what is today a niche medium (and that goes whether we're talking about poetry or stage drama). Shakespeare is not read today; he is studied. And to the academics who study him the most intensively, yes, the language yields all manner of riches. But making high school students study Shakespeare is as silly as having them study Chaucer. Actually putting on a production of Shakespeare in the original Elizabethan dialect is equally absurd. You might as well watch Ran without the subtitles. You'll still get the gist of it, though admittedly the strings of incomprehensible syllables will not be studded with famous quotes.

I can't tell you whether Ran is in modern Japanese or in 16th-century Japanese. I can't tell you whether it's poetic or not. I can tell you that it is weird to see an angry man in full battle armor shouting furiously at the top of his lungs and see philosophical musings on the nature of the divine pop up at the bottom of the screen. The subtitles, at least, are modern and unmemorably phrased; they ain't Shakespeare, that's for sure. So if Shakespeare borrowed the premise of King Lear, and if his language wasn't used, what was his contribution? Theme? Did Kurosawa drop Shakespeare's timeless human truths into his movie?

No, because there are no such things. You've probably heard of "Shakespeare in the Bush", in which an anthropologist tries to prove that Shakespeare is not peculiarly English but rather universal by telling the tale of Hamlet to the Tiv in West Africa; she soon discovers that the task is hopeless, since the Tiv have never heard of ghosts, don't believe in madness or drowning, think that a widow should marry her brother-in-law posthaste, have no concept of sin and prayer and heaven and hell... and so on. Similar issues come into play when transposing Lear to feudal Japan. For instance, take one of the most famous elements of Lear, the opening scene in which Lear tells his daughters that whoever loves him most will get the biggest inheritance, and the honest daughter Cordelia refuses to flatter him and therefore gets nothing. Again: she proves her integrity by refusing to flatter him. How can this theme resonate in a language in which flattery is part of the grammar? It's kind of hard to translate "I will not flatter you" into a language that renders that sentence as "I, who suck, will not flatter you, who rule." Kurosawa dispenses with the whole issue by making the transgression of the youngest not failure to flatter, but failure to hold his tongue about the shortsightedness of the warlord's plan.

I kind of sighed to myself when I discovered that Kurosawa had changed King Lear's daughters into the warlord Hidetora's sons, but it turns out that Kurosawa is doing more interesting work with gender than Shakespeare does. Unlike Lear, Ran has backstory: Hidetora was a brutal monster whose modus operandi before growing old was to burn down neighboring castles and kill everyone who lived inside — except that occasionally he would spare a girl to marry one of his sons. This is actually a fairly common practice — there's a lot of it in the Old Testament — but it kinda makes you have to scratch your head. I'm reading a book right now that talks about how up until very recently historians have not really considered the natives' motivations in their behavior toward European settlers of the Americas, or seemingly even been aware that the natives had motivations; in Ran, the warlord's clan seems to have a similar blind spot. The idea of female agency is so alien to these people that they don't stop to reflect that hey, this girl whose family we just slaughtered in front of her will probably nurse a lifelong hatred of us, huh? It doesn't even occur to them that maybe she'll do something about it instead of placidly giving birth to and raising the grandchildren of the man who killed all her relatives — even at the end, when they tell one of these daughters-in-law that she's been wrecking everything, they're all really surprised when she reveals that she's been doing it on purpose.

It's very interesting: the daughter-in-law, Lady Kaede, is very much an Iago figure, destroying the lives of everyone around her through clever manipulation. I suppose that her counterpart in Lear would be the villainous bastard Edmund. But in a sense she's the most sympathetic character in the film. On the flip side, we have the helpless, elderly protagonist stumbling around weeping over the death of his children — but as intrinsically sad as this is, it's hard to feel especially bad for him when we're essentially dealing with Saddam Hussein crying over Uday and Qusay. As faithful as Ran is to Lear in a lot of ways, the emotional constellation is entirely different.

Thus, the language, themes, and emotions of Ran have all been changed from those of Lear. Did anything of Shakespeare's survive? I can think of one thing: nihilism. In Shakespeare's sources — not just Holinshed, but also an earlier play called King Leir — Lear's story actually had a happy ending. Shakespeare pulled a devastating switcheroo on audiences by killing off Lear and Cordelia; they couldn't handle it, and until relatively recently Lear was almost always performed with a bowdlerized final act that concluded on a cheerful note with both father and daughter surviving. Kurosawa sticks with Shakespeare. No survivors, no hope.

Also no furniture. I think there's one chair in the whole movie. To a great extent Ran is about thousands of men hacking each other to death with swords in order to determine which brother will win the right to sit on a platform four inches off the floor. I wonder what Shakespeare would say about that. Actually, since he'd say it in Early Modern English I probably wouldn't understand it, so never mind.

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