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
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
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
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
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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