The Compassionate Kurosawa (Ran)

by Ezekiel Fry

Almost thirty years after creating his first grand adaptation of Shakespeare, Kurosawa returns to the Bard of Avon’s canon and selects perhaps his greatest tragedy for representation on the screen, King Lear. By this time in his career Kurosawa is a secured master of cinema. He has gone through the ups and downs of life and arrived at a place where he can, with full confidence and individual vision, tackle a subject as lofty (or low) as the tragedy of King Lear. Ran is certainly Kurosawa’s most self-assured film since Red Beard, and this level of surety shows through in every frame. The subject matter is Kurosawa’s own. The basis may be in Shakespeare, but everything that needs to be said is straight from the heart and mind of the auteur himself. Much like Throne of Blood, Ran is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play, not an adaptation in the true sense. The skeleton remains the same, but the body has been changed drastically.
Where Kurosawa found his voice to create a truly “Dostoevskian” work with Red Beard, as Donald Richie points out, Ran takes Kurosawa’s “Dostoevskian” voice one step further. While Red Beard, Richie writes, is the most compassionate of all Kurosawa’s films, I disagree that it is the single most “Dostoevskian” of all Kurosawa’s works (85). Certainly the level of compassion is consistent with characters such as Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov, but there is a key element of Dostoevsky’s vision lacking from both Red Beard and The Idiot. This is the ultimate danger of denial. The most striking quality of a character such as Alyosha is that he appears human in his doubting and searching. There is nothing saint-like about either Alyosha or his mentor Father Zossima. They both embody the frailty of humankind, but from a perspective of acceptance, much like Mifune’s character in Red Beard. This being said, the enigmatic and engaging brother, Ivan, and the complexity of his character type is completely lacking from Red Beard. It is in Ran, which translates as “revolt” or “chaos”, so very similar to Ivan’s great treatise against God’s world, “Rebellion”, that Kurosawa creates the other side to man’s spiritual stance. For the acceptance of Red Beard, we see the revolt of Ran. The contrast is striking.
The level of suffering in Ran may initially appear Shakespearian in nature, and in many ways it certainly is, but the melodrama—the sheer scale of misery—that occurs within the film is much more akin to the works of Dostoevsky. Hidetora may mirror Lear, and his sons mirror Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril, but they also mirror the Karamazov family from The Brothers Karamazov. Hidetora, like Fyodor, is not the loving and pure father that Lear appears to be in Shakespeare’s play. Kurosawa gives back-story that shows the brutal nature of Hidetora, giving him a darker edge than Lear ever had. This added element to the central figure of the drama echoes Dostoevsky’s description of Fyodor, “As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too” (6). This statement can be applied to either Lear or Hidetora, but given the grisly back-story for Hidetora it seems so much more fitting for him. Dostoevsky’s subtle lines give some indication why a shrewd old man might suddenly give up his wealth to those he may only love conditionally. This generosity of course is not congruent with the miserly character of Fyodor, but the general tone fits well. Also Dostoevsky’s lines “He was sentimental. He was wicked and sentimental” give some indication of Hidetora’s true self (23). The duality of wickedness and sentimentality is shown brilliantly in Hidetora’s dealings with Lady Sue and his subsequent fear at the sight of her blind (by his own hand) brother. His own wicked behavior has created a life for Lady Sue that, from Hidetora’s wicked perspective, ought to have resulted in her hating him. He finds being near her even more difficult because she does not hate him, but in fact loves him. This affection touches his sentimental nature, but the wickedness of his life will not allow him to accept her love in full. He cannot embrace with tenderness, merely the illusion of tenderness. Hidetora’s difficulty to love is in step with Fyodor’s description of “the shadows of hooks” in Hell (23). A man who knows only his selfish way sees the rest of the world in shadow, and as Fyodor fears the imagined punishments of Hell, Hidetora fears Sue’s judgment that exists merely as a shadow on his soul.
In the third act of the film Kurosawa begins to tackle the harsh ideology that powers Ivan Karamazov. Initially the subject is approached by Kyoami and the now mad Hidetora when they discuss man’s likeness to a worm in the ruins of Sue’s family castle. Hidetora does not want to be crushed like a worm. Kyoami tells him that there is no other alternative. He says, “Man is born crying. He cries and cries, and then he dies!” This line shows the first glimpses of Ivan’s world negating philosophy. The idea that man is born crying and remains crying indicates not only that man does nothing save suffer, but also that perhaps man does not live long enough to break out of infancy. We are born crying and before we can reach a position of maturity we are swept away into death. This view of the situation makes everyone in the world a child, thus placing them within Ivan’s list of the unaccounted for sins of god against innocent humanity. Couple this with the later lines from Kyoami concerning the cruel nature of the Gods and Ivan’s tortured soul seems quite well represented here in the world of Shakespearian Kurosawa. There is something as well to be said about the fact that these lines of rebellion are spoken by the Fool, or child. Kyoami is quickly silenced by Tango following his curse against the gods. The adult silences the child, but the child is within all of us, as the adult is as well. The warring nature of humanity’s belief in both itself and the gods is fully represented in these two contrary statements of faith and doubt. All this leads to the disconnection of humanity, in this world of woe, from the power of the gods, who may or may not desire to see us suffer, in the tangible form of Tsurumaru attempting to navigate his way on the edge of an abyss without the image of the Buddha. It remains unclear whether the gods have forsaken humankind or vice versa, but either way the world is one of absurd suffering with no end in sight.
Unredeemable as it may be, the world of Ran reflects one half of the spiritual belief to be found in most of Dostoevsky’s works, and The Brothers Karamazov in particular, while Red Beard reflects the other. Taken together they are wonderful complementary pieces and create a tapestry of cinema as rich as that great final novel of Dostoevsky.