Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Talkin' World War III Blues in Kurosawa's Ran

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took on Shakespeare adaptations. I talk about Akira Kurosawa's unlikely modernization of King Lear via Ran.

Like any non-English adaptation of Shakespeare, Ran has both the privilege and the heavy burden to use the original text as a chassis, not a blueprint. Instead of translating King Lear’s verse to Japanese or condensing the plot to CliffNotes, Akira Kurosawa’s film reimagines the story in a country that has taken part in and suffered the most horrific practices of warfare. While the medieval setting may lend credence to Ben Jonson’s oft-mentioned praise of Shakespeare, that “He was not of an age, but for all time,” Ran derives much of its import from its context. Looking back on the Second World War that Kurosawa lived through, the film condemns the violence of the modern world through advanced, often overwhelming filmmaking techniques.

If King Lear can be boiled down to the idea that the will to power usurps family commitment and basic decency, then Ran goes so far to say that the will to power, and the entrenched systems of power built atop it, breed pure chaos. This theme comes to the fore when Tango, the Kent equivalent, offers provisions to Hidetora, the Lear figure, and his men. In a medium shot, Tango bows before him, hoping to make peace, and raises his eyes after enduring an awkward silence. Instead of cutting to a medium shot of Hidetora, via a typical shot reverse shot sequence, the film frustrates us with an extreme long shot. On the far right of the widescreen frame, Tango continues to raise his head while on the far left, Hidetora stares down the hill, his body frozen like a statue. He does not seem to be processing Tango’s charity. Two umbrellas in the foreground roughly split the frame into thirds, and their presence brings to mind the heat punishing Hidetora’s bald scalp at the moment. The delirious, desiccated Hidetora holds the most tenuous nominal authority over this gathering, and this extreme long shot shrinks him to actual scale. 

Yet Hidetora still has power, for a little longer, on this otherwise beautiful, cloudless day. Those subordinates kneeling on the brittle white gravel look to him, worried by his silence, while miles of forest stretch across the background. Kurosawa’s meticulous framing does not hide the natural splendor of this setting, a huge contrast from Peter Brook’s austere adaptation, but it also stresses the heat and void and lifelessness of this anti-oasis where the humans reside. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki informs this composition and the greater film, where death can be felt before the armies, with their arquebuses and cannons, enter the scene. In the famous sequence of painterly carnage soon after this scene, these forces destroy not only Hidetora’s men but each other, along with their codes of honor. When Hidetora, here on the gravel, waves his hand and rashly orders the destruction of a peasant village, and the blurs of soldier bodies whiz by in front of his face, he perpetuates this chaos, even if, and especially because, he is too oblivious and senile to grasp the consequences of such action. He bombs his own people when one gifts him food, practically razing all circles of life to the ground. This is a film sadly indebted to World War II and its paranoid Cold War legacy. 

The weight of war only hits Hidetora after Tango breaks the news that his son, Taro, decreed that anyone who assists him will be executed. Hidetora collapses onto his seat, and even in a medium shot, we can feel the unbearable anguish that fills his face. He sits there for over thirty seconds processing this information, that his child has sentenced him to death, and instead of asking us to “make sense” of this revelation and Hidetora’s reaction to it, the film floods its soundtrack with the shrill calls of birds. The film calls this what it is: chaos. The sonic dissonance speaks to the cognitive dissonance in Hidetora’s mind, at this moment, and the sheer volume of these clashing noises attempts to give voice to entropy, the most ineffable of phenomena. Kurosawa’s sound design graduates from monaural, 1950s art house minimums to overpowering, crippling stereo. It is fitting that the film uses this modern technology to assault its audience’s ears, to commit violence against them. In Ran, everything that can be used as a weapon is, from arrows to words to gestures to recording microphones. 

This scene leads into the film’s centerpiece, the Third Castle massacre, where sound cannot do justice to the bloodshed on-screen and, so, the film dives into abstraction. Toru Takemitsu’s score pairs corpses and soon-to-be corpses with elegiac accompaniment. The spattering blood resembles that of a Goya painting, especially under the hazy, somber quality of the lighting. No one enjoys a dignified death: soldiers splay their arms, fall on the arrows piercing their backs and get trampled by horses. The film does not center its violence in one location but emphasizes its omnipresence. For instance, a centered shot of a tower burning, with a corpse hanging over the bannister, cuts to a long shot of enemy forces galloping past the tower, which is now only visible in the background. From here, an extreme long shot of the fortress’ destruction shows a glimpse of the burning tower, obscured by haze, in the far distance. Finally, the film cuts to a shot of another tower, where Hidetora’s few remaining soldiers are fired upon, with their backs to the camera, by a line of enemy infantryman in the background. The scale of this massacre is massive. Hidetora’s men and women, implicit in their leader’s savage colonialist past, cannot hide from the agents of mass destruction now raining down on them.

Neither this scene nor the other is analogous to any scene from the King Lear text. Ran stakes out its own artistic territory by building off and tweaking the themes of that play. It is a film fearful of a world obsessed with destruction, where the will to power carries with it a drive toward death. It is a film that judges Lear’s famous plea, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning,” with the derisive laughs it deserves (III.2.57-8).

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