The Individual As Institution: Power, Loss and Madness in Kurosawa's Ran and Shakespeare's King Lear
By identifying Lear with the ancient Japanese warlord Hidetora, whose violations emerge from a breach of publicly identified self-hood, Akira Kurosawa plays with the quintessentially Shakespearean focus on individual personality.
If one can say anything about William Shakespeare’s plays in general, it is that his characters’ personalities often figure at the forefront. Shakespearean characters are, for the most part, imbued with power enough to act rather than be acted upon. Their follies and blind spots are largely self-determined. Conflicts between the one and the many actually conflicts between the one and their own perceptions, complicated by an inability to view anything outside a singularity of vision. Even those characters least susceptible to hubris or those most institutionally complicit, like the moral Isabella in Measure for Measure or the patriotic Henry V, signify conflict between opposing institutions, opposing moralities and patriotisms, and, thus, are at their most individualistic as representatives of warring factions. This prevalence of personality is in part due to Shakespeare’s genius in portraying characters’ idiosyncrasies in the midst of institutional chaos. Indeed, the chaos of the Shakespearean stage is most often the chaos of personality. Even the most institutionally defined characters seem the inevitable result of an internal, personal process.
Shakespeare’s challenging, late-career masterwork King Lear especially explores the division between the title character's public and private selves through the violation of cultural mores and the resulting personal trauma that results. Lear is fractured along the lines of his kingly responsibilities as embodiment of the state and those individual traits that emerge as his court attempts to reconcile his fractured components. When Lear's personal collapse becomes manifest, the hierarchies inherent to his office become vulnerable to the whims of his personal caprice, and vice versa. As the play continues, however, his caprices and eventual madness become the only constant against the unstable machinations of those members of his court vying for his power. His individuality, thus, functions both as a prime mover to the play's action and as a kind of moral and emotional center to his inevitable downfall.
By identifying Lear with the ancient Japanese warlord Hidetora, whose violations emerge from a breach of self-hood, Akira Kurosawa plays with the quintessentially Shakespearean focus on individual personality. Kurosawa's cultural imperative in Ran is civic rather than individualistic. Where Shakespeare's play deals with the collapse of a society as the result of a breakdown of the royal personage, Kurosawa's film reflects the interdependence of personality through glorification of civic duty, a distinctly Japanese paradigm in which selfhood is fulfilled through institutional service.
Like Lear, Great Lord Hidetora’s downfall manifests through his vulnerability to age and his quickly approaching mortality. Hidetora wants to give up his power, yet also to retain some symbolic status as benefactor of that power. His court, however, is intent on misunderstanding the relationship between his public office and private self. Hidetora’s sons view his decline and their own ascent not as a filial passing of birthright from father to son but the ceremonial equivalent of a strong warlord overturning a weak one. Prince Taro’s first complaint is, “Normally he only requires obedience... That’s affection enough.” The sons of Hidetora do not understand their courtly roles outside the warlord’s competition, where the strongest demands lock-step obedience.
The Lear story centers around a confusion between ceremony and what that ceremony signifies; Ran differs thematically only in the subject of this ceremony. While Lear believes his daughters lack allegiance to himself and his own authority, Hidetora rebukes his sons’ failure to hold allegiance not only to him, but to one another. Both Lear and Hidetora are rightly called hypocrites by their youngest progeny, and the inability of either to hold form to their proposed ideals comes as a lack of the strength. Lear’s inability to proselytize his faith in the infallibility of kingship falters as he finds himself increasingly fallible and, far worse, dependent on the flattery of his daughters; Hidetora, on the other hand, proposes unity between the unlike parts of a strictly defined royal court, yet proves himself unable to enforce this unity. Hidetora instructs his sons to be as a sheaf of arrows but is shown by his third son that, given enough force, even many arrows can be broken; Lear would divide a map of his kingdom among his daughters based on their flattering words and is undone by his youngest daughter’s unwillingness to flatter him.
Ran emphatically elaborates on Hidetora’s weakness as a deviation from the status quo in his scenes with the fool, Kiyoami. Hidetora suffers and protects Kiyoami’s farces of his power. Eventually, though, the king’s fragile mental state is protected by Kiyoami in like manner. Kiyoami, as both entertainer and counselor, represents both state-sanctioned individuality and the castigation inherent to individuals within the stringent societal demands of feudal Japan. Hidetora’s defense of him in one scene in particular shows where the Lord’s loyalties hold in terms of Kiyoami’s significations. When Taro refuses Hidetora from retaining his banner and insignia, Kiyoami performs a mock-up of the new Lord’s power. The fool struts atop a promontory, singing that “the Lord sways like a gourd in the wind,” referring to the fact that Taro has reneged on his promise to allow Hidetora to keep his insignia and, therefore, is not the immovable deity he would seem. The palace guards cannot take this joke so lightly, and one of them climbs the outcropping to strike Kiyoami down, the many is ready to stand against the one. But before the jester is felled, Hidetora’s arrow cuts the guard down. The old Lord stands above in the tower, peering through a window. Now fully expatriated from his place as head of a many-headed army, the Lord is truly alone. He has drawn one arrow from his quiver of many to defend the individualistic Kiyoami from the new power in the land. Such individuality is the only quality to hold Hidetora in good stead in the coming onslaught.
Another generalization about Shakespeare’s plays is that film adaptations of them often fall flat. This is perhaps due to the already-mentioned central configuration of personality as a driving force of conflict, and the necessary abstractions inherent within this conflict. As film is a more abstract medium than stage production, abstraction within that medium proves difficult, especially abstractions so psychologically complex and transparent as the Shakespearean soliloquy. Films of Shakespearean plays are in the same predicament as film adaptations of musicals. In the film version of, say, The Fiddler on the Roof, the audience must not only believe that Anatevka exists but that when Tevya stops to sing “If I Were a Rich man” the village stops with him and remain unchanged for the duration of his song. Likewise, Lear’s or Hamlet’s soliloquies exist not necessarily in the world where these characters are King and Prince, respectively, but where they exist as individual personalities apart from these institutionally defined roles. The stages of their inner lives are not necessarily the same stages on which the plots of their lives play out, but rather the sub-worlds of aside and soliloquy. Like those of musical numbers, sub-worlds in which Shakespearean personalities are most evident are hardest to represent in film.
Kurosawa convincingly resolves this complication by stylizing Ran via several removals from the “real” world. The film is largely set within a feudal warlord’s crumbling court, which is in itself a kind of historical removal. Yet this historically real place is again removed via bright, representational colors and easy symbols plastered on the walls and banners. Lord Hidetora’s insignia, for example, is a sun suspended over the moon, yet Jiro’s standard is a lone moon; the sun has been removed, just as Hidetora’s authority over Jiro. Ran’s opening credit sequence is another example of this overt abstraction, immediately setting the tone of the film’s elemental struggle by initially setting the audience down in the rolling green hills outlying Hidetoro’s castle. Nature serves as a crucible, an objective reality against which each character shows his mettle, a test the implications of which do not fully materialize until all return back to civilization. The opening credits roll over a series of what amount to filmed portraits of mounted men posing in ceremonial garb. Their stillness indicates both the reflection of a quiet before the storm and the stasis of objects significant of larger ideas. Indeed, at one point Lady Kaede speaks directlyto the importance of the detachment between signifier and signified in Ran. Taro has just assumed power, and sits in the throne room commenting on how his father’s banner and armor have only recently been removed. Lady Kaede answers, “The armor doesn’t matter. But the banner…” Kaede insists the banner be reclaimed and, thus, seems meta-cognizant of the importance of symbols in Ran.
One of the strengths of film in adapting Shakespeare, as opposed to stage productions of the plays, is film’s capacity to minutely and precisely focus a frame. Film compels the eye, forcing the audience to look between the margins of a lens, whereas dramatic productions must coax the audience to move its eyes across a stage. Film imposes clear-cut margins even onto moments of impressionistic imagery, oftentimes giving rise to more specific renderings of theme and characterization. Film actors’ canvas is small; they deal in nuance, the twinge of a smile or a raised eyebrow. But even when playing small, stage actors’ stillness must be relatively “big” to make the space they inhabit ring out. Kurosawa plays to this strength in Ran by maintaining a certain directorial detachment from dramatic action, while eliciting naturalistic, human performances. As his lens fixes his subjects in posed stances, those subjects seem to emote all the more.
This effect is demonstrated in the film’s first scene, the post-hunt meal. According to the ceremonial trappings of Hidetora’s court, all sit in their place at the pleasure of their Lord. The fool entertains them, but Lord Hidetora suddenly succumbs to fatigue, and the court breaks ranks to reconvene outside the perimeter of the banners. They complain of Hidetora’s inability to shoot the boar they had been hunting, a telling testament to his waning power. When Hidetora suddenly stumbles out from behind the banners, frightened by a dream, the audience is left to wonder whether he actually heard his subjects venting their insecurities about him. The screen frames Hidetora head on as he recalls his dream, staring blankly, lamely clutching his sword. He is foregrounded by the stark contrast of the yellow and black banner behind him, signifying the drawn line of a horizon whose sun has almost set. The “land” of the banner has gone dark, though the “sky” behind it still has some waning light; the contrast between the two colors suggestive of coming conflict. Yet the true power of this shot is the fear in the eyes of the warlord, his powerlessness against the symbols of downfall that crowd around him. Removed historically, stylistically, and through the inherent representational quality of film, Great Lord Hidetora’s dream effectively portends his failing power.
Another such scene occurs after Hidetora has been banished by his two favorite sons. Hidetora’s former counselor and servant, Tango, himself banished along with Hidetora’s third son, has returned bringing news and food for Hidetora’s starved entourage. Newly appointed Lord Taro has made a law against peasants offering Lord Hidetora any help, but Saburo has reconnoitered with another former counselor and has sent word imploring their Lord to rejoin them. Kurosawa’s direction in the scene is simple but all the more effective for remaining still on Hidetora’s reaction to the news of his sons’ betrayal, though his devastation seems almost greater in learning of his youngest son’s loyalty. The stillness of the frame captures every movement of Hidetora’s face as he realizes that he has sown seeds of war and is now tasting the fruits of his labor, a choice between indignity and death; the stillness of Kurosawa’s frame as it lingers over the anguish of the warlord’s deliberation is parallel to those more dialogue-heavy interiorities of Shakespeare’s play.
Most evocative, however, are the epic battle scenes that ensue as a direct result of Hidetora’s inability to finally accept the conditional love of his third son. Interspersing wide-angle shots with close-up portraiture, Kurosawa never lets his viewer forget the multitude of minor tragedies that make up epic war stories. We see soldiers scattering over hillsides like ants and women committing ritual suicide. Hidetora himself impotently shatters his own sword as a soldier stares in unbelieving agony at his own severed arm. Horses gallop riderless into fog, while bodies burn behind them. The images together create a tableau of suffering no more or less chilling than that of the darkened brow of the Great Lord Hidetora, the one man whose power to prevent it all was undone in personal grief.