Monday, April 19, 2010


Here is an essay I recently wrote for a World Cinema Traditions class. It is entitled "Nihilism, Chaos, Warfare, Samurai, and Disobedient Sons: The Joys of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran".
Ran is written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. What can be written about Kurosawa that hasn’t been written a million times before? Genius. Visionary. Apologetic for his samurai heritage. Like many artists, he suffered from depression, particularly later in his life. This film was made in a time when Kurosawa had great difficulty securing funding and had to seek foreign investors. 1985’s Ran is worth noting not simply for its artistic merit, but for its connection to Kurosawa’s past and future.

Like most of Kurosawa’s most famous work, Ran is set in feudal Japan, the time when the warrior class known as samurai ruled. The Edo period, when samurai had been fully established as the ruling class, is one of the most well-known and important times in Japanese history. The era’s importance is evidenced by its continued representation in Japanese narrative fiction. Kurosawa’s films are evidence not only of the era’s importance to Japanese history in general, but also of the importance to Kurosawa’s personal history. Akira Kurosawa was descended from samurai. While many would think of samurai ancestry as a point of pride, Kurosawa was well aware of the harsh realities of life for the common people under samurai rule. He was apologetic about his family’s status as members of the class that personified inequality in Japan. While samurai were supposed to embody and exemplify honor, justice, discipline, loyalty, and service, in reality many were just as crude and cruel as any other warriors in human history.
The film Ran, however, is not a commentary on negative aspects of samurai per se. Instead, its primary focus in regards to samurai is that of loyalty. Hidetora, the head of the Ichimonji clan, is betrayed by two of his three sons. The only supportive son is the one Hidetora banished because of his early disapproval of Hidetora’s decision to abdicate responsibility. The disloyalty and conspiracy presented in Ran, as well as the story’s status as a tragedy, bear a striking resemblance to William Shakespeare’s King Lear. While Kurosawa did admit to seeing some inspiration in the play, his film is much more relevant to samurai history. While Lear makes mistakes, Hidetora has a distinctive past as a cruel warlord. The wife of one of his sons is in fact from a family that he had slaughtered in a power struggle.

Kurosawa’s films are rarely about one simple thing, however. Ran is more than a typical samurai film, and much more than a loose adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Aside from conspiracy and disloyalty, themes of the film include chaos, nihilism, and warfare. The very title can be translated in English as “chaos”. This is distinctly exemplified by the eruption of violence following Hidetora’s abdication. The protagonist spent most of his life waging war and slaughtering others, and in his twilight years he desires instead a more peaceful life. Shortly before handing de facto leadership to his oldest son, Hidetora holds a conference with neighboring daimyo (“warlord”, a feudal ruler of a Japanese fief) and uses diplomacy to end conflict and prevent further bloodshed. However, the peace is ephemeral, as the wife of his oldest son fuels the ambitions of her husband and his younger son, pushing them to wage war on their father. Hidetora descends into madness as the result of his Critic Michael Sragow refers to this as Kurosawa’s “trickle-down theory of anarchy”: "Kurosawa's monarch, like the Bard's, overburdens the bonds of family when he places his security on the shoulders of unsuitable and unready offspring. Hidetora's wishful thinking blinds him to the honesty of his third and youngest son, whom he banishes for bad-mouthing his scheme.
For Kurosawa, more than for Shakespeare, the monarch's real erosion of authority has its roots in the way he acquired power in the first place: through systematic pillage and slaughter."

The chaos that Kurosawa demonstrates is perhaps simply a product of a depressing period in his life, and could very well be considered subsidiary to the theme of nihilism. There is nothing resembling happiness in the end. The characters are dead. Violence trumped diplomacy. Even the saintly Lady Sue, devout Buddhist wife to Hidetora’s second son, ends up beheaded. According to Sragow, Kurosawa said in 1986,
"What I was trying to get at in 'Ran,'and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings' behavior.”

If there are gods watching these characters and events, they either will not or cannot change them. The three possibilities this presents are all depressing in their own ways. The first possibility is that the gods will not intervene and cease the destruction; this can be depressing because it implies that the gods do not even care. The second possibility is that the gods are unable to intervene; this can be depressing because if the gods are powerless then one must wonder what humans could possibly do. The third, and perhaps most depressing, possibility is that the gods don’t exist and that humans are alone and solely responsible for their actions against one another.

This element of nihilism could simply reflect a general world-weariness of Kurosawa’s, or perhaps more specifically his views on his own old age. In his seventies, he could have been described as old-fashioned by audiences and critics looking for more exciting fare and shots that did not linger languorously over fields of dewy grass and immobile bodies. Roger Ebert touches upon this very idea:
"Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is inspired by King Lear but may be as much about Kurosawa's life as Shakespeare's play... Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed. …
He was preoccupied with mortality in his later years. His eyesight was failing, he attempted suicide…
Ran is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass."

Perhaps the nihilism in Ran is a filmic expression of Kurosawa’s depression and Hidetora is as much Kurosawa as he is Lear. While the inter-connected themes of chaos and nihilism are important and universally understood, the third inter-connected theme of warfare is certainly more tangible and could be considered more relevant to the Japanese. Kurosawa was in his thirties when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs. He lived for decades afterwards, able to witness and experience the long-term psychological and sociological effects that the loss of the war and ensuing globalization/Americanization had on Japan as a whole. According to critic Michael Wilmington,
"The secret subject of Ran—as Kurosawa explained to me in a 1985 interview—is the threat of nuclear apocalypse. The film is saturated with the anxiety of the post-Hiroshima age."

The film is actually set during a turning point in Japan’s history, when fairly effective rifles were introduced and their use established in feudal warfare. A matchlock model plays an important part in the destruction in Ran. The people of Japanese know all too well the effects of the newest, deadliest weapon available at the time. Even the fire that besets Hidetora’s retirement castle can be interpreted as a comment on something that can so easily wipe out everything it touches. (However, it should be noted that because Japanese homes have primarily been made of wood and crowded together, fire has been a problem throughout Japan’s history.) After all, the film was made toward the end of the Cold War, and Japan had fought with both the US and Russia before. The only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, the Japanese people were perhaps more susceptible to fear of nuclear warfare than any other nation.

Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Ran is a complex work of art produced by a complex man. The film is about no single thing. No single aspect of humanity is the primary focus. Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker, suicidal painter, and an elderly man who had great difficulty getting work and whose wife died during the production of this film. It should come as no surprise that this film portrays some of the worst aspects of humanity. When disloyalty causes a descent into madness and terribly destructive war, the world can seem as nothing but nihilistic and chaotic.

[i] Sragow, Michael. "Lear meets the energy vampire". March 1, 2010 .
[ii] Sragow
[iii] Ebert, Roger. "Ran (1985)". March 1, 2010 .
[iv] Wilmington, Michael. "Ran: Apocalypse Song". March 1, 2010 .

I highly recommend this film. Also, I totally cop to getting plenty of info from Wikipedia.

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