Directed by Akira Kurosawa (1985, Japan/France)
“You spilled measureless blood. You showed no mercy, no pity. We too are children of this age, weaned on strife and chaos. We are YOUR sons, yet you count on our fidelity? In my eyes that makes you a fool – a senile, old fool!”
King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, is many things, but uplifting it is not. Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, “Ran,” is even darker, and like all great adaptations, shaped by its author to fit his vision of the story.
King Lear itself is an adaptation of a simpler medieval romance. The complexity and depth of the story are Shakespeare’s innovations. The ending is especially ahead of its time, as showing the dead Cordelia in her father’s arms, ending any chance of a true reconciliation between the two, was considered too intense for audiences for over a century after the original production.
Kurosawa adapts King Lear to make it fit into his world of pre-Edo Period Japan. The most obvious change is that Lear’s three daughters are replaced by Hidetora’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) three sons. Unlike Lear, who has become old and foolish but by all accounts is treated by Shakespeare as a just ruler, Hidetora sits on a throne built upon a legacy of bloodshed and chaos. For instance, his two married sons, Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), have wives who’s fathers were conquered, and murdered, by Hidetora.
While Hidetora is far more deserving of his predicament than Lear, the audience still feels the same pity for him. While we hear stories about past conquest and bloodshed, providing a deeper motivation to the surrounding characters than exists in King Lear, we are presented with a frail, old man who simply wants to pass his life’s work on to his offspring. His loyal son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) tries in vain to stop his father, and is rewarded for his insight with banishment. Taro and Jiro, in turn, squander what their father has built.
This is where the complexity lies in Ran – are we to pity Hidetora, or view the destruction of his kingdom as a deserved outcome? After all, the horrors that he unleashed to build that kingdom are not treated lightly by Kurosawa. It is hard to say, as there is no simple justice or simple tragedy in Ran, there is only a cycle of violence and retribution, of men trying to seize power only to ultimately lose it. At least the people in Lear’s world have Albany and Edgar to guide them after the downfall, for the world of Ran there is no such hope.
(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe