Who is it that can tell me who I am?
In one of the all-time great coincidences, I happened to catch Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of “King Lear,” “Ran” (1985) at the Chicago Music Box Theatre last week, at the same time as I was reading Christopher Moore’s “Fool” (2009) – ALSO based on “King Lear.” Incredible, I know.
“Ran” is one of Kurosawa’s later films, an epic tragedy set in feudal Japan, and is considered a masterpiece by one of the greatest directors of all time. In contrast, “Fool” is the very definition of a “bawdy romp” that satirizes “Lear” (plus snippets from a good ten or twelve other of the Bard’s plays), and is generally amusing if you’re a fan of the comedic styles of Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, (which I sometimes am, in that order).
Really, these two versions could not be more different in concept, style or plot – so it’s sort of fascinating how similar they are in interpretation (granted, I may be using the word “fascinating” a little too loosely for some). For me, a central theme in Shakespeare’s “Lear” is the tyrant’s paranoia that he holds on to his power “wolf by the ears,” that he can neither hold on to his power forever, nor safely let it go. (Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was thinking of “Lear” when he penned those words; a line in the play is: “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf” 3.6.16.)
But “Ran” and “Fool” aren’t about paranoia; they are about punishment. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not an unsympathetic character, whereas Moore’s Lear and Kurosawa’s “Hidetora” are monsters. Hidetora frankly looks like a monster. All of Shakespeare’s original villains seem entirely justified in their plotting against Hidetora, and then are robbed of their most diabolical moments. Probably the most monstrous act in the Bard’s play is Cornwall’s gouging out of a man’s eyes; in “Ran,” that very act is committed by Hidetora himself. Likewise, though Moore’s Lear starts out affably enough, the narrative slowly reveals his past as a murderer and rapist.
Lear’s journey in both versions is less a chaotic unraveling than a Dantean tour of hell on Earth. The theme of hell is conspicuously repeated in both the dialogue and imagery of “Fool” and “Ran.” Moore’s Lear finds himself literally being tormented by ghosts in a dungeon, while Kurosawa follows Hidetora as he runs screaming from one seeming haven to another, only to find each housing fresh horrors. Even his death seems just the next illusion of salvation: the final shot of Tsurumaru – incidentally, the one character for whom death might actually come as a mercy is the only one Kurosawa leaves alive – is so harrowing that it seems to foreshadow a continued hell. Yet another arresting image is that of a crazed Hidetora descending the steps of a burning tower, surrounded by blood and bodies, into the chaos of battle. He walks through unscathed; he is a cursed man, and the soldiers draw back as though afraid to interrupt the Gods in their torment of him.
Though neither Moore nor Kurosawa’s original inspiration was the play “King Lear” itself – Moore writes in his Author’s Note that “Lear” was in part his editor’s suggestion, and Kurosawa began with the legend of Motonari Mori, a 16th-century Japanese warlord – once both settled to the play, their decision to portray Lear as a monster is not a surprising one. Adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedies often view the pervasive nihilism as not a theme to explore, but as a problem to solve.
Both Moore and Kurosawa shoehorn a prequel into their plots, a sort of “Godfather Part I” to explain the current state of disintegration. Kurosawa even said, “What has always troubled me about ‘King Lear’ is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. … In Ran, I have tried to give Lear a history.” Michael Sragow writes in his review for Salon.com:
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… Shakespeare showed us sound and fury signifying nothing; Kurosawa delivers a spectacular depiction of doomsday karma.
Spectacular as the retribution may be, the display of cause and effect smothers most elements of nihilism that exist within Shakespeare’s play. Because we are fundamentally uncomfortable with nihilism, we trade it in for reason and order. Both Moore’s and Kurosawa’s adaptations are nothing if not tightly knit. “Fool” is tightly knit in the form of a standard Shakespearian comedy, with every element coming together at the end, and happy couples abound. And though the title “Ran,” translates to “chaos,” the justice in the film is anything but. With a slight change of perspective, one can envision Lady Kaede as the real protagonist, when she delivers her final words, “I wanted to avenge my family. I wanted this castle to burn. I have done all I set out to do.”
So I found the following review of “Ran” by Roger Ebert to be curious (and by that I mean “bizarrely inaccurate”). Ebert describes “Ran” as:
…a 20th century film set in medieval times, 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… Did this express Kurosawa’s own view in his 75th year, as he looked back on one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the movies? Did he reflect that while the West was happy to buy, gut and remake his work, he had lost all power and respect in the country whose films he once ruled?
Ebert’s description seems a plausible take on Shakespeare’s Lear, but not Kurosawa’s. Shakespeare’s main villains are the young and the new, the ungrateful children who think they are wiser and resent the parents for their lingering. But Kurosawa, despite being seventy-five when filming, is hardest on old age above all. When Hidetora’s son dies in his arms, rather than mourning the loss of life, he wails because he had “tales to tell, forgiveness to ask!” The desire to share his wisdom is just his selfish desire for redemption, and any newfound wisdom he may have acquired comes too late to be of use to his son anyways. It is one of the coldest judgments passed by Kurosawa, and one of the only true glimpses of nihilism. But just this once, Moore actually says it better than he does. When Lear finally wails at the end of “Fool,” “Cordelia, my one true daughter!” Edmund, despite being a villain, says to him what we’re all dying to say at that point: “Shut the fuck up.”