In Hollywood, Japanese styles and themes are in vogue, as is evident from recent box-office hits such as Kill Bill and The Last Samurai. Despite their critical acclaim and their purported desire to be faithful to Japanese sources, these films are but vulgar distortions of Japanese film culture, especially of the work of Akira Kurosawa, whose films influenced such American classics as The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, and Star Wars.
In addition to his most influential films (Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, and Ikiru), Kurosawa’s two adaptations of Shakespeare, Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (Macbeth), must be counted among film classics. The fastidious literary critic Harold Bloom has praised Ran (1985) and Throne of Blood (1957), which have recently been released in excellent DVD formats, as the best theatrical performances of Shakespeare. Throne of Blood is reported to have been T.S. Eliot’s favorite film.
The prints of the new DVD versions of Throne of Blood (The Criterion Collection) and Ran (Masterworks Edition), the latter of which includes an illuminating commentary track from the critic, Stephen Prince, are impeccable, delivering the full majesty of Kurosawa’s art.
In his praise of Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films, Bloom notes that Kurosawa ignores Shakespeare’s dialogue and freely refashions his plots. Yet Bloom insists that these films best capture what “Shakespeare was up to.” For all his insight on this issue, though, Bloom’s statement is a bit misleading, making it sound as if Kurosawa were the best mimic of Shakespeare. A similar assumption mars the DVD commentary track from Michael Jeck, an expert on Japanese cinema, who supposes that Kurosawa is filling in gaps in Shakespeare’s narrative. In fact, Kurosawa rivals Shakespeare precisely because he has an independent, if overlapping, artistic vision. The Japanese cultural setting–with its royalty, pageantry, and fierce familial loyalty–certainly aided Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films. He also possessed a stunning and unusual combination of artistic sensibility (he began as a painter and had a remarkable eye for light, color, and weather) and a dramatist’s sense of the big questions (he counted among his most important influences the Russian novelist Dostoevsky). Distinctively Japanese elements, from medieval Noh drama and Buddhism, also inform these films.
What Eliot said of poetry is true of film: It can communicate before it is understood. Kurosawa communicates moods of desolation, of loss, of confused flight, and of apocalyptic fear–the themes and moods dominant in Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” for example–without ever using words. In his films, there are long stretches without any dialogue whatsoever, just music and images, distant shots of marching armies, tight shots of piles of corpses, and still shots of human beings standing on the horizon, the intersection of earth and sky. Kurosawa described such a scene in Ran, whose musical accompaniment is intended to call to mind one of Mahler’s dirges, as a vision of Hell seen by a Buddha in tears.
Even more than in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Kurosawa accentuates the themes of human entrapment, of a hostile fate, and of the seeming inevitability of treachery and betrayal, especially in the political order. For example, Macbeth begins with the prophecy of the “weird sisters,” the witches who, along with his ambitious wife, tempt Macbeth to murder. This occurs on Macbeth’s return from triumph in battle. In Kurosawa’s version, the warrior’s return is prolonged, as he becomes lost in the forest surrounding the castle, a forest he knows well but which has become a maze to him. The film ends not as it does in Shakespeare–with the restoration of natural and political order–but with a vacant castle, the “castle of delusions.” Indeed, the Japanese title of the film refers not to Macbeth or the “throne of blood,” but to the castle itself, “Spider’s Web Castle.” The lone “witch” in Kurosawa’s version, a ghost of a woman who sits at a spinning wheel, is something of a philosopher of doom. She proclaims that “men’s lives are meaningless,” like insects’, whose destiny is to become the “stench of rotting flesh.” “Men are strange,” she continues, too “terrified to look into the bottom of their own hearts.”
Viewers of Kurosawa’s films will perhaps be most terrified to look into the heart of a female character in Ran, a vengeful character that makes the girl-power, female leads in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill look like what they are, cartoon caricatures. When her husband, the new Great Lord, is killed, she suspects her brother-in-law, calls a meeting with him, wrests away his knife, holds it to his throat and forces a confession out of him. With no time for grief, she refuses to be a widow or to leave the castle, a castle her family previously controlled; in a memorable scene, she then forces herself sexually on her brother-in-law and begins licking blood off his neck. As the camera cuts away, the suggestion is of a chilling and monstrous female sexual assault.
Like Shakespeare’s plays, Kurosawa’s films hold the mirror up to nature, especially to the human heart, and often discern therein a “strange perturbation.” But neither the poet nor the filmmaker succumbs to nihilism or adopts the conclusion that human life is pointless. Instead, they put dramatically before our eyes the unavoidable and perennial questions about human evil and betrayal, about the tragic frustration of noble human aspirations. They also raise questions about the goodness, justice, and mercy of God, about God’s apparent silence, and the inexplicable mystery of how human beings can become so twisted and depraved, so blindly bent against the good that we seem to “prefer sorrow over pain, suffering over peace.”
It is a mark of Kurosawa’s excellence in his craft that such questions arise, not as pretentious efforts to seem profound, but naturally and fittingly as part of the drama–just as they do in ordinary human life.
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.