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Paper: Buddhist Symbolism in "Ran"

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    Fred

    A copy of Kenneth D. Nordin’s paper Buddhist Symbolism in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran: A Counterpoint to Human Chaos, orginally published in Asian Cinema vol 16, #2 (2005), is available at http://web.archive.org/web/20091117070632/http://www.ice.usp.ac.jp/~wklinger/class/jcmu/Nordin-BuddhistSymbolismRan.pdf

    I found Nordin’s discussion very helpful. In the above paper, Nordin also argues that AK intends to call upon the viewer to “steadily change human nature” in order to create a better world, which exactly matches my interpretation of AK’s work.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for digging this up for us, Fred! It’s a very interesting look at the Buddhist symbolism in Ran. I only wish it had been a longer essay!

    I think the idea of Kurosawa calling upon the viewer to “change human nature” in Ran is a very good observation. Some years ago, I wrote briefly about Ran, suggesting that it is a somewhat frustrated sum-up of what Kurosawa had been trying to achieve throughout his career.

    I think that the quote in the one but last paragraph of Nordin’s paper sums up the issue pretty well. Although Kurosawa’s films always carried some kind of a universal message with them, for most of his career they usually tackled very specific issues and questions, and explored solutions to those problems. But this, Kurosawa seems to have come to realise late in his career, was only as good as running around putting out the smaller fires in the garden while your whole house is burning.

    There was a shift in focus towards the more universal in his later films. Interestingly, this change also brought with it more bitterness and pessimism than had been present in his earlier works.

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    Fred

    Thank you for your reply and for pointing out the previous discussion, Vili. Shying away from graphic violence and being unaware of the real focus in AK’s movies, I did not watch Ran when it was first screened in 1985. As an ardent AK fan, I only recently made up for that omission…

    Despite the obviously bleak outcome (i.e. most everyone dying and Tsurumaru struggling and dropping his Buddha scroll), I would side with cocoskyavitch in the other thread, experiencing the film not as cold and not as utterly pessimistic. After having gone through his personal hell (madness and awareness of his previous horrible actions), Hidetora comes out purified, finally accepting Saburo’s honest request to live with him. Both have reached a certain level of acceptance of their fate and eagerly look towards a happy future when they die. Hidetora’s fulfillment and growth do not go beyond the very personal level, however. By her possible influence on Hidetora’s purified attitude, Lady Sue is one of the people who help transform others to become “better” human beings. To me, she is a symbol of all of us, because none of us is able to wipe out the evil from this world. Accepting this leaves us to try to be good human beings towards the people near us.

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    PLecso

    I have been a practicing Buddhist for some 35 years and I have always been struck by Kurosawa’s clear Buddhist references at the end of Ran. Amitabha is a Buddha who vowed that when he became enlightened he would create a Buddhist paradise where if one is reborn, one will not take rebirth any other place until one becomes enlighted. Lady Sue is a lay practitioner of what is called Pure Land Buddhism, the Pure Land referring to Amitabha’s Western Paradise.

    A blind man on a precipice is a common Buddhist image to describe the condition of humans; blinded by desire and ignorance. Falling off the precipice symbolizes falling from the ideal state of a human being back into the depths of cyclic existence. What makes Kurosawa’s vision rather bleak is that the blind prince cannot see the setting sun (symbolizing the Western Paradise) nor the image of Amitabha which has fallen over the precipice suggesting that even this avenue to liberation is closed off.

    Kurosawa seems to present humans as beyond any hope of redeeming their situation which itself is a contradiction of basic Buddhist principles that the human existence is the best possible existence within the cycle of birth-and-death and that all humans posses Buddha nature and can become enlightened. It seems that he was feeling very pessimistic at this point in his life.

    phil lecso

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    PLecso

    I feel remiss in that I wrote the above post without having read the article. Unfortunately the article is written by someone with no knowledge about Buddhism except the one article he quotes. The inaccuracies are too numerous to begin to redress them. In my humble opinion, the article is too inaccurate to be considered a valid source of information. How this article was published in a peer-reviewed journal (an assumption on my part) is unfortunate. To say that Hidetora at the end is an enlightened figure is completely ridiculous. How could that possible be reconcilled with the ending of the movie. Also in the author’s first footnote, he contends that Hidetora does not descend into madness but is going through “a mental process that older people often go through.” is pure nonsense. I was a geriatrician for 15 years and I know madness when I see it.

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    Fred

    Hi Phil,

    thanks for your input.

    – Would you possibly be willing to reassess your point that the inaccuracies in Nordin’s paper are too numerous to begin to redress them and try to explain your point of view to non-Buddhists like myself?

    – Couldn’t we agree on the fact that Hidetora goes through a phase of mental derangement? Aside from coming up with the correct medical diagnosis, why should it matter if this is madness or confusion?

    In the end, Hidetora expresses human warmth towards Saburo. He appears to have realized the human costs of him having expanded his realm. While this may not be enlightenment in the Buddhist sense (I trust your judgement here), I still consider his changed attitude a very positive development.

    Fred

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    Vili Maunula

    Fred: Would you possibly be willing to reassess your point that the inaccuracies in Nordin’s paper are too numerous to begin to redress them and try to explain your point of view to non-Buddhists like myself?

    I would be very interested in this too, Phil!

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    PLecso

    It’s a long article and here are my main points. Any and all questions or comments are welcome.

    Nordin sees Ran as full of Buddhist symbolism as his following list indicates:

    Scroll images ofAmitabha, the oldest and most important of the five celestial Buddhas. Another scroll featuring Japanese calligraphy depicting the Buddhist path of enlightenment. A bow and arrow. The Bodhi Tree. A sun and quarter moon ensign. A wreath of flames. Lotus flowers. Grass. A white horse.

    These symbols — which Kurosawa subtly wove into major scenes throughout the movie — all point to the Buddhist path of enlightenment.

    First the bow and arrow. This is not a common Buddhist symbol or metaphor and I have never read or seen of a bow and arrow as being “sacred weapons”. His claim that “In the Mahayana tradition, the dominant form of Buddhism in medieval Japan, the bow and the arrow are central symbols.” I have never seen a piece of Buddhist art, Japanese or otherwise, feature a bow and arrow as a central motif. In the movie, they are just a bow and arrow.

    Next is Nordin’s reference to the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. This is a very powerful symbol of enlightenment but the Buddha consciously sat under the Bodhi tree vowing not to arise until he understood the meaning of life-and-death. Hidetora falls asleep in an open area and Saburo cuts a branch to shade his father. Hidetora is fairly passive throughout this scene and he awakes confused not enlightened. Nordin reads too much into this scene.

    Next is the sun and moon. He states “The sun is the symbol of Japan.” There was no Japan at that time only a lot of feuding clans, the notion of Japan is 100 years in the future. While the sun and moon are prominent Buddhist symbols, especially in tantric Buddhism, the Buddhism presented in Ran is the devotional tradition of Pure Land Buddhism which does not use such imagery. At the end of this section he repeats his claim that “It’s early and highly visible presence in Ran further underscores Hidetora’s turning away from his lifetime of warfare to find spiritual peace.” There is absolutely nothing to back up the claim that Hidetora is seeking “spiritual peace.” In the Japan of his time there were two options available to him if he were seeking “spiritual peace.” First and most importantly would be to shave his head, give away all his belongings and become a monk. He wants to live with his concubines, drink with his warriors and play grandfather. The other option would be to become a devout layperson and practice Pure Land Buddhism like Lady Sue but he clearly and emphatically rejects this.

    The wreath of flames is just a burning building. There is a famous metaphor of children playing in a burning house from the scripture the Lotus Sutra where the father tells his children various fabrications to get them out of the burning house and thus save his children. The Buddha is the father and human beings the different children with differing predispositions. Again he over-reads into the movie.

    The lotus and the horse are again reading too much into the movie. It is interesting that to my eye, Ran is the only movie in which Kurosawa clearly and explicitly uses Buddhism as part of his narrative structure but he uses it in a limited form. Instead of littering Ran with Buddhist images and metaphors, Kurosawa uses Buddhism in its most basic meaning, as representing the way humans can transcend their ignorance, desire and hatred to become enlightened and compassionate. Hidetora shows no interest in Buddhism nor does he undertake any actions that would be considered to be a pursuit of enlightenment. He is only looking for a place to enjoy his remaining years in peace, which as we know, this search goes dreadfully wrong.

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    Fred

    First the bow and arrow. ….I have never seen a piece of Buddhist art, Japanese or otherwise, feature a bow and arrow as a central motif.

    In the movie, they are just a bow and arrow.

    Not knowing anything about the possible significance of bow and arrow as a Buddhist symbol, I used my trusty search engine and immediately found: http://buddhistsutras.org/gallery/avalokiteshvara.htm (The bow and arrow represents bodhisattva’s ability to aim at the heart of all beings.) and http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/objects-symbols-weapons-senju.html Although they are not the central motif, bow and arrow appear to have some significance.

    Unfortunately, we cannot ask AK if he intended to attach any symbolic meaning to the bow and arrow. We are also aware that his choice might have been unconscious. Realizing that Nordin’s interpretation is one of many possible interpretations, I see no way to classify it as either “right” or “wrong”.

    You made several statements of the type that in the movie, symbol X is just/is only an [name of object]. Artists are frequently unaware of signs they may have hidden in their works. Uncovering these signs, especially if they have a common denominator, may involve conjecture and may therefore not be acceptable to an expert in the field such as to yourself, Phil. This approach is still a lot of fun… In discussing religion with Japanese friends, I frequently realize that these friends, although they grew up with Buddhism and Shintoism, are not necessarily very familiar with the theoretical background of these religions. To me it is conceivable that these Japanese would not be as critical towards Nordin’s paper as you are.

    There was no Japan at that time only a lot of feuding clans, the notion of Japan is 100 years in the future.

    That is certainly true. Yet both the director and today’s viewers know about modern Japan. I would happily let a director use such an intentional anachronism. Once again, this is conjecture and I could be wrong.

    This only shows how a person’s background and desires shape his/her perception of a movie.

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    PLecso

    Yes the image holds a bow and arrow but it also holds a vase so that one could argue that any vase which appears in Ran is a Buddhist reference. I am not much of a supporter of psychoanalytic approaches to movie analysis. One can infer that any object presented in any movie refers to some unconscious motivation on the part of the screenwriter or director and this can never be proven or disproven. I would rather focus on what has consciously been placed in a movie. Kurosawa consciously used Buddhism in Ran but I disgree with Nordin that the movie is heavy with Buddhist symbolism.

    Any comments on Nordin’s assertion that Hidetora is seeking “spiritual peace” as opposed to just finding a place to live out his remaining years in comfort as the honored patriarch of the clan?

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    Fred

    Hidetora shows no interest in Buddhism nor does he undertake any actions that would be considered to be a pursuit of enlightenment. He is only looking for a place to enjoy his remaining years in peace

    You were undoubtedly inviting a comment with this statement, but I refrained from responding…

    Any comments on Nordin’s assertion that Hidetora is seeking “spiritual peace” as opposed to just finding a place to live out his remaining years in comfort as the honored patriarch of the clan?

    Here’s my opinion, again colored by my wishful thinking: Originally, when he stayed in the castle with Taro, Hidetora was looking to retire while keeping his retinue, clearly expecting to still be treated as the real clan ruler. When talking to Lady Sue, he wanted her to hate him. He failed to develop an understanding of her striving for forgiveness. Yet he gained insight into his horrible actions when he became mentally deranged:

    Dialogue between Tango, Kyoami and Hidetora:

    Is he mad?

    And better off for it.

    What do you mean?

    Please, my lord…

    come to your wits!

    In a mad world

    only the mad are sane.

    What do you see?

    Hidetora: Forgive me…

    Oh, excellent!

    The failed mind

    sees the heart’s failings.

    In the scene in the tall grass with the wind blowing hard, Tango acts as an interpreter, describing Hidetora’s probably awful visions of battles and armies. Suddenly Hidetora runs away. This is followed by the scene at Tsurumaru’s abode.

    It takes experiences like this for Hidetora to remember that he had a third son, to eventually ask Saburo for forgiveness. To me, this is a clear change of his attitude, some sort of purification. I am in no position to judge if this has anything to do with enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, but I see it as a change for the better. Hidetora gained insight into the violence and doom he had spread in the past. His vague idea of his future role while living with Saburo is based on him having been humbled. He is looking forward to being more honest in the future (telling Saburo that he desires nothing but private talks between father and son). You could argue that he had no other place to go and therefore chose to live with Saburo plainly on utilitarian considerations. I would counter that as this time, Hidetora had become humble and was no longer the brutal patriarch of the past.

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    Vili Maunula

    Fascinating discussion, thanks Phil and Fred!

    I don’t really have much to say about the specific Buddhist symbols as my knowledge of them is so very limited, and although I pretty much agree with Fred when it comes to interpreting potential symbols (for me it doesn’t generally really matter what the filmmakers intended), I perfectly understand where you are coming from, Phil. It is really good to have your expertise and views on the topic here. It gives all of us more perspective, and more to chew on.

    I was wondering about the following, though:

    PLecso: He states “The sun is the symbol of Japan.” There was no Japan at that time only a lot of feuding clans, the notion of Japan is 100 years in the future.

    I may be mistaken, but wasn’t sun the symbol of Japan long before the sengoku period where the film supposedly takes place? I thought that the name Nippon (“sun’s origin”) goes back as far as the 9th century?

    I also thought that something like “Japan” already existed at that point. Maybe not necessarily in political terms, but at least in terms of identity. And even politically, wasn’t most of the “important bits” of Japan pretty much centrally ruled as early as the Nara period (8th century onwards)?

    Or did I misunderstand your comment?

    PLecso: Any comments on Nordin’s assertion that Hidetora is seeking “spiritual peace” as opposed to just finding a place to live out his remaining years in comfort as the honored patriarch of the clan?

    I don’t think that Hidetora is consciously seeking any sort of enlightenment, and I would totally agree with you that what he seems to be seeking is a comfortable retirement, and probably one where he can still wield power, just leaving the day-to-day management to his sons.

    It does seem to me, however, that he takes something of a spiritual a journey anyway. I don’t know if it really qualifies as enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, but as Fred already said, during the course of the film Hidetora does have to face the actions that had brought him into power, and maintained his status. He also has to come to understand what exactly happened when he tried to divide his realm intro three.

    Maybe it is not an enlightenment, but it is a purification of some sorts. And I do like Nordin’s remarks about the bodhi tree and the fire, although again I lack the proper knowledge to really judge their actual merits and it may well be, as you said, that he is reading a little too much into the whole thing.

    Then again, I ultimately think that both interpretations can co-exist — in my world, sometimes a cigar can be both a cigar and a penis, and one doesn’t really cancel out the other.

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    lawless

    Vili said:

    I may be mistaken, but wasn’t sun the symbol of Japan long before the sengoku period where the film supposedly takes place? I thought that the name Nippon (“sun’s origin”) goes back as far as the 9th century?

    I also thought that something like “Japan” already existed at that point. Maybe not necessarily in political terms, but at least in terms of identity. And even politically, wasn’t most of the “important bits” of Japan pretty much centrally ruled as early as the Nara period (8th century onwards)?

    I was going to say something similar, except I would have pointed to Heian era Japan, which now seems to be viewed as something of a golden era somewhat akin to Elizabethan England. Sure, it wasn’t until the early 16th century that Japan was united under one secular political ruler (i.e., a shogun, not the emperor), but unless I have my Heian-era history wrong, wasn’t most of what we call Japan now unified then under the rule (or putative rule) of the emperor?

    I also agree, based on my admittedly somewhat hazy recollection of the movie, that Hideotora experiences something of a secular (not necessarily Buddhist) enlightenment, epiphany, revelation, or whatever you want to call it. I can see why artistic parallels would be drawn between it and the Buddha’s enlightenment even though they are not the same. For what it’s worth, I fall somewhere in the middle on the “death of the writer” (i.e., the creator’s intent is irrelevant; what the reader/viewer sees in a work is what’s important) and PLesco’s “if the creator didn’t consciously intend it, it isn’t there” approach.

    Vili said:

    Then again, I ultimately think that both interpretations can co-exist — in my world, sometimes a cigar can be both a cigar and a penis, and one doesn’t really cancel out the other.

    I agree with this. It’s not always the case that both interpretations can easily co-exist, but it often is.

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