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Ran: Gods as audience, audience as gods

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    Vili Maunula

    I cannot help it, but whenever I see a Kurosawa film these days, I sooner or later seem to start thinking about the audience’s place within that film. Much has been made of Kurosawa’s suggestion that Ran was intended as “gods’ view” of human struggle, but I don’t remember anyone going as far as considering the nature of these gods. My question then is: if gods are the intended audience, can the audience in fact be those gods?

    The simple answer, of course, is yes. While we didn’t create those characters, we are the sole reason that they exist. But here is a longer answer.

    At the end of the film (from around 2h 30min (Criterion)), when told about Ayabe’s advance against Jiro’s troops, Saburo’s general, sitting next to his master’s dead body, asks lamenting (all quotes from Criterion subtitles): “How can this be? Of all things, at this moment, why did Master Saburo have to die? Why did Lord Hidetora have to go?” It does not take much insight to realise that the straightforward answer to the general’s question — why did they have to die at this moment — is that the structure of the tragedy mandates these events, as they are the driving force of the story’s final catharsis. Noteworthy is also the manner in which these lines are delivered, not facing the other soldiers or the fool, but rather by hesitantly gazing towards the direction of the camera.

    The fool continues the questioning. “Are there no gods, no buddhas? If you exist, hear my words: You’re all cruel and fickle pranksters! You ease your boredom in the heavens by crushing us like worms! Damn you! Is it such sport to see us weep and howl?” For a director who forty years earlier broke the fourth wall by asking his audience to applaud for an imaginary concert (in One Wonderful Sunday), I find it perfectly plausible that these harsh words are directed at you and me. And in fact, the camera would seem to agree. The fool begins to deliver his lines while hunched over Hidetora’s dead body, but after the first question he rises up and directs his gaze slightly upwards to his left in order to shout out his accusations. What is interesting is that at the very moment when the fool gets up and turns his head, the film cuts from a camera position pretty much in the direction of the fool’s new gaze to another, much lower position on his right. Had we not moved, the fool would be looking almost directly at us. We seem to be avoiding the fool’s gaze.

    Once the grief-stricken fool has delivered the above lines, the general interrupts him. “Stop it! Do not curse the gods! It is they who weep.” And he is of course correct. This is, after all, our moment of catharsis.

    The general continues, now turning again to face the camera, and this time looking pretty much directly at us. “In every age they’ve watched us tread the path of evil, unable to live without killing each other. They can’t save us from ourselves. Stop your crying! Such is the way of the world. Men live not for joy but for sorrow, not for peace but for suffering.” I have the suspicion that Criterion’s translation here could be better, as the word ningen (human being) seems to be purposely repeated more often that it would need to be (Criterion translates these into “us”, “ourselves”, and so on). But the general idea is still there in the subtitles, and to me this is a very powerful speech. In fact, it makes me think of another great last act, that of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

    The ending to Shakespeare’s play is a highly symbolic one, not least because The Tempest is generally considered not only his last play, but also a work that on many levels sums up themes and motives from his earlier works (it has even been called Shakespeare’s “Best of” release). In the final act, the play’s protagonist Prospero the magician (often interpreted as standing for Shakespeare himself) sets free his various spirit servants, breaks his magic staff, and drowns his books. The play, and Shakespeare’s career, ends with Prospero turning to the audience and asking them to set him free with their applause. I cannot imagine a more fitting farewell for a playwright.

    I see something very similar taking place in Ran. As I have argued above, the general and the fool are talking about us, as well as to us. And what the general says with his last words is certainly true, for Kurosawa’s audience has at this point “in every age … watched us tread the path of evil, unable to live without killing each other”. More than 40 years of cinema, very much summed up into a single sentence. “They can’t save us from ourselves. … Men live not for joy but for sorrow, not for peace but for suffering.” Here is where a more literal translation would be useful. It is true that we certainly cannot save these characters, for it is their role to act out horrors on the screen so that we could learn from them. But it is clearly also meant as a statement about us — we are, after all, also ningen. 40 years of cinema, but what has the director ultimately achieved? Men are still unable to live without killing each other, and they are still unable save themselves from one other. We have not learnt anything. It is a very bleak observation, but it is an equally pure one. He has tried, but he has failed. Cinema cannot change the world.

    Ran is, of course, not Kurosawa’s final cinematic statement. But when considering the film’s ending, it is good to keep in mind that at the time of making it there was no guarantee of other projects, and Kurosawa was often quoted as saying how he intended to pour all his remaining energy into Ran, as if it were his last film.

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    Ugetsu

    This is a great post, Vili, I think you are very much onto something here. In my reading I’ve often been puzzled by how the Kurosawa ‘experts’ have so little to say about the film, most of the rave reviews (its worth going to rottentomatoes.com to see them) are from a later generation of writers. I can’t comment on Japanese critics, but I understand from reading Martinez that they were very wary of the film, even seeing it as a ‘foreign’ production. I think this ‘gap’ in analysis means that there is a tendency to see it as a stand alone work of art, rather than the end point of a long process of film making (maybe too many people have been influenced by Richies view that Red Beard was effectively Kurosawa’s final statement).

    I think the role of the audience in his films has been greatly underestimated. Speculating here, I’ve often wondered if his very collaborative way of writing his early screenwriters resulted in scripts which read more like a good natured argument rather than a ‘pure’ view, which you tend to get with a stereotyped auteur. I had been wondering if his tendency to write more alone after Red Beard was the reason for the change in tone and the increased didacticism and (alleged) loss of irony. I think its inevitable that if a writer loses someone to knock his ideas off, this will result in scripts that are more meandering and self indulgent.

    I’ve struggled a little with Ran because I never quite felt that Kurosawa was engaging me in a conversation – the way I always feel when watching his best films. The comments by some critics that Ran is a somewhat self conscious attempt at creating a masterpiece is something that has nagged with me. I’ve never felt that Kurosawa intended that, but there is still something to it. But I think Vili’s idea that Ran is really intended as deliberate summation of key themes, with the audience as accused is…. well, it means I’ll have to watch it again with this in mind!

    Ok, I’m rambling now, but suffice to say I agree totally that the notion of Ran as a ‘Gods Eye’ view of humanity is simplistic and misleading. It is a far more complex work than this suggests. But I do think that the pessimism of the film comes out of Kurosawa’s feeling that both he and the audience (i.e. us all) have ultimately failed. When the cycles of violence go round and round there is no basis for optimism. I don’t think this is quite pessimism, or nihilism – more a cold clear eyed view of the humanity.

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    Jeremy

    Another excellent writeup Vili.

    I too have felt, although to a lesser and even further lesser elegant extent, Ran was summing up some disappointments for the future. As Kurosawa 40 years of cinema went by, so did the 40 years since the Ningen-sengen (Humanity Declaration). After WWII for many even far outside Japan, there was a belief humanity had rid itself of war. For Japan specifically, when Emperor Showa no longer declared himself a god, and America help established Japan or any country for that matter had no gods, had no superiority, and there was no fate for anyone to rule the world. Peace would be forever lasting, for once humanity would understand the paths of destruction.

    As Ran became about, it was peace that was the distant concept, and the love of war showed to never remove it’s hold. In fact the fear of true destruction was far more real then WWII could ever present. The world, had already know the lengths, and human imagination needed not extend far, to see war being a permanent goal of men.

    In many of Kurosawa’s movies before Ran, there appears to be a hope that remained. Ran, however, as Ugetsu puts it, showed a more cold, clear-eyed view of humanity. A view frightfully summed up as, Vili points out: “in every age … watched us tread the path of evil, unable to live without killing each other”.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I love these posts. Good stuff, gentlemen!

    Point of View: Omnipotent/the Viewpoint of the Gods:

    We are “gods” with an omnipotent viewpoint in a number of Kurosawa films. As gods, we “play” the role of judges in Rashomon, and in The Lower Depths we are sometimes hiding like rats in the shadows to peep at the human comedy/tragedy unfolding before us. In Seven Samurai we are in the pits beside the road as horses thunder by, we are in the flowers on the mountainside, in the mud beneath the horses’ hooves, and by the shoulder of Mifune when he removes a spear from a bandit’s belly. An elevated viewpoint does not a god make…you think the gods live in the sky? They live in the flowers, in the trees, in the mud. It is the omniscient viewpoint, not the placement of it that makes a god.

    (I am wondering if the increasing use of knowledge technologies isn’t changing the game plan of education radically, in that those who may be privy to knowldege are no longer a select few? In fact, in the lower regions of education, it already has changed to an online format. Is the reality of the magnificent professor with accumulated wisdom and knowledge-the “knowledge god” becoming a relic of the past?).

    Is Ran Kurosawa’s statement of pessimism? Is it a turning point in Kurosawa’s worldview as shown in his films?

    I don’t know that there is a more hopeless view of humanity than that shown in “Throne of Blood”. After all, even if Mifune’s character is a bad man (and that is worthy of discussion) the entire film is about betrayal. In the climax, when Mifune becomes a pincushion, his army betrays him, then the coda shows us the rocks and dust and smoke of burial mounds. Neither army won the unseen final battle. In fact, the battle is not final, and we are to understand humanity will continue on in this way forever until we are mounds of dust.

    I know this will seem wrong to some, and I may decide at some future date that I have made an error in judgement, but I find Ran to be a very life-affirming film. Of course it shows the horrors of war, of betrayal and the abuses of power. It shows the horrible sight of a father abandoned by his children, and his wandering in the desert..encountering the living ghosts of his past sins.

    What warms me, is the fact that has two close allies, who remain by him, who suffer with him. The image of the fool crying over Hidetora returns to my eyes time and time again. The fool, angry to be put in the position of caring for an old man, angry at his fate-yet unable to abandon Hidetora, much as he would like. When I think of Ran I think of the steadfast uprightness of the younger son, who doesn”t sugar-coat his objections to his father-who loves him even when wronged.

    Ran is partly the story of an ageing father and his sons. Nakadai seems to me to very convincingly show us the elderly man, bereft of his power, losing his physical and mental capabilities as well, as strike after strike against him leaves him weaker and more confused. People have told me the Noh makeup is off-putting, and I have read criticism that complains of it. But, it works for me very well to create a kind of aesthtic distance that is the equivalent of the feeling one has encountering the old. I feel that the elderly often call up fear in the hearts of younger people. The elderly are nearer death, and seem to have it about them-they are eerie, frightened and frightening -partaking of the ghost world in their translucent flesh and hair and wispy voices and trembling moans. I feel the age of Hidetora, his compass lost, his entire life questioned.

    My aesthetic response to Ran is not cold, in fact, it is surprisingly warm. I believe that there is still a message, as in early Kurosawa films: placing your own desires above respect for and concern for humanity sows dangerous seeds, and all are hurt by the actions one takes to achieve power and authority over others.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ah, I revise a bit: life affirming may be too upbeat, too positive. Maybe I let words trample my true feelings.

    But warm…well…. Yes, but “human” may be better. The scenes of the fool and Hidetora in the dry landscape seem very personal. The scenes in the fields hunting boar and seeing ghosts-these seem very personal, close, human, warm. They do to me.

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    lawless

    I’m working from memory here from when the movie first came out, but the secnes near the end with the fool and Hidetora were very moving and affecting. My impression of the whole piece, as I recall, was that it was far more pessimistic about the human condition than the other Kurosawa films I’d seen at that time, the most recent of which was Sanjuro (actually, that’s still true, although I own a copy of Rhapsody in August I haven’t taken the time to sit down and watch). I do recall it feeling a bit remote, perhaps because of the pessimism and perhaps because of the perspective. I was blown away by the use of color and design to identify the various armies.

    That’s pretty much it for me and Ran, though I’d like to see it again sometime. Despite being fairly unrelenting in its gloom, I sitll like it better than Rashomon.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless, your “working from memory” phrase seems apt.

    Although I have seen Ran on the big screen and the small, I’m writing from memory, and the residue of what remains. It seems to met that sometime, a film might be appreciated not so much as a frog on the dissection table, but as an experience. Ran was certainly meant to be an experience. The color-coded armies in battle filmed with such incredible beauty-that’s one example. Others are: images of Hidetora as arrows whizz by in the burning castle, Hidetora walking down the stairs of the aforementioned, and the scenes of the Fool and master and the gasping at ghosts in the long grass of the field.

    While panorama and the long view are used extensively, closeups stick in my mind, as well. It may be a trick of memory to bring those images in and hold them close, but I think it is a valid response.

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