Samurai Shakespeare

Here’s an old essay I wrote for one of my film history courses in college. It’s one of the few pieces of writing about film that I am actually somewhat proud of:

William Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into the film medium countless times. Some of these film adaptations attempt to preserve the original setting and feel of the plays, some of them place the characters into the modern world, and others are slightly more liberal with their creative license. Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s most prominent film director of the 20th century, directed two adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. “Throne of Blood,” a version of “Macbeth” set in feudal Japan and “Ran,” a slightly looser re-imagining of “King Lear,” set in the Sengoku period, were successful interpretive adaptations of the plays, despite their significant differences in time and place. While many argue that Shakespeare’s plays are above this kind of adaptation, that they should only be performed as they were written, what Kurosawa did in his samurai films is no different than what Shakespeare himself did to parts of Holinshed’s Chronicles and the legend of Leir of Britain, the original sources of “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” respectively. That is, both men took stories known to their modern audiences and created versions of them with familiar settings that were adaptatative, interpretive, and, of course, entertaining, with respect paid to the previous works that inspired them.

“King Lear” and “Macbeth” are two of Shakespeare’s tragic masterpieces. Both, in essence, tell the story of a king’s fall and the resulting aftermath. Lear’s fall is the result of perceived disloyalty on the part of Cordelia, and misplaced trust in Goneril and Regan. Duncan’s death is the result of Macbeth’s ambitions for power. It could be said that Goneril, Regan, and Macbeth have some similarities. All three were given a portion of power, which they used to oust, in one way or another, the king who gave it to them. In both plays, there are also characters acting slightly more behind the scenes, such as Edmund or Lady Macbeth – characters that know how to play off the weaknesses of the supposedly stronger leads. These similarities must have been noticed by Kurosawa when he chose which of Shakespeare’s plays to adapt to the screen, even if the two films were made with almost 30 years between them.

Often, readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare have the wrong idea about his plays. Because of their lack of knowledge, they tend to view him as a writer who created all these wonderful stories. While there is no denying that he was an absolutely brilliant writer and master of storytelling and language crafting, his plays were inspired by historical tradition, well-known myths and other stories, and even other plays. Shakespeare used his plays to bring these other works to life in a way his audience at the time would appreciate. This often resulted in him changing minor (or major) details, adding or removing characters, or placing the characters into a contemporary or other setting.

“King Lear” is based on the story of Leir of Britain, an early English king whose story was told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Leir divided his kingdom between his two eldest daughters because his youngest denied him assurance of her love. Shakespeare’s version does not change any of these aspects of the story. However, in the original legend, Leir, after being treated poorly by the two elder daughters, finds his youngest and they eventually take back the kingdom. The tragic figure that is King Lear comes to no such happy ending. In addition to changing the ending and, obviously, fleshing out the characters, Shakespeare also added a parallel storyline with Gloucester and his two sons. The tragic ending itself may have been the result of Shakespeare changing his own original play, as there is another version probably written by him as well, which was used in many productions until as recently as the mid-20th century.

While the changes in “King Lear” from its inspirational texts were mostly for the sake of the story’s theme and plot, sometimes Shakespeare made changes that were the result of other issues. “Macbeth” has one of these changes, in addition to a few more, from the popular story in Holinshed’s Chronicles, on which it is based. This change takes place in regards to Banquo. In the original story, he was an accomplice of Macbeth’s in the murder of the king. At the time of Shakespeare’s writing, most people believed that Banquo was an ancestor of James I, so making him out to be a murderer was something Shakespeare probably did not want to do. In addition to political reasons, Banquo’s changes could have been for dramatic purposes as well.

Akira Kurosawa is most known for his epic films “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai.” Including those two, he directed 30 movies in all, most of which were Sengoku period samurai films. The Sengoku period is considered the time in Japan from the 15th to the 17th century in which the nation was in constant social upheaval and during which military conflict was the norm. Many historical figures from the period are fictionalized in Kurosawa’s films, including Mori Motonari, one of the inspirations (alongside King Lear) for Hidetora Ichimonji in “Ran.” Kurosawa is one of the best known Japanese directors in the West, having won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy Awards in 1989, and in Japan, he has gone from being considered a genius, to a has-been, to a legend, throughout his 50 year career and beyond his death in 1993. At two points during his long career, he chose to adapt Shakespeare plays into samurai films. The first of these was “Throne of Blood,” a “Macbeth” adaptation, released in 1957.

As has already been discussed, Shakespeare took some liberties when adapting “Macbeth” from his sources. Kurosawa took the ideas presented in “Macbeth” and changed the names of characters, the setting, the time period, some of the plot, and all of the dialogue (which was necessary considering he was working in Japanese rather than English). Aside from the Sengoku setting and traditional Japanese samurai characters, one of the first changes noticeable to a viewer familiar with “Macbeth” is related to the the Weird Sisters, or Three Witches. In Kurosawa’s version, there is only one witch – an old lady who lives in a hut in the forest, working on spinning some thread. This is probably a reference to the mythological idea of a thread being someone’s life or destiny. Also, the single “witch” could be a representation of an Amanjaku, a Japanese mythological demon who can see into a person’s heart and provoke their darkest desires. To a Japanese audience, the imagery would have been immediately evident. Another major difference is that there is no character that corresponds well with Macduff, so Washizu, the Macbeth character, has no rival once Miki (Banquo) is killed. Instead of being killed in a duel, Washizu’s own men turn on him in the end and shoot him in the back with arrows. All throughout the film, Lady Washizu is portrayed as emotionless while she murders her guests and continually goads on her husband’s aspirations to the throne. That is, until she completely breaks down and commits suicide in the end.

“Throne of Blood” was made during a time in Japan when the fall of the emperor and the defeat of the country during World War II was still fresh in the minds of the people. Kurosawa’s films are considered by some to be a nostalgic look at a time in which emperors warred with each other, and samurai were noble warriors, but “Throne of Blood” depicts a very different look at these issues. Washizu is a great warrior, but he is by no means a noble man, and the emperor who preceded him is only in power because he took it by force when he killed the previous ruler – something Lady Washizu is quick to point out when Washizu is having doubts about killing him. The warrior mentality in Japan after World War II was quickly diminishing, as was the loyalty to emperors that sent men to battle for honor and glory. “Throne of Blood” is both an examination of these Japanese ideas and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s great play at the same time.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1985, Kurosawa decided to direct one more Shakespeare adaptation, “Ran,” which is loosely based on “King Lear.” The meaning of “ran” in Japanese translates to “chaos,” which is a major theme throughout the movie, especially after Hidetora , the Lear figure, is banished. Again, in his version, there are quite a few changes. The most obvious change is that the king does not have three daughters, but rather three sons – Taro (Goneril), Jiro (Regan), and Saburo (Cordelia). This is because Kurosawa’s original idea when making the film was to create a story based on Motonari, a famous historical ruler in Japan who divided his kingdom amongst his three talented sons. The twist is that Motonari’s sons were all loyal to him, whilst Lear and Hidetora were not so lucky. Another interesting omission in “Ran” is the entire plot involving Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester. Some of what happens in that plot is transposed onto the main plot, such as with Tango, who fills the role of Kent and Edgar when disguised. Hidetora himself ends up blinded for part of the film, which is a reference to Gloucester. However, Edmund is missing completely. A role that is much more prominent in “Throne of Blood” is that of the fool. He is present with Hidetora from the very first scene and is shown to be probably his most loyal servant.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the sons are the focus of the film, just as in “Throne of Blood,” their wives act in the background with emotionless ambition, egging on their husbands to fight against each other, against their father, and against Seguro. Unlike Lady Washizu, though, the women have more spelled out reasons for their actions. While King Lear is presented as an out of touch old man, prone to anger but otherwise who gains the audience’s sympathy, Hidetora was a ruthless conqueror. His armies plundered the lands run by the castles he gives to his sons, and he killed the families of the women who he forced to marry his sons. Nobody in the film is innocent, except possibly Seguro himself.

By 1985, Akira Kurosawa was considered in Japan to be a director steeped in tradition, but ultimately his films were undesirable by then. To get financing for “Ran,” Kurosawa actually had to go outside of the country and eventually found funding from a French company. In addition to these problems, he was going blind in his old age. “Ran” was his last epic, and while it was moderately well-received at the time, it was not until much later that it was looked at as one of his best. He said at one point that the film was somewhat about himself. Obviously he was not a ruthless killer like Hidetora, but he was the “king” of Japanese cinema for a very long time and had reached the end of his prime.

By 1985, World War II and the Japanese emperors were quite a bit more removed from public thought, so it is probable that Kurosawa had a different mindset when choosing how to portray a king. Hidetora eventually goes mad, as does Lear, but it is not until after he is blind and has given up. It has even been recorded that Kurosawa attempted suicide at one point before making “Ran.” His last few films were not about Samurai or kings at all. Their time had come and gone, just as his did.

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