Saturday, 7 December 2013

Case by Case

What is a generalisation?  It is a statement that is both truth and false at the same time.  Alternatively, and perhaps more accurately, it is a statement that can mean something and nothing.  To narrow it down still further: the better the generalisation the more individual the content it will contain; a good generalisation actually explaining something about a phenomenon rather than merely describing a few of its surface features.  The worst generalisations are those that can be applied to everything: humans have a heart.  Now we are getting close to where we want to go: there are some generalisations that useful and others that are superfluous.  If we were of a mind we could create a scale to rate them.

The themes of Ran are the evil of humanity, the deadly heritage of warfare, and madness.  But in the showing of all this horror, Kurosawa leaves us one great consolation: the beauty of the art with which he reveals all.  (Michael Wilmington, BFI Notes)

Michael Wilmington is right.  But…we feel short-changed.  It’s like…he’s gone to Brighton, and writes to tell us it has a beach and a pier.  Its distinct character lost in a statement of the obvious; serviceable as an entry in an encyclopaedia, but of use for little else.  On our scale it would rate 1 out of 10.  For of course this film is about the past, about war, about evil, about madness.  Of course it is beautiful.  Of course!  Of course!  Of course!  It is impossible to disagree; though oh how I want to…  Easy to turn skeptic and say Ran is about none of these things.  Play the fool Mr Schloss, why don’t you?  But that is to waste time on stupid cleverness.  And anyway, Michael Wilmington is right; albeit I’m sure the press release could tell us as much.  Shouldn’t criticism be more than this?  Are war, evil and madness so simple that merely to name them is to explain them?  As if each didn’t contain a multitude of differences.

Kurosawa doesn’t simply illustrate the evil of humanity; he shows how, through the ambiguities arising from social change, evil can be set free; a warning lesson to all reformers and radicals; and all idealists who think society can be improved by merely implementing their own ideas - it is the contingencies that are decisive in revolutionary times.

Kurosawa does show us “the deadly heritage of war”; but it is a minor point.  Far more importantly, we see how lethal is the civilised present – it is the queen, brought up to rule a refined and peaceful court, who is the great destroyer here.  If Hidetora had remained king and fought a war his kingdom may have survived with at least some tranquillity.  Violence can be beneficial.  Thus Hidetora would never created this realm, and the valley would never have known peace, if he had been modest and reasonable, and pacific.i  Sometimes war is exactly what is required.  While the effects of an evil act can be so complex; after the initial cause there is a vast middle ground of unpredictable stuff, those contingencies that are so easily forgotten, that determines the course of events.  The past is very important, but how we use it in the present is most important of all.

Hidetora is evil.  And yet…there are times when evil can be good for the society (as a whole).  If he had remained king he may have prevented the destruction of this kingdom, which is now a civilised place, as all the heinous deeds were done in the past.  Indeed, peace is maintained by his brutality, which has been domesticated within the court. 

His collapse is due to ignorance, not to immorality.  Hidetora doesn’t understand the kind of society he has created, and faced with a dilemma he makes the wrong decision, and loses control.  Power then passes to Lady Kaede, a court sophisticate who is aware that the nature of authority has changed.

Lady Kaede has been formed by her bitter memories; her lifeblood soaking up the cruelty inherent in her family’s fall.  Once again Michael Wilmington is right: the old king cannot escape his past.  It is another minor point.  For Lady Kaede succeeds because of her supreme mastery of the present; that interregnum when a warrior caste is being transformed into a bureaucratic elite, a time full of ambiguous circumstance.  Too much talk about heritage hides the actual causes of this realm’s collapse that are highly specific and contemporary; for like all revolutions they not determined by the past but arise out of the possibilities the past creates; possibilities which only those who have the talent can exploit successfully.  In this film something very odd has happened: a warrior king has voluntarily abdicated.  This strangeness unsettles and confuses the social order, giving the queen her chance to destroy it.  Lady Kaede the great improviser and revolutionary leader taking control of this confused and confusing time to create the chaos which will fulfil her vision – the destruction of the Ichimonji family.ii  Trapped by the old customs, and unable to conceive of a queen who wants to destroy the kingdom, the Ichimonjis, unaware that the nature of power has changed, are outplayed and eradicated.  No longer exercised through the acquisition of territory and wealth power now exists simply in the destructive impulse.  The more chaotic the situation, the more wreckage it produces, the more powerful Lady Kaede becomes until there is no kingdom left at all.

Mr Wilmington’s generalisations hide so much.  They can also mislead us.

Kurosawa leaves us with one great consolation: the beauty of art with which he reveals all.

The beauty exists to heighten the effects.  For those of an ethereal frame of mind this might be a consolation – the content of the work ignored in favour of its purely aesthetic elements.  But I can hardly believe this was the director’s intention.iii  Others, of a more empathetic temperament, will be left like the landscape – devastated.  Such beauty, so common to classical tragedy, creates crystalline images that in their purity and force strike us with the touch of truth.  They make us feel the fate of these characters.  Not once do we think that the beauty here is mere decoration, it is too fused with purpose and truth to be other than integral to the film’s moral.  The scene when Hidetora leaves the burning castle is extraordinary; it also encapsulates in a single image the moment when all power is lost.  The battle scenes are terrible and stunning, just as Lady Kaede imagines them to be: destruction can be as aesthetically pleasing as creation.  We must be wary of beauty.  Just as Jiro should have been wary of the beautiful Lady Kaede, who hides an assassin’s knife in the folds of her exquisite kimono.  Art is dangerous.  It is a lesson we all should have learnt by now.

[i] For the reasoning behind these arguments see my previous piece, To the Knacker’s Yard.
[ii] It is interesting to compare her to Lenin, who in 1917 actively encouraged the destruction of the Russian state, knowing this was the one opportunity the Bolsheviks had to seize power.  (See Adam B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and Leonard Shapiro, 1917; The Russian Revolutions and the Origins of Present-Day Communism)
[iii] Truffaut once said that the critics have a tendency to prefer the form of a work to its meaning, although for an artist the latter is its most important element (Letters).


  1. I think your interpretation of the film is fine, it is your interpretation. However, your emphasis that it is trying to show the changes in society and perils of such changes might be a little bit farfetched.
    To me, it is a tragedy, a good old fashioned tragedy. The story has many messages. It is more about the condition of mankind, we kill and murder, and the blood we draw catches up with us eventually. Humanity cannot build “civilisation” on death and warfare. The great lord is mankind paying the price of his foolishness, vacuous self confidence and lack of morality. Every one of us is a Lord Hidetora, so assured of our place in the universe and yet so weak and vulnerable. He cannot even kill himself, he looks for a sword or dagger to kill himself and can’t find one, he jumps off a cliff and survives the fall. He is condemned to face up to what he has done to create his kingdom.
    Korosawa as a child saw the horror of the Hiroshima when he walked through the utter destruction with his older brother. He visualises the scenes in the film very well. And the blind prince at the edge of the void is mankind, done away with faith and morality (image of Buddha falling off), tinkering at the edge.

  2. Are all tragedies exactly the same? Aeschylus, Racine, Shakespeare; Ibsen in the 19th century... Surely not. If we look closely we will find not only superficial details of costume and idiom but also deep differences in social action and mentality, which are intrinsic to the plot. Of course these can be hard to find; the reason why we have to look for them on the edges of things; on a piece of parchment or amongst the folds of Lady Kaede’s kimono. Once we have found these microscopic details we can then improvise upon them, as I do in To the Knackers Yard, hoping they will say something profound and original. Hope, I must emphasize, not believe.

    The assumption behind this comment is that tragedy is replete within itself. Its events just happen; they emanate mysteriously from the very essence of humanity. Indeed, with no social process involved at all, the whole play becomes a sort of deus ex machina. Tragedy is thus seen as a metaphysical thing; an abstract form that elucidates a human nature that is always and everywhere the same. It is a view of theatre that is extra-territorial. Art has been turned into a god.

    Of course there is a large degree of truth to such a view. But it is not the whole truth. A significant part of our identity is created by society. In these pieces I argue that if we look closely at the film’s subtleties we can see how this society determines the narrative details of this tragedy. To do so I abstract and refine the evidence; and also use a modest amount of imagination. Look with fresh eyes and you will see, I am sure, what I see. “Far-fetched”? “Old-fashioned” gives the game away…

    I agree with you on the tragic aspects of this film (it is the very point I make in this piece). However, to be of value criticism cannot be satisfied with stating the obvious. It has to be better than that! In my view lit or film crit should be literature in its own right; William Empson and V.F. Perkins good as any great novelist. And as literature it will have its own insights and fancies which both illuminate the work and stimulate others to see it differently. Look anew! It is all I ask.