To the Knacker’s Yard
It is about power, and its paradoxes. It is about change, its dangers and results. It is about a past too strong to be ignored, and which fights for its right to exist; imagine a wounded soldier returning to a battlefield on which his enemy has built a large and prosperous town. There is a weak king and a strong queen; while illusions and cynical self-interest are much in evidence. The opening is majestic. A vast panorama of green hills, speckled with decorative humans; who traverse this valley with lordly insouciance; having transformed a wild territory into a country estate and royal hunting ground. And yet… against these large hills these great men look tiny. This country they have conquered has turned them into dwarves.
The film ends in a devastated landscape, where a leaderless army marches into exile. There is a barren plain; a ruined castle soaked in the red of a setting sun; and a blind man staring out onto the wreckage. The army leaves, and this man stands alone, a vestige from a more refined and peaceful age. Nothing is left. Not even faith: the image of the Buddha slips from Tsurumaru’s fingers, and falls down the cliff face, where lost and unseen it shines into a darkening sky. Everything is destroyed. A civilisation has died.
This film is a buried treasure of metaphor.
Let’s dig one up…
…and after rubbing off the dried ink from Sight & Sound we pick up a magnifying glass to look closely at the wild boar lying dead in the grass.
Having killed it the hunting party discovers that the boar is too tough, because too old, to be eaten. It is a prophecy of what will happen when Lord Hidetora gives up power to his oldest son, but continues to live with him in the largest of his three castles. His presence too loud and too coarse – his samurai drink and tell lewd stories long into the night – for the refined sensibilities of a son who lacks his father’s authority; Taro unable to digest Hidetora and his entourage, which makes him peevish. And there is no cure, for Taro is too feeble and stupid to impose himself on his father whom he now (formally) governs. This weakness is the Ichimonjis’ tragedy. Unable to exert his legitimate authority Taro depends on his wife to make him rule; Lady Kaede the most ruthless and cleverest character in the film. She argues that as long as Hidetora stays in the castle it is he who will be king. He is a tough old boar who cannot be eaten; and so must be discarded. Having told Taro this truth she acts upon it.
But like all good metaphors it has more than one meaning. The hunt could represent Lord Hidetora’s long fight to consolidate his rule; the boar the valley he now owns. Having established peace through conquest he finds that he cannot enjoy its luxuries; because he is too much the warrior to rule a country where violence has become extinct. A peaceful kingdom is too hard for him to swallow.
A third meaning can be found in the realm itself. Built out of war it depends upon it; its civilised arteries clogged up with an authoritarianism that cannot be removed by a dynasty suffused with the customs of a warrior caste. This is a kingdom too tough for the younger Ichimonjis to eat.
A fourth lies in Lady Kaede. The Ichimonji clan have not been able to digest her; its biggest and most powerful enemy.
The wild boar is a symbol of change. It represents that moment when one type of society is being replaced by another; their qualitative differences for a time overlapping to become mixed up and confused; although the ruling class continue to act as if nothing has changed – they still use the old moral codes, ignorant of their increasing obsolescence. Lady Kaede belongs to the new society, and is very aware of these differences, and the ambiguities they generate; using them to destroy the dynasty. She has the sharpest eyes in this family. She knows that the kill is distinct from the hunt; a dead beast is not the same as food; an intention is different from its outcome; and that fine words do not translate into good actions. In short: she knows that an act carried out with the old moral beliefs is nullified when performed under the new moral code.
It is with these complexities (which arise naturally out of a changing society) that the paradoxes begin. Saburo, the youngest son, tells Hidetora that a family grown up in war cannot live in peace; and yet it is he, the best warrior amongst his brothers, who contradicts his own words, which nonetheless express a profound truth – Taro and Jiro will both betray their father. Times of change are always paradoxical, because the former rules no longer apply; although nearly everyone assumes that they do. What seems reasonable – such as following the old tactics - may actually be irrational in the new circumstances; so that truth may be turned into lies, weakness become strength, while the most blunt and headstrong son is found to be the most respectful of them all. A man’s actions depend on the context, which changes the meaning of everything he does. The Ichimonjis do not understand this. It is their fatal mistake.
A time of peace is different from a time of war. It is a place where the old warrior values have no validity. This is not all. It is not so easy to translate war into peace; for there is a transition period that is full of lethal content; a time when all values and all meanings are topsy-turvy, and where only a genius can grasp them. But Lord Hidetora is the only great man in this family, and he is old and worn out, unable to re-enact the exploits of his youth and maturity. Indeed, it is because he is old that he makes the mistake that ruins his realm; believing that he is strong enough to manage the transition himself. It is beyond him. Ignorant of the essential differences between the two kinds of society – between the one he created out of war and the one he now rules in peace – he is not subtle enough navigate this way through them; and so is outplayed by a master of the game: Lady Kaede brought up to rule a settled kingdom.
Her husband is not a warrior. He is a courtier, whose main weapons are words - diplomacy is more important than violence in an established civilisation. When Hidetora abdicates Taro makes a fine speech about filial piety and the glory of the Ichimonji clan, which has incorporated (eaten up) the local dynasties; Taro himself married to the daughter of the previous valley king whom Hidetora defeated and killed, and whose aristocratic lineage he has grafted onto his own; the very first of his mistakes; for Lady Kaede is too powerful for her weak husband, whom she uses to destroy his family. Tellingly, she is the only character who achieves all her ambitions, although she has to pay the ultimate sacrifice, which she willingly accepts; her one aim to destroy everything that Hidetora has created. Thus in a climatic confrontation with the samurai Kurogane she denies that all the destruction - the madness of Hidetora, the death of his three sons, the ruin of the castle - is due to her vanity. It is revenge, she replies. How they have misread her! Lady Kaede is far too subtle (and too powerful) for these soldiers; amateurs in such language games.
Hidetora is getting old. After fifty years of continuous fighting he has subdued a valley previously ridden with civil war, and has turned it into a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. He wants to retire, in a world where there are no pensions and no National Health Service. His reason for retiring is not clear, although he gives a superficial explanation for his decision – the prophetic scenes of a ruined civilisation he has seen in a nightmare. The only way to prevent such destruction, he argues, is to hand over power while he still lives; remaining in the background to ensure that his sons consolidate his patrimony. His abdication is a sort of insurance policy.
Hidetora doesn’t realise what it means to give up power, even though this brutally explained to him by his youngest son, who says that he cannot expect people who have been educated in war to behave otherwise than cruelly and selfishly. He then exposes his father’s illusions, which Hidetora had sought to prove by a simple symbol: the breaking of a single arrow. After this display he gives his three sons a bundle of three arrows that neither Taro nor Jiro can snap; thus showing that united the Ichimonji family will survive. Saburo, to show his disagreement, uses his knee to break this bundle; a powerful symbolic act that reveals that a simple parable can be falsified by guile (that is, by breaking the rules of the game).
The old ways, which embody the old truths, no longer apply when the situation is revolutionised; although the old psychologies remain; thus Hidetora expects his sons to honour and obey him even after he has surrendered all his power. This is his madness. For he has confused the old warrior community, where the kingship was his coterminous with his character, with the new society of diplomats and officials, where power has devolved into impersonal rules and institutional practices. The foundations on which authority is built have changed, but Hidetora does not recognise this until forced to submit to the effete Taro, who guided by his wife simply applies the rules of this civilised state, which immediately destroys the old warrior’s values. And they are right, on their own terms. For it is true that Hidetora’s samurai, by being loud and coarse, unsettle the atmosphere of the fort, undermining the authority of Taro, and therefore undercutting the legitimacy of the kingship; which although it floats a little free of individual personalities is still tied to a king’s character. By creating a confrontation Lady Kaede cuts this tie, for relying on Hidetora to adhere to the old warrior customs of respect and honour she knows that he will not remain in the castle after he has been insulted. The rope cut his boat will drift off down the river; or more prosaically: authority will now be solely invested in the institution of the king and not in any individual person, thus when Taro dies Jiro is automatically recognised as his legitimate successor.
Hidetora is trapped by the old warrior codes that enabled him to first conquer the kingdom. Knowing this Lady Kaede uses the new rules of the new culture, rules that do not recognise the old customs as either legitimate or binding, to defeat him. Taro asks his father to sign a pledge, which according to his legal counsel is merely confirming on paper what has been previously agreed. Nothing has changed, he says. But of course everyone knows that everything has changed; Taro is forcing his father to sign a formal document relinquishing his authority, whereas before he merely accepted the kingdom as a gift; which in principle (though not in practice) is revocable at any time. A warrior’s word of honour has been replaced by a written contract, which neutralises it – in effect Taro is saying that he doesn’t trust his father, and that only a signed statement can guarantee his promise; authority now invested in the abstract rules of the kingdom, to which they both must adhere. The magic of authority is drained out of the individual and is inscribed into parchment (which represents the institution of kingship). The sword has given away to the quill; the idiosyncratic personality to the impersonal crown. It is words that now dominate actions, and power lies in the manipulation of symbols, of which Lady Kaede is a virtuoso. Thus it is only when he signs his name that Hidetora gives up all this authority; it is the moment he accepts the legitimacy of the new order, and is lost.
This is a clash between two cultures; Lady Kaede representing an established aristocracy, Lord Hidetora the upstart warrior clan. They are two extremes. In the middle are the three sons; a varied mixture of both – born into war they have been educated out of it -, who lack the talent to manage the transition between them. It is not so easy to settle a kingdom after conquering it, and to then hand it down the hereditary line. Different rules apply; while the situation is in constant flux, values and tactics rapidly change, making the old ideas quickly obsolete. Thus the flattery of Taro, a court sophisticate, clashes with the blunt manners of Saburo, whose behaviour seems out of date - civilised aristocrats do not talk like this in a sophisticated court.
These changes have affected their father: Hidetora is old, and preferring peace to war succumbs to the power of fine words. In a great court truth is dangerous, because if serious it demands action that could undermine the existence of the realm, especially as Hidetora is no longer personally strong enough to defend it with force; his power existing in the organised structure of his kingdom; his authority exercised not through violence but through his reputation and the customs his long rule has created. Truth may actually destroy such a society, because they force a secure but fragile institution to act (with unpredictable consequences). Intelligence and guile are prerequisites for this kind of government, as Hidetora realises when faced with a dilemma he cannot resolve: which king’s daughter shall he take for his sole remaining son. The old ways are no longer available – he has no more sons after Saburo – and he can’t think up any new ones; until, that is, he falls asleep, and has a nightmare.
The nightmare seems genuine. Hidetora’s interpretation, though, is far too convenient, and allows him to sidestep his dilemma by arguing that only abdication can he prevent the destruction he has dreamt. Confronted with a crisis Hidetora avoids it, and submits himself to dreams; real and make-believe (his fantasies for a safe future). It is a sign that the great king is weak and out of his depth.
He wants to retire. But he does not want to give up the lifestyle of a great king; expecting to be treated with the same esteem, Hidetora assumes he will exercise the freedoms of old, partying with his samurai late into the night. But he can only enjoy these privileges if he has the power to enforce them. Superficially this is still the case. His personality is much stronger than Taro’s; and he retains his own warriors, while the castle guards still defer to him when there is any conflict. He has not relinquished his authority, which remains invested in his person. It thus appears that only the formalities have changed; the charismatic content, Hidetora’s personality, remaining as powerful as ever.
Lady Kaede knows differently. The invisible rules of conduct, together with the atmosphere of authority, that govern established institutions have in fact shifted power to her husband if he is prepared to use it. She makes him. In a great court it is images and words that rule; appearance is everything. Understanding the value of symbols Lady Kaede plays them perfectly; insisting that Hidetora’s harem step aside to allow her retinue to enter the castle (from above, from where Hidetora sees them, they look like two competing armies lined up along the narrow corridors between the castle’s walls). She is forcing Hidetora to pay respect to his son, enacting those hidden sinews of power that will ensure Taro rules over his father; her strategy culminating in the humiliation of the pledge, which propels the old king to leave his home.
The first fall has been prolonged, devious and complex. The second is quick and simple, and very obvious; and is a direct consequence of Hidetora’s loss of power: Jiro effectively bans him from his castle, by refusing entry to his samurai.
The transition from a warrior clan to a settled aristocracy is proving difficult. There are so many unforeseen obstacles! So many actors from a past Hidetora had thought he had vanquished; the dead and the defeated rising up to revenge his triumphs; such as the young prince he once blinded resurrected from oblivion to reveal his cruelty and injustice. Hidetora cannot escape the fate he has himself crafted. To have retired in safety he had first to wipe out that past; the only way to protect himself against it; so terrible have been his deeds. An impossibility, of course, although his refusal to rescind his abdication shows that this is exactly what he is trying to do. Thus he acts as if the past does not exist. He is mad, obviously. Taken up with his own vanity he thinks he can make history vanish. It is to disabuse him. The past is too strong and too stubborn to submit to a mere mortal. It will rise up and rebel. It will have its vengeance!
He has a dream, and he (knowingly?) misreads its portents. It is a sign that Hidetora no longer understands the kingdom he has created; a truth he cannot recognise until it is too late; until after his two eldest sons try to kill him, and he loses all honour because he cannot commit seppuku (his broken sword a lovely metaphor for the impotence of weapons in what is essentially a political struggle). Now he has lost everything. His world collapses. And he falls into madness and vagabondage. The entire family are soon to follow him, because of the machinations of Lady Kaede, who controls this chaos. Power has shifted to a new kind of ruler.
Could he have acted differently? It is like asking a gravedigger to do open heart surgery – both he and Lord Hidetora are trapped by their past work. He does try to escape its influence, thus his abdication. It refuses to let him go, and invades and eventually destroys his mind. A man who has created his own kingdom is too powerful to listen to reason; if he had he would never have been king – all the facts would have argued against him. He needed a strong will and belief in himself to be the conqueror of this valley. Such characters always teeter on the edge of insanity; only their ability to relentlessly shape the world to their own designs keeps them sane. Lose this ability and they may lose their minds, as they continue trying to mould world that now resists them, until eventually only the fantasy is left. Kurosawa captures this in a brilliant image. His honour gone Hidetora walks out of his ruined castle between the long lines of his sons’ armies. His once powerful mind and his tough charismatic personality have been consumed in the flames. He has nothing. He is an empty shell. A body without a brain. He is a ghost. Left to wander the wilderness with his fool; his few moments of sanity are entirely dependent upon the people he meets: the blind Tsurumaru, the honest samurai, and the tenderness of Saburo, who restores him temporarily to mental clarity and happiness. What a transformation! After his fall Lord Hidetora is completely at the mercy of events. Now it is they that control him.
The joyous reunion with Saburo reveals that his experiences have not fundamentally changed Hidetora. Reconciled to his youngest son, who now seems destined to secure the kingdom, all his guilt and doubts vanish, like steam out of an open window. Previously Hidetora couldn’t face Saburo because he was ashamed at his own failure, his inability to listen to the truth. Confronted with his injustice and his own weakness he found a refuge in lunacy. But now Saburo has shown the magnanimity of a true warrior Hidetora’s sanity returns and he reverts to his old habits of thought. Ran is no morality tale. It knows that life is too subtle for simple moral precepts. One mistake can lead to ruin, and nothing, once the act has been committed, can be done to rectify it. Worse: even a mistake might look like, might even be, the right decision at the time it was made; only hindsight can decide, and it is powerless.
Maybe there was nothing Hidetora could have done. Whatever decision he made about Saburo’s bride would have upset at least one king, who may have used it as an excuse for war. The most obvious explanation for his madness is that Hidetora is not aware of this truth and so torments himself with his mistakes, until he loses his mind in a dense thicket of wrong turnings and imaginary exits. A subtler explanation is to argue that he is driven insane precisely because he realises the impossibility of ever having made the right decision; Hidetora forced to confront his own impotency: he was a king who’d lost control of his kingdom long before his fall.
Lady Kaede is at home in this realm. She understands its workings intimately. She knows that power no longer resides in the actions of one big man, but is dispersed within a labyrinth of signs and symbols that can be rearranged into patterns of which only she can comprehend and control. Working behind the scenes she imposes her will first on Taro and later on Jiro, the middle brother. She has authority, intelligence and sexual charisma, and she uses them to dominate these men who lack Hidetora’s ruthlessness and will. Such is her power she actually scares them. She is the warrior! She kills with words. In a magnificent scene she rapidly changes from submissive widow to crazy assassin to cocotte so as to trap Jiro into a marriage that she will dominate. Although tougher than his elder brother Jiro is also lost inside a world he doesn’t understand, the sexual politics of Lady Kaede too subtle and too compelling for him to unravel, or to overcome. His henchman, a warrior of the old school, warns him of the danger. He tells a fairy tale about the fox-devil who takes on female form, and destroys the men she meets. It has no effect. The blunt truth cannot compete with the stealthy caress, the lingering kiss, the sex filled promises, or with the lethal threats dressed up in the finest courtly language. Lady Kaede governs now. It is one of the many paradoxes that it is she, a woman born into a highly civilised court which represents the cultural summit of a peaceful existence, who is the cause of all the film’s violence. By the time she dies she has released a total war. This was her vision: the complete destruction of the Ichimonji family. She is the greatest warrior of the hour, even though she kills no one; a paradox and a literal truth; for in times of peace power doesn’t stand on the parade ground but sits in the state offices and relaxes in the palace bedrooms.
Hidetora wanted peace. But now he must make a choice that will almost certainly lead to war. As he contemplates his decision Saburo makes a crude remark that could be deemed offensive. The brothers argue, and their father falls asleep. Is he pretending, ashamed of Saburo’s behaviour, as the brother’s think, or is he really sleeping, worn out by old age? We are unsure.
Later he storms out of his enclosure in a confused state, and then immediately announces his abdication in favour of Taro. There is surprise and consternation…
It looks genuine, but… is he play-acting?
There is a third explanation that works as a lovely metaphor for the whole film: he begins by pretending, but then actually falls asleep, later experiencing a real nightmare, to which he gives a dodgy meaning. The sequence is symbolically perfect: control (the pretence), a period of semi or automatic management (sleeping), and finally the complete loss of authority (the nightmare) when he misreads Lady Kaede’s strategy.
The nightmare can be interpreted in many different ways, and the decisions based on those interpretations will also wildly vary. This dream, therefore, is not a good enough reason for an abdication. Is he taking the easy way out? Faced with an impossible decision, whatever he does will offend at least one king, is Hidetora abdicating his responsibility, passing it onto his sons who are not strong enough to take it? If so, it is a sign that he is indeed getting old, and no longer has the strength (or the appetite) to maintain his realm by leading the family into yet another war, which may be the only way to save it.
But what if he is play-acting (although this seems unlikely)? Then his abdication can be seen as a wily move to get out of a difficult diplomatic situation; a tactic destined to fail because he doesn’t understand the changed nature of his kingdom - Lady Kaede has the power to prevent him ruling from behind the scenes.
Either he is too weak to keep the peace, or he misplays his hand. In either case Hidetora is no longer capable of ruling this realm. Lady Kaede had won even before the film had begun.
The great Lord Hidetora started life as a parvenu warrior ruling the smallest castle in the valley. In fifty years of continuous fighting he captured or destroyed all the other castles, and went on to occupy the largest fort, which became his headquarters. During this time he broke all the rules, and created new ones of his own. Now, when he hands over his crown, he follows tradition and gives the kingship to his oldest son Taro; the younger two to remain in feudal bond to their brother. It is a terrible mistake. Saburo is a natural king. It is he who should have been given the succession. To save his realm the great warrior had do something far greater than conquering a valley - he had overturn tradition, perhaps even destroy it. Hidetora was not great enough for that. Tamely he follows custom and gives Taro his crown, although it is Lady Kaede who will wear it; the past to consume this valley like flood waters from a ruptured dam. To tear down castle walls is easy. To smash up a culture is a very hard thing to do indeed. Too hard for the great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji.
(Review of Ran)