Second Breakfast: Brush Up Your Shakespeare 7: Samurai Shakespeare


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So, this might end up being a bit of a summer of Shakespeare, but you’re all okay with that, right? As I may have mentioned, I recently graduated college. I guess I did pretty well, but I made two fatal errors: I studied English and Film. Crap, right? Seeing as how I’m not going to be overwhelmed with the opportunity to put either knowledge to use, you’ll have to forgive this week’s article as a tad self-indulgent. It’s not every day I get to be an obnoxious English nerd and an obnoxious film nerd. Just Sundays. Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1983)





The Plots: Macbeth and King Lear, respectively, but with samurai! You get Olivier and Welles, and they’re both pretty legit, and then you Branagh and Eyre, and they’re pretty good from time to time, I guess, but let me tell you, as an English/Film nerd, seeing Akira Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare is a blessing. I’m gonna try to keep a handle on myself, but if I end up annoying you, just stop reading and never come back to this website ever again. Wait… no, scratch that last part. Come back every day; we’d love the hits. You may wonder, though, what on earth this lowly “Internet” critic could possibly have to say about these films that hasn’t been said. The answer is, of course, nothing at all. So why continue reading? Presumably, if you’re still reading at this point, then you just have nothing better to do. If you do have something better to do, I encourage you to do it now. The funny thing about both Macbeth and King Lear, and actually most of the tragedies, is that direct film adaptations tend to, how should I say? Suck. They tend to suck. This is the inherent pitfall of Shakespeare movies: there are a ton of them, and most of them have nothing new to say about the text. Obviously, having nothing new to say isn’t really Kurosawa’s shtick. In my humble opinion, indirect adaptations are the way to go with Shakespeare’s tragedies. The comedies, meh. The histories should be direct, usually. Lending the familiar samurai aesthetic of Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Kurosawa adapts the Bard’s material in an original, previously unseen (on film) way. The first film, Throne of Blood, functions as a testament to the potential of the adaptive process. He provides a new screenplay, a new temporal and geographical setting, and new characters. What’s really impressive, though, is how Kurosawa preserves Shakespeare’s original morals within the context of a completely different society. Feudal Japan has some superficial similarities to Medieval Scotland, and the code of the samurai has its parallels to the knights’ code, but mostly the manners and social constructs of these two civilizations are very different.



Toshiro Mifune’s interpretation of Macbeth is wild, vicious, and paranoid. Unlike the cool and calculated protagonist of Sanjuro and Yojimbo, this character possesses the fury and heat of Mifune’s Seven Samurai character. The product is a war hero who lives for the glory and violence of battle, and is accustomed to adoration and reverence from his men. Once he loses a grasp on that and enters a world of politics and murder, the constructs that have defined his whole existence no longer apply, and he’s lost in a world without rules and regulations, sort of like Coriolanus. Kurosawa often favors Ronin samurai to those that live within the military hierarchy, but his revision of Macbeth demonstrates the necessity of a code in a strict society, and what can happen when that code is tampered with. The final product speaks to the remarkable ways in which Shakespeare can bridge cultural gaps and centuries, and still be relevant. Ran appropriates Shakespeare in a different manner. King Lear is undeniably one of the best tragedies, if not the best. It’s a story about an aged king whose conniving offspring conspire to overthrow him and divide the kingdom amongst themselves, except for one, who remains loyal despite the king’s developing madness. A lot of the tragedies, while tragic in a literary sense, aren’t actually all that sad. Macbeth is tragic, but you’re not weeping at the end of it. Same with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Of course, a good performance could make them sad, but some of these plays are heartbreaking on the page. King Lear is one of those. It is both tragic and sad.


Picture: Tragedy and shot composition.

Ran is tragic, but it is not sad. This could be considered a fault in the adaptation, but I do not think Kurosawa’s objective is to create a personable anguish. Though he had a few movies left in him before he died, Ran is the last samurai film he ever directed. Kurosawa’s career ended with a highly personal film, Dreams, which functions as a farewell and a private statement. Ran is an epic of kingdoms, war, politics, and violence; it’s nearly three hours long, sports grandiose sets and costumes, a striking color pallet, and some truly impressive (if occasionally self-indulgent) shot composition. It is not a sendoff from Kurosawa to film, but specifically to the samurai subgenre. He gives it the death it deserves: not quiet and noble, but loud, messy, and highly tragic. Though Kurosawa always favored the Ronin narrative, his final foray with samurai explores the intricacies of the medieval culture, portrayed in a fashion that will appeal to the widest audience by exploiting a universally familiar story: Shakespeare’s King Lear. These are two of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations of all time, and both function as testaments to the Bard’s broad appeal and applicability. It’s only fitting that a master of one narrative medium should excel so much in handling the material of a master of another. Pardon me for nerding so hard. I’m done now.

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