Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (1985)

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on ‘s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself; unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (King Lear III.iv.109-115)

Lear, betrayed by two of his three daughters and reduced to wretchedness, speaks these lines to his Fool and two of the only politicos in the kingdom still loyal to him. Given his desperation, we can understand his nihilism: what are humans, after all, but tortured (“forked”) animals?

Ran, which means “chaos,” is Akira Kurosawa’s mediation on this nihilism. The film, an adaptation of Lear, switches the three daughters for three sons and removes the setting to feudal Japan, but the rest of the narrative is largely faithful to the original text. Hidetora, the Lear-figure, certainly undergoes struggles similar to Lear’s — the “chaos” of the title — only to realize at the end that the suffering was largely unnecessary and meaningless. No good comes from the mass bloodshed. No overt moral develops over the course of the chaotic narrative. Much the same as with Lear, we are left helplessly, haplessly empty-handed. But what a path we take to this empty-handedness! You get an idea of Ran‘s paradoxically enthralling nihilism from even the trailer:

Why do we put ourselves through the nihilistic trauma of narratives like Lear and Ran? I contend that a dose of nihilism once in a while is healthy even for those of us who do not wholly proscribe to the philosophy, for it forces us to confront the bitter realities of life; it requires us to bear witness the full brunt of human suffering; and ultimately it leads us to appreciate the flashes of light that illuminate our existences. We may be but tortured animals, but that does not mean that we must drown in the chaotic mire of life.

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