Followers of my posts must be acutely aware, at this point, of my love of theatre in addition to my love of film. So, unsurprisingly, when I saw a class offered this semester called “Stage and Screen,” I added it to my cart immediately. We started the semester by diving into some Shakespeare, and a few weeks ago we watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear.
I could easily devote multiple blog posts to this one incredibly rich film. In class we primarily discussed how an epic tale like King Lear can be adapted for the screen, taking into account factors like the storm, the madness of Lear, the massive-scale battles, etc. What I was most interested in, however, was one particular character in the film whom we discussed briefly in class but whom I want to explore further. What better place to do that than in a blog post?
One of the most thought-provoking discrepancies between Ran and King Lear is a major gender-swap that occurs. Instead of the king dividing up his kingdom amongst his three daughters as he does in the play, Hidetora divides his kingdom amongst his three sons in Ran. When we initially discussed this modification before watching the film, I was apprehensive. There is definitely some justification for making this choice. Ran is set in Medieval Japan, in which men held immense power over women. Yet I still found this choice problematic, as the daughters are so central to my vision of anything remotely based upon King Lear. Additionally, the other Kurosawa films I’ve seen, Seven Samurai and Rashomon, are also both male-dominated, and I was frustrated by the fact that Ran, with this gender-swap, looked like it was moving in the same direction. However, my frustration did not last long. Ran definitely is dominated in quantity by male characters, but Kurosawa actually does give authority to women through his implementation of a female character who I would argue is an extremely powerful and intriguing character.
Lady Kaede is the wife of Taro, Hidetora’s oldest son. From her very first appearance in the film, we become aware of the extreme power she has with words. It is after Taro has moved into the First Castle in the kingdom to assume his position as head of the house of Ichimonji that we first meet Lady Kaede. Hidetora has just made the announcement that he will be dividing his land among his sons due to his old age, yet he will keep his title as king. We encounter Lady Kaede sitting on the floor in the middle of the throne room, staring into space. The different levels in this scene stand out immediately; Kaede’s positioning almost makes her look subservient in the presence of Taro, who stands. She immediately inquires as to the whereabouts of a banner that used to hang in the throne room. This banner is in the possession of Hidetora. Taro explains that he gave the banner to his father’s men when Hidetora gave Taro the First Castle. Lady Kaede says simply “My Lord, it belongs with the head of the house of Ichimonji.” Taro responds: “But Father is keeping his title and insignia.” Kaede explains: “Without [it], you are a shadow.” Taro answers, confused: “What do you mean? He made it clear that I am now in command.” Kaede answers, “In that case, behave as if you are” and swiftly leaves the room without another word. Taro remains, and it is clear that Kaede’s words have resonated deeply with him. Upon Kaede's exit, he quickly stands up and runs from the room to give the order to his men to seize this banner from his father. It does not seem as if Lady Kaede would have any authority in this scene. She sits throughout and is thus situated in the very bottom corner of the frame; she takes up almost no space. Additionally, she makes no eye contact with her husband at any point; she merely stares into space. Yet, it is her words that set the entire story in motion. It is only after this moment that Taro becomes power-hungry and begins to take away the little power Hidetora left for himself upon the division of his territory. And this is only Kaede’s first scene.
In subsequent scenes, her masterful way with words only grows; she blackmails, maims, and seduces her husband’s brother and slowly usurps the entire Ichimonji family. She functions as a sort of Lady Macbeth character within this King Lear narrative, yet I actually think her character is more fully developed than Lady Macbeth because of the clear motivation for the evil acts she enacts. We learn throughout the film that Hidetora killed her entire family; thus, her motivation is to enact revenge. Towards the end of the film, she is beheaded, but she has done what she set out to do. Though again only occupying a small portion of the frame, she forcefully declares her final words: “My sole desire was to avenge my family by watching the house of Ichimonji fall and seeing this castle burn.”
Ran is a very long film, and Kaede does not get very much screen-time as the trials of Hidetora are explored. Then, when she is onscreen, she often takes up only a small portion of the frame, and she is almost always shown sitting. She is even sitting when she is killed. Yet she still manages to achieve immense power over the men in the film through her words. As a general says at one point in the film to Taro’s brother: “Who rules this domain? You or Lady Kaede?” Though Ran is, once again, a male-dominated film in terms of quantity, this film proves that women are capable of being powerful, even in the immensely patriarchal society that is feudal Japan.