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Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Bard of Asia (originally published 3/05)

We were talking last week about movie adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, and I mentioned that there were three great film interpreters of the Bard. I talked about Olivier's magnificent "Henry V" (1945) and Orson Welles's audacious "Chimes at Midnight" (1967). The third great translator of Shakespeare to the screen has given us memorable adaptations of "Macbeth" and "King Lear," but his approach to the plays is very different from that of Olivier or Welles because the dialogue in his films is in Japanese.

Akira Kurosawa, by common consent Japan's greatest filmmaker, has long been acknowledged as a major influence on world cinema. The American Western classic "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), for example, was based on Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), directed by Sergio Leone, was based on Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (1961).

But Kurosawa's influence wasn't limited to Westerns. He also led the way in showing how story lines can be translated across cultural contexts with "Throne of Blood" (1957), his version of "Macbeth." Consider the problem he faced: how would you make an effective version of a Shakespeare play if the original lines were unavailable to you? You could simply translate the lines into Japanese, of course, but your translator would need to have as great a command of Japanese as Shakespeare did of English. The content might survive, but the poetry in those immortal lines must unavoidably fall by the wayside.

Instead of trying to do a Japanese version of an English play with a Scottish setting using Japanese dialogue, Kurosawa shifted the setting to feudal Japan and adapted the story to a samurai context. Then, at home in his own cultural sphere, he could draw on his own considerable cinematic talents to replace the missing verbal poetry with visual poetry.

Kurosawa's "Macbeth" character in "Throne of Blood" is a samurai general named Washizu, played by Toshiro Mifune. While lost in the forest, Washizu encounters not three witches as in "Macbeth," but rather a single witch. She predicts that he will be a ruler who will be invincible until the forest itself moves against him. Washizu, egged on by his wife, takes this as a license to murder his lord.

It's Shakespeare's story, all right, but in place of the Bard's powerful words Kurosawa gives us powerful imagery. Trying to describe the images here is as futile as translating Shakespeare's text into Japanese, but let me just mention a couple of scenes.

Toward the end, as Washizu holds a war council in his castle, the large room is suddenly filled with panicked birds. The men can't agree on whether this is a good omen or a bad one, but we know that the birds are there because Washizu's enemies have driven them out of the forest by chopping down trees to use as cover. The forest is about to advance on the castle. It is a potent and affecting scene. Washizu's death is equally unforgettable. He is caught in a terrifyingly dense hail of arrows, shot, as it turns out, by his own men. The image of this lone figure, impaled by dozens of arrows but still walking, lives on in my mind just as firmly as any of Shakespeare's soliloquys.

"Ran" (1985) is Kurosawa's adaptation of "King Lear." It tells the story of an aging Japanese overlord who decides to divide his kingdom, not among three daughters, which would have been unthinkable in feudal Japan, but rather among his three sons. As in the Shakespeare text, one of the siblings falls out of favor by refusing to flatter the monarch. Kurosawa balances the gender reversal of sons for daughters by replacing Shakespeare's scheming Edmund with a scheming woman. She works her wiles for vengeance rather than for ambition, but she is every bit as cold-bloodedly calculating as Edmund.

Kurosawa's amazing eye for the dramatic use of color cinematography was never put to better use than in "Ran." I won't even try to describe the visuals here; go and watch it for yourself. It is a mature masterwork by an elder statesman of the cinema, marshaling the full force of his visual eloquence to comment on human folly. That this eminent Eastern artist should have chosen to cross-pollinate his vision with that of the West's greatest playwright is the icing on the cake.

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