From the Baroque to Wabi: Translating Animal Imagery from Shakespeare's King Lear to Kurosawa's Ran

By Kane, Julie | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

From the Baroque to Wabi: Translating Animal Imagery from Shakespeare's King Lear to Kurosawa's Ran


Kane, Julie, Literature/Film Quarterly


One comes away from viewing Akira Kurosawa's Ran, a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear set in sixteenth-century Japan, with the distinct impression that Shakespeare's poetry has been jettisoned in favor of visual imagery. Screenwriters Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Ide Masato have seemingly pared dialogue to the minimum necessary to advance the plot. Where Shakespeare's King Lear takes sixty-nine lines of gorgeous blank verse to divide up his kingdom, for example, Kurosawa's Hidetora spends only a few staccato sentences. The viewer's impression of linguistic minimalism in Ran is borne up by former visual artist Kurosawa's reputation for distrusting the spoken word (Prince 120).

Therefore, it comes as a surprise to discover that Kurosawa's screenplay does, in fact, retain much of the poetic "infrastructure" of King Lear. The same thematic imagery-patterns of birds, beasts, and insects which run like dark rivers of the unconscious through Shakespeare's blank verse are present in Kurosawa's choppy dialogue lines, only transformed from a western to an eastern cultural context. Helping to obscure this parallel is one overriding cultural difference: Shakespeare layers his similes and metaphors one upon the other with a glorious European Renaissance love of excess detail, while Kurosawa strives for the austere Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi:

The Japanese have, par excellence, what the Scriptures of Zen in China sometimes advised in vain, a knowledge of where to stop. In their gardens, as in their architecture, in the arrangement of flowers as in their dress, the minimum is expressed and the maximum left for the beholder to supply.... The elaborate and ornate, sometimes beloved of China, was to be avoided, "as building up a wall or barrier instead of letting the thought of the artist pass free and full with the mind of the beholder. A hint, a suggestion, sufficed." (Humphreys 216)

Before examining the ways in which the baroque animal imagery patterns of King Lear have been transformed into the wabi-esque animal imagery patterns of Ran, it might be useful to consider the cultural parallels which make such a "translation" possible. For example, both seventeenth-century England and sixteenth-century Japan had a "scientific" rationale for assigning animal traits to humans. For Shakespeare, it was the medieval practice of "physiognomy," which, "by analyzing the physical appearance of Man and finding its analogue in the appearance of certain animals with certain discernible traits of character, prognosticated similar behavior in men" (Yoder 23). The Japanese counterpart for this practice was the correlation between the year of one's birth and one of the twelve sacred animals said to have attended Buddha's funeral: "A child in Japan is expected to be born with the same traits as the animal of his birth year" (Pratt and Kula).

Besides employing similes and metaphors to draw comparisons between human beings and animals, both Shakespeare and Kurosawa utilize the "animal parable" to illustrate certain philosophic or plot-related truths. In both King Lear and Ran, a Fool delivers the majority of such animal parables, as his marginal status permits him to speak the truth disguised as nonsense without fear of retribution. Although Shakespeare draws on the Western animal fable tradition originating with Aesop to model his parables, while Kurosawa draws on the Japanese magical animal legend, it is likely that both literary traditions trace their roots to the Indian "Beast-Tale" (Yoder 6).

Still another parallel between the cultures of seventeenth-century England and sixteenth-century Japan enabled Kurosawa to translate Shakespeare's theme of "man reverting to beast" from King Lear to Ran without difficulty. Both medieval Christianity and Buddhist theology posited hierarchical "levels" of existence in which human beings inhabited a realm superior to that of animals (Anesaki 89). Confucian thought, like medieval European philosophy, held as well that the universal order was a reflection of the moral status of a kingdom (Prince 147). …

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