In 1985, 75-year-old Akira Kurosawa unleashed Ran upon the world – a brutal, violent, incredibly bleak depiction of a noble family destroying itself. Partially based on Shakespeare's King Lear, the film met with worldwide acclaim and is now considered one of Kurosawa's great achievements. The purpose of this piece lays in examining Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince's analysis of the role Buddhism plays in the Ran, and exploring what author and scholar Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto describes as the fundamental problem with Japanese film studies as a discipline.
First things first, Stephen Prince. Prince is the author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, which, along with Donald Richie's The Film's of Akira Kurosawa, is the main English language analytical text on Kurosawa's work. Stuart Galbraith IV's sprawling The Emperor and the Wolf, a double biography or Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, is the only other major book on Kurosawa in English. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto's Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, a very good book which we'll look at in more depth later, is much less well known and harder to find than Prince's or Richie's. Peter Cowie's recent Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema is a coffee table book more lauded for its lavish presentation and plethora of pictures and reprinted material than it is for its insight into Kurosawa and his art. Kurosawa's autobiography, a wonderful book about creativity and art, stops in the early 50's, after the international success of Rashomon, before Kurosawa made nearly all of his most famous films.
In his book, Prince offers an analysis of each of Kurosawa's 30 films. As quoted on page 285 of the revised and expanded edition of the book, Kurosawa had the following to say about Ran – “Some of the essential scenes of Ran are based on my wondering how God and Buddha, if they actually exist, perceive this human life, this mankind stuck in these same absurd behavioral patterns.” Four pages later, Prince also quotes the following, from Kurosawa – “...the world will not change unless we steadily change human nature itself and our very way of thinking. We have to exorcise the essential evil in human nature...”
All of this betrays Prince's fundamental ignorance of Japanese Buddhism, and, if we can extrapolate from there (which we – the royal we – can, having read Prince's book and listened to all of his Criterion DVD commentary tracks), his general ignorance of Japanese culture and history.
Before breaking down Prince's analysis of Ran, let's take a look at what he says on Buddhism. His discussion of the religion begins on page 118 of The Warrior's Camera, and stems from an examination of bushido, the samurai code, rather than being a subject of interest in and of itself. In his discussion of Buddhism in Japan, which spans about 4½ pages, Prince focuses on Zen, yet also manages to incorporate Indian and Tibetan Buddhism with his mention of Nirvana, a Sanskrit term not used in Japanese Buddhism. The word satori, a Zen term for the experience of awakening (enlightenment), also appears, but Prince makes no attempt to connect this concept to Nirvana or explain their difference in usage and meaning (kensho is another Zen term essentially meaning enlightenment, yet Zen scholars also use the word “enlightenment” as a thing apart from these two terms).
All in all, Prince's discussion of Buddhism a confusing little section so laden with quotations from other authors its hard to know what Prince actually knows, and what he's borrowing for the convenience of making his argument.
To make this easier on ourselves, let's eliminate the immediately nonsensical points to focus on some of the tricky ones. Point 1 is moronic and impossible to prove without exhuming Kurosawa' corpse, reanimating it, and asking the man himself whether this is true. Point 2 is moronic because the basic path to enlightenment – going from a place of ignorance and to a place of knowledge; from lacking something to having it – is the basic narrative arc of every film protagonist. It has nothing to do with Zen, Buddhism, or Kurosawa. Point 6 is confusing, contradictory, academic-masturbatory nonsense. Prince essentially tries to argue that while Kurosawa sets up master-pupil relationships in films like Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, the pupils cannot learn enlightenment from their masters, but rather must learn it from personal experience, as if Kurosawa designed these films to be parables for enlightenment, rather than stories about damaged men of different generations who grapple with the problems of the post-war predicament from their respective perspectives.
Point 7 is foolish because Prince moves away from Zen to Buddhism in general to make a point about disengagement from society when Zen, as per the writings of Dogen, the founder of Japanese Zen (called Chan in China), emphasizes this point more than many other forms of Buddhism. Furthermore, the second generation quotation from Pardue makes no sense in this context – if Buddhism pushes an agenda of rejecting society, how does it promote an uncritical acceptance of social and political institutions? Buddhism doesn't passively accept social and political institutions, it openly rejects them as meaningless.
Point 8 ultimately has nothing to do with reading Prince's analysis of Ran, so we can disregard it. It's historically accurate – Buddhism, as the main religion in Japan alongside Shintoism, did play a major role in political institutions for hundreds of years. Like Point 8, Point 9 doesn't have much to do with Ran, although it's worth pointing out that the historical Buddha (the historical figure on whose teachings Buddhism is based) sought a solution to the world's problems, thereby finding enlightenment, because he had so much compassion for his fellow humans he couldn't bear to watch them suffer. Therefore, while the process of seeking enlightenment requires temporary disengagement from society, its ultimate goal is to spread compassion in order to free all people from the suffering of their daily lives. Thus Buddha's end goal, like that of many of Kurosawa's early heroes, was to make a positive difference in society through engagement.
So we're left with three of Prince's points on Buddhism – numbers 3, 4, and 5, which assert that Zen emphasizes finding enlightenment in this world, rather than the next; that enlightenment is inherent to all beings; and that all beings possess Buddha-nature, and therefore enlightenment is the natural way of things. All of these points are accurate – two is perhaps a little tricky, given the use of “inherent” – and will figure into my argument as I backtrack to Ran and Prince's analysis of that film.
The first thing worth pointing out regarding Ran and Buddhism is that the film isn't told from a Zen perspective. As Prince points out in his book, the film includes visual references to Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Pure Land, another sect of Japanese Buddhism. (The Buddhist cannon includes numerous Buddhas; Buddha is not a single, god-like figure, but rather any individual who has realized their own Buddha-nature.) According to a pamphlet distributed by the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple entitled Amida Buddha and Shinjin, Amida Buddha was a bodhisattva (one who achieves enlightenment but denies it in order to help others) who “established and fulfilled a vow to save foolish and evil beings” and “liberates the beings of blind foolishness and karmic evil”.
Before going further, we should establish basic truths about Buddhism. Buddha teaches that life is suffering, but not in the sense that the living world is inherently awful, but rather in as much as the average person gives in to to his or her basest instincts – again, greed, violence, envy, etc – and therefore lives in suffering. Greed can never be sated, violence perpetuates itself, and so on and so forth. Karma plays a major role in all this, yet karma in the traditional Buddhist sense is not how we typically think of karma as lay Westerners. As a Zen priest recently told me, in its basest definition, karma is nothing more than an action. That action creates a reaction, which creates another reaction, creating a chain of causality, or karma. However, karma should not be misunderstood as the positive or negative affects of these actions, but rather the actions themselves.
Prince picks up on Kurosawa's use of the term “karmic cycles” with regard to Ran, but misappropriates the term under the Western definition, which typically includes the ramifications and positive or negative “energies” resultant from actions. When Kurosawa says characters are caught in karmic cycles, especially in the world of Amida Buddha, what he means is people give in to their basest instincts and, denying their own Buddha-nature, become stuck in negative thinking and a self-perpetuating cycle of negative actions. However, these people are still in control of their own actions, and, if they choose, can connect with their Buddha-nature and change their fate.
To quote the book The Teaching of the Buddha, as printed and distributed by the Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, “There are causes for all human suffering, and there is a way by which they may be ended, because everything in the world is the result of a vast concurrence of causes and conditions, and everything disappears as these causes and conditions change and pass away.” It's important to understand, when looking at Buddhism in and of itself, or in relation to art such as Ran, that there is no absolute condition in a Buddhist world – everything is conditional and stems from cycles of causality and karma, and everything changes with time. Predestination does not exist in Buddhism.
As Prince interprets Ran and the notion of karmic cycles, the film's characters are destined to live in perpetual negativity because of things beyond their control. Their fate is predetermined, and they cannot escape negative karmic cycles. This is a misreading and misunderstanding of basic Buddhist that completely changes the reading of the film. When Prince says the characters in Ran live in a world abandoned by Buddha, he speaks as though the world has been abandoned by an all powerful Western style deity, thus condemning everyone to predetermined fate. But in the Buddhist sense, if the world has been abandoned by Buddha – Amida Buddha, for instance – all this means is that the people in that world have given in to their basest instincts and refuse to recognize their own Buddha-nature. While Amida Buddha may help people realize their Buddha-nature, this can also be done by personal choice, if one elects to follow the path to enlightenment. Nothing here is predetermined, it is resultant from the choice.
What's especially interesting about this misinterpretation is that, 150 pages earlier in his own book, Prince seems to recognize that Buddhism includes the notion of each individual's Buddha-nature when he asserts that achieving enlightenment is the natural path for all people. And yet doesn't recognize that, if enlightenment is the natural path, it can never not be present in the human condition. In what seems like an even more heinous example of confusing Buddhist principles, Prince misappropriates a quote from Kurosawa to bolster his argument.
The quote is “...the world will not change unless we steadily change human nature itself and our very way of thinking. We have to exorcise the essential evil in human nature...” and Prince uses it to assert the notion of Ran being a bold and definitive statement on a world of predetermined fate as predicated upon the inherent evil of the human condition. And yet, if we look at Buddhist principles, and the role of Amida Buddha, Kurosawa's quote seems to say something very different.
First, note Kurosawa doesn't use the word “inherent” but rather “essential.” As any Buddhist text will tell you, the historical Buddha walked away from society to spend years as an ascetic because he saw suffering to be the default response of nearly all people to the complexities of human society. If we define essential, as most dictionaries do, as “absolutely necessary,” and assume that all human beings, as per the Buddha's teaching, default to negative emotions as a response to society and life's difficulties, we find evil to be essential to the human condition – it is the logical result of the compound effect of every individual's negative reactions to one another and human society, absolutely necessary given the conditions in which we exist.
To apply this principle to Ran, we see a world of perpetual violence and despair because human beings reject their own Buddha nature. Remember that Kurosawa spoke of Amida Buddha in reference to Ran, and that Amida Buddha “liberates the beings of blind foolishness and karmic evil”. Thus we know we're dealing with evil and foolish people. Thus, rather than concluding from Kurosawa's quote, as Prince does, that the filmmaker embraced an absolutely cynical worldview in which we have been abandoned by any hope of redemption, we can conclude Kurosawa is immensely frustrated with humans for rejecting their Buddha-nature and living in a world of negative karma by choice, as a result of actions and decisions.
As Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto explains in great detail in his book Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema (which you should seek out and read if any of this is interesting to you), there are two ways in which a scholar can approach Japanese film – as a film scholar, or as a scholar of Japanese culture. The problem, then, with scholarship on Japanese cinema, is that it takes one of two perspectives, that of the scholar with expertise on film who knows little about Japanese culture, or that of the scholar of Japanese culture, who knows little about film scholarship. Prince is clearly the former – he's proven his mettle as a film scholar, and yet whenever he veers into discussion of Japanese society, culture, or history, he stumbles blindly, bringing up rote, perfunctory points predicated upon the scholarship of other people. At one point Prince makes statements about the mindset of the average Japanese person during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), which is completely absurd, given that Prince isn't Japanese and was born in 1955, 43 years after the period ended.
And yet none of this is to knock Prince, who's done great things for the promotion of Japanese cinema, and cinema studies in general. The real problem lies in academia itself, and academic institutions that empower people to speak as experts when they really shouldn't. Film studies programs shouldn't empower individuals to write books on Japanese film without an extensive background in Japanese culture. At least Donald Ritchie lived in Japan, knew Kurosawa personally, and spoke Japanese. Prince, on the other hand, doesn't speak Japanese (this assumption based on his ear-slaughtering pronunciation of Japanese words and the lack of Japanese-language sources in his scholarship), can therefore only cite second-hand sources, and never actually hear Kurosawa's films in their original language.
To go one further, Western critics Prince, Galbraith IV, and Ritchie don't much mention what Japanese scholar Yoshimoto brings up in his book on Kurosawa – that the origination of Ran had nothing to do with King Lear, but came instead from a Japanese story about a daimyo who tried to teach his sons the power of unity by breaking one arrow easily but failing to break three together. Kurosawa wondered, what would happen in a world in which the sons didn't heed their father? He realized the similarities between this notion and King Lear, and went from there. Without this historical and cultural context, how much of Ran are we missing, when we read it is a straight adaptation of Lear?
So there are ultimately two points to be made here – Ran, in the context of Japanese Buddhism, should be read, among other things, as an examination of a world in which people make bad decisions, and reject their inherent Buddha-nature, not as an examination of a world of predestination. And, that all film scholarship should ultimately be taken with a grain of salt, unless it includes nothing more than statements from the filmmaker and supporting evidence.