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Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean masterpiece Ran (1985) shows how even the most universal stories must find purchase and meaning in particular times and places. Art that accesses deep human truths through the particular is indispensable for understanding and defining—and preserving—the character of one’s nation.

Kurosawa's influence permeates American film. The Magnificent Seven is a retelling of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. George Lucas borrowed the basic structure of Star Wars: A New Hope from The Hidden Fortress. The so-called “screen wipe” transition that Kurosawa developed is used extensively in Star Wars and countless other movies.

But the influence went both ways. One might consider Kurosawa the John Ford of Japan. Both directors showed what was best about their countrymen even in tales of violence and destruction centering villainous or morally complex characters. Just as Ford made the Western the quintessential genre of American mythology, Kurosawa used the samurai of feudal Japan to clarify and reinforce the Japanese national character in the aftermath of World War II.

Ran—Japanese for “chaos”—tells the story of a great daimyo, or warlord, named Hidetora, and his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Hidetora is based on Mori Motanari, a daimyo of the Sengoku Jidai (the “warring states” period stretching from 1467 to the early 1600s) who carved out a powerful domain in southern Honshu, the main island of Japan. The real-life story is one of triumph. Mori established a dynasty for himself and his three sons. Their story is immortalized in a Japanese proverb: A single arrow can be easily snapped in half, but a bundle of three—the brothers working together—is strong.

Kurosawa changes the ending, showing the chaos and division that might have resulted if the brothers had disregarded the proverb's lesson and refused to work together. In an early scene, after announcing that the oldest brother, Taro, will inherit his mantle as clan leader, Hidetora gives a single arrow to each of the three brothers and tells them to break it in half. All three do so easily. Hidetora then gives each a bundle of three arrows and all three struggle to break it. Saburo, the youngest, then takes the bundle and snaps it over his knee. “See father, even in a bundle three arrows can be broken.” He mocks his father’s expectation that the brothers will work together after his abdication. “Father, what kind of world do we live in? A world barren of any loyalty, a world without any feeling.” Saburo is disinherited and exiled on the spot by his father, an action Hidetora soon regrets.

Like King Lear, Ran is the story of a man brought down by political machinations, ambition, and the dangers of succession. Although Ran’s themes are universal, Kurosawa’s story is particular. Honor and shame—as understood in the bushido ideals of the samurai—occupy outsized roles in the Japanese cultural imagination, and inform behaviors that, to the Western eye, might seem inexplicable. For example, in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an excellent cultural analysis of Japan conducted in the 1940s, Ruth Benedict explains the vast gulf between how Americans and Japanese view competition. Americans see it as intrinsically good, driving us to ever greater achievements. For the Japanese, however, the shame of failure is psychologically crippling. This is due in part to “giri,” a set of duties and social obligations woven into Japanese culture. While bushido incorporates many ideas from Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism (especially Zen), giri is unique to Japan, with no clear analogs in other religious traditions. Failure to meet the severe obligations of giri—often resulting from the intrusion of ninjō, “human feeling”—can be a sting worse than death.

Ran reinforces the importance of giri while also interrogating it. Kurosawa’s critique is dramatized through Lady Kaede, whose spider-like scheming drives a good deal of the plot. She is wife to Taro, whose father murdered her parents and gave their castle (and their daughter) to Taro. In a gripping scene, she explains to Taro how her mother killed herself after Hidetora annihilated their clan in battle. Is Kaede’s ultimate obligation to her husband or to her murdered family? Giri, Benedict explains, includes a heterogeneous list of duties unified somewhat by the subject’s “unwillingness” to perform them. In this case, giri obliges one both to honor one’s in-laws and to seek revenge. Kaede thus occupies an impossible position, and the conclusion of her story is necessarily tragic.

Inazo Nitobe explains in Bushido: The Soul of Japan how loyalty in traditional Japanese culture is expressed differently than in the West. “The individualism of the West, which recognizes separate interests for father and son, husband and wife, necessarily brings into strong relief the duties owed by one to another,” he writes, “but Bushido held that the interest of the family and of the members thereof is intact—one and inseparable.”

Those who break these bonds of loyalty are beneath contempt. For example, Kageyu and Norio, Hidetora’s close advisors, betray their master to win favor with the middle son, Jiro, who assumes leadership of the clan after having his older brother killed. The moment they’re no longer useful, Jiro has them despatched, for who could ever trust such ignoble men? We sympathize with Lady Kaede because her cruel and perfidious quest for vengeance is motivated by giri even as it violates it. But Kageyu and Norio abandon giri altogether and are thus contemptible.

Giri also motivates the bravery and loyalty of common soldiers who sacrifice themselves even for vain and selfish leaders. Tango, another of Hidetora’s advisors, serves his master honorably from beginning to end, like the dutiful Earl of Kent in King Lear. Even though Tango is exiled by Hidetora for defending Saburo in the film’s opening, he never wavers in loyalty. As Nitobe explains, although bushido emphasizes loyalty, it does not “make our conscience the slave of any lord or king.” Tango’s willingness to challenge his master is an expression of his loyalty.

Today, even following a massive influx of global and Western influence, the Japanese people retain a singular culture of continuity with their past. There is a strong sense of national community and social trust. Crime is extraordinarily low. Corporate culture in many ways mimics the old feudal system. Employees often spend their entire careers with one employer, who is expected to reciprocate that loyalty by taking care of their needs for life. This enables exploitation, of course. Japan is notorious for a culture of workaholism so extreme that the phenomenon of karoshi, “death from overwork,” has entered the national lexicon. The difficulty of childrearing in such a context is a main driver of Japan’s fertility crisis. But the continuity of culture has also helped Japan adapt its traditional values to a dynamic, capitalist economy. A nation that understands itself—especially its virtues—can adapt without losing its distinctiveness.

In Ran, Kurosawa helps Japan understand itself, using the universal truths of King Lear to shed light on the particular qualities of Japanese culture. Ran’s conclusion—depicting the destruction that results when Japan abandons its traditional virtues—is bleak. Everything lies in ruins, our heroes either dead or despairing. Good and bad alike have been abandoned by the gods. Yet the positive qualities of a nation’s character can shine light on the path to a better future, as the code of the samurai did during Japan’s Sengoku Jidai. Perhaps Japan will overcome its recent pathologies by an even deeper embrace of giri that expands the scope of duty beyond family and clan to the nation itself.

Jarrett Stepman is a columnist at The Daily Signal. 

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