Akira Kurosawa, the Shakespeare of modern times
The Shakespearian canon has always been a plentiful source of inspiration for filmmakers. The Bard’s first screen appearance dates back to 1899 when Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s stage play “King John” was filmed. It was the first of many British adaptations to follow before flaming Technicolor productions such as “Henry the V” (1944), “Hamlet” (1948) and “Richard III” (1955) firmly anchored Shakespeare in modern, historical cinema.
Asia was no different. Desirous of cashing in on the success of European productions of Shakespeare’s work for both home and international publics, Shanghai film studios produced numerous adaptations of his plays in the 1920s, such as Bu Wancan’s “A Spray of Plum Blossoms”, based on “Two Gentlemen of Verona”. India, familiar with the works of Shakespeare due to nearly 200 years of British rule, made “Romeo and Juliet” an archetype for Bollywood musical comedies.
The first Japanese translation of a Shakespearian play, “Sakuradoki zeni no yononka”, or “The Merchant of Venice”, appeared in 1885. Adaptations of Shakespeare took off quickly in Japanese theatre but cinema was slower to follow. For some, he was too little known by the general public; for others, his plays were too “Western”; and Japanese producers were afraid of denaturing the great classics of a world renown playwright, which for them would amount to a lack of respect.
In this context, who better than Akira Kurosawa to undertake Shakespeare in Japan. Considered the best representative of cinema in Japan and even throughout Asia after the planetary success of “Rashomon” at the start of the 1950s, Kurosawa was a director who nourished each of his films with his vast cultural erudition. “I’m just as interested in the classics as I am in the contemporary novel, Japanese or otherwise.” (*). To those who upbraided him for making films for the international market, he responded: “I may be more comfortable with Western narrative structures, but the films I make are above all for Japanese youth in their 20s.” (*).
In “Throne of Blood” (1957), Kurosawa transposes the intrigue of Macbeth’s Medieval Scotland to the period of the Japanese civil wars from 1392 to 1568. “This is the period that corresponds to the time that Shakespeare describes, and it includes our own Japanese “Macbeth”. I forgot all about Shakespeare and made the film as if it were part of my own country’s history” (*2). Besides changing the time and setting, Kurosawa drew on traditional Japanese Noh theatre. “The simplicity, force, the rigor and dramatic depth of the story reminded me of Noh … in this form of theatre the actors move around as little as possible, compressing their energy, thus the slightest gesture gives rise to an intensely felt emotion”. (**). In “Throne of Blood”, the actors’ expressions are like those of stylized Noh masks and the composition inspired by 7th-century sumi-e paintings (ink wash).
“Ran” is a feast for the eyes, a veritable succession of living paintings, reflecting both Kurosawa’s passion for art and his talent for drawing, also evident in the sketches he made in preparation for the film. Loosely adapted from “King Lear”, the main character is the warlord Motonari Mori (1497-1571). Like the play, “Ran” explores the relation between power and madness, but differs from it by focusing more on a Japanese system than on the individual man.
No one would dispute the influence of George Simenon and Ed MacBain’s noir detective novels on “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960) aka “A Rose in the Mud”. But the influence of“Hamlet”, though less prominent, is just as undeniable. A detective thriller with a social conscience, the film draws on the play’s plot, especially by using Hamlet-like ploys that the film’s protagonist concocts to expose his father’s murderers. “The Bad Sleep Well” clearly illustrates how a classic of English dramaturgy can be a major inspiration for a profoundly Japanese film, as topical today as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Kurosawa said of his film: “How far will certain high-level functionaries who hide behind the convenient facades of big business go to cover up their misdeeds? I wanted to expose this race and make a film about corruption in high financial circles.” (**).
In these three films, Akira Kurosawa showed how Shakespeare’s universal and timeless cannon could be successfully adapted to Japanese cinema. He succeeded in making films that are distinct from their illustrious model, but remain true to its thematic content, and which are at once universal and profoundly Japanese. The nickname that the American director Steven Spielberg bestowed upon Akira Kurosawa during the 1980s - the “Shakespeare of modern times” - was a fitting one.
(*) Akira Kurosawa, “Something Like an Autobiography” (Vintage Books, 1983)
(**) Aldo Tassone, “Akira Kurosawa” (Edilig, 1983)