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Occasional Lecture on 27th January 2009 -  Discussion on Kurosawa’s film “Ran”

Professor J. Birjepatil, who is teaching English at Marlboro College, Vermont, USA is visiting Baroda and has agreed to initiate a discussion on Kurosawa’s film “Ran” as part of the Occasional Lecture Series of the Forum on Contemporary Theory at 3.30 pm on Wednesday, 28 January 2009 at the Centre for Contemporary Theory and General Semantics. “Ran” will be screened at the Centre at 5.30 pm on the 27th January free for those who will be attending Professor Birjepatil’s program. As many of you may know, Birje was Professor and Head of the Department of English at M. S. University of Baroda for a number of years, and is the author of Chinnery’s Hotel, which is now reprinted in India by Penguin India Limited. In order to facilitate discussion of the film he has provided the following points as helpful guide to the film:

Premise: - Ran is not a Japanese work trying to be King Lear.  Intertextuality is not a matter of mimicry or cultural mobility; it is one of radical dissemination.

(I )  Instead of pitting Ran against King Lear we propose to initiate a cross-cultural dialogue, To begin with we need to distinguish the aesthetic meticulously constructed by Kurosawa by

(a) Transferring a canonical text from 17th Century England with its vision of problematic evil, generational conflicts and apocalyptic energies embodied in a poetic discourse that conflates the tragic and the grotesque to Post World War II Japan re-projected as 16th Century cultural space traversed by archaic Samurai codes.

(b) In Ran there is a muting of characters’ internal turmoil and fumblings characteristic of Shakespeare's plays in favor of the typology of classic Japanese theatre and a readjusting of Western humanistic theatrical semiosis to the logic of what Donald Richie calls a parable of social behavior.

(c)  Kurosawa dilutes competing discourses on nature and rhetorical binaries between human/animal, knowledge/power, crime/punishment, of an essentially apocalyptic narrative into Buddhist ethics of resignation.

(d) Kurosawa remodels gesture as language by draining language of gesture.

II   Epic setting and characters. What is the difference between the epic and dramatic hero? Does Hidetora lean towards one or the other?

III    How closely does Kurosawa follow the conventions of Noh?

Consider his use of long-sleeved costumes to signify culture specific codes, geometric tableau-like positioning of riders and horses, color differentiation along factional lines and triangular sitting patterns. Can a case be made for a contrapuntal reading of a cinematic text that rather deploys conventional props with their symmetrical formal grouping?

IV    Faces like masks. Kaede, Hidetora, Tsurumaru. Are these masks denotative or connotative? Do they remain frozen as precoded signs or do they accumulate meanings that go beyond conventional semiotics? Does Kaede’s mask signify a different duality from that of Hidetora’s ‘old man’ mask which gradually covers his relatively expressive face from the Boar Hunt scene? Why is the reclusive Tsurumaru got up by Kurosawa to look like the ‘madwoman’ of Noh convention?

V     Why do Hidetora and Kaede move alternately in a quick grotesque pirouette or glide slowly? In short, as a signifying system does Kurosawa’s cinematography represent ‘product’ or  ‘process’?

VI   If the soundtrack with its Noh-like flute associated with Tsurumaru suggests a permanent state of resignation in face of man made chaos why do we hear the slow movement from Mahler’s First Symphony during the storming of the Third Castle. Kurosawa maintains that he followed the model of the Kamakura scrolls while filming this shot. What did he gain by using such a representational technique?

 VII   Kurusawa’s cinematographers use the telephoto lens to bring the background closer. Why? How is the Camera positioned while horses and riders thunder past in rapid sequence? Why didn’t Kurosawa use a dolly or a pick up truck as John Ford did while filming Stagecoach even though he was moving around 1400 extras?

 VIII Hidetora jumps off the cliff and remains unhurt. Warriors are  shot off horses but not a single horse is ever downed by an arrow.  Kurosawa draws us into the film with startling immediacy and yet manages to retain one foot in a figural schema. How does he manage to sustain such an extraordinary dialectic?

 XI  In Ran something disturbing invades our reality as in a dream. Kurosawa achieves this effect by switching to the camera’s viewpoint (through swift editing) so that the watching subject is      transformed into the watched object.

 X   What are the artistic coordinates which  allow him to achieve such phenomenological density. Consider the scene where Hidetora looks up at a turquoise cloud. Read Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen       Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird.

'Ran'' depicts Akira Kurosawa’s urge to depict Japanese society in midst of devastating changes. Kurosawa transposes Shakespeare's KING LEAR to feudal Japan. RAN, which translates as "chaos" or "turmoil," is the tragic tale of Lord Hidetora, a warlord who decides to divide his empire among his three sons on the eve of his 70th birthday. However, Hidetora's youngest and most compassionate son, Saburo, defiantly objects to this hasty decision and is disowned by the proud, stubborn ruler. Once the two eldest sons take control of the empire, they quickly turn on their father and begin vying for total control over the land. As Hidetora is banished from his own kingdom in a bloody battle, he must confront the consequences of his violent, ruthless past. Ten years in the making, RAN represents the culmination of Kurosawa's career by revisiting his skill at adapting Shakespeare, as evidenced in THRONE OF BLOOD, and displaying the cinematic splendor of his other landmark films such as SEVEN SAMURAI and RASHOMON. With its magnificent costumes, breathtaking settings, and amazingly photographed battle sequences, the film is truly stunning. An epic on the grandest of scales, RAN is not only one of Kurosawa's finest films, it is a glorious masterpiece of Japanese cinema.

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