The Death of God
by Russell Stanley Geronimo
D: Akira Kurosawa
S: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû
The theme of the death of God has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with humans and what happens to them on earth. It is not a religious assertion, but a declaration of a mood—the mood of modernity, which we also find in other lines from other writings, including William Butler Yeats’ “Things fall apart” or Karl Marx’s “All that is solid melts into air“. It heralds the coming of nihilism. Fernando Pessoa said that we are slaves to the gods whether or not they exist. This is how Nietzsche’s “God is dead” ought to be received: not as a question of belief about the reality of the deity, but as an articulation of the human condition in modernity. This is not the time to debate about Aquinas’ theological proofs. God, whether or not you believe in him, is an issue we have to deal with. But the philosophical dimension of this issue is essentially un-theological and anthropocentric—it is predominantly a human issue. Insofar as the idea of God is a projection of human wishes, as the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach tell us, our relation to God (or to the idea of a God or gods) mirrors the state of human reality. Hence, the philosophy of the “death of God” is also an exercise in self-consciousness.
In Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), we see the full implication of the death of God as an existential condition. It is possibly one of the darkest films of all time. Kurosawa borrowed the narrative structure of Shakespeare’s King Lear, itself one of the bard’s darkest tragedies. But Ran is not a direct adaptation of the play. Kurosawa takes liberty in restructuring the story for his own artistic purposes. I’ve always found the transposition of the play’s setting into medieval Japan quite interesting. Instead of featuring British royalty, he shows us the old samurai class of Japan. Instead of King Lear, he has Hidetori Ichimonji, a samurai warlord who has won a domain across a wide mountainous region. Instead of Lear’s three daughters, he has Ichimonji’s three sons. Kurosawa does the same thing in Throne of Blood, which Harold Bloom calls the best film adaptation of Macbeth. Being an admirer of Lear and Macbeth myself, it is a real pleasure to witness the universality of Shakespearean play unfold in a distinctively non-Western culture, especially how it blends with another theatrical tradition in the East: the Noh theater, which Kurosawa utilizes to create an unnatural and unique acting style on the part of some characters. The Shakespearean verses are dropped, replaced by realistic dialogue.
It is probably not a coincidence that Kurosawa chose to transpose these two particular plays into cinema. They may have something to do with the pessimistic tendency in the auteur’s artistic vision: Lear and Macbeth thrive with a grim and world-weary vision of human life. They are the closest that we have to a nihilist Shakespeare. Kurosawa, in the latter part of his career, seemed to have changed his perspective about reality. His films no longer had the hope and optimism of Seven Samurai and Ikiru. The late films contained the gloomy spirit of a world at the brink of nuclear war, carrying a tone of despair and weariness with life. Throne of Blood and Ran, though dramatizing the extreme of Japanese code of honor that we also see in the character of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, were never meant to extol the warrior class. In fact they were critical of the history of violence wrought by the samurai. Kurosawa himself said that he is apologetic and ashamed of his samurai ancestry. In Ran, the samurai is not a hero. In fact, the concept of a hero in this film is as dead as God. The world of Ran is a world that does not permit the existence of heroes, and there is a very specific cause for this death: the invention of guns. With guns, characters are not granted a noble death. They are disposed all too quickly, and from a distance. The transformation of a man into a corpse is so rapid, and so cold, as it does not require the proximity of an enemy. There can be no Achilles or Oedipus in such a world. Saburo (the equivalent of Cordelia in Lear) dies very abruptly, with a bullet. It is an absurd death. We do not even see the man wielding the gun that killed him.
It is in the cultural context of the samurai class that Kurosawa sets the stage for a tragedy of human life, with man abandoned and alone in a godless universe, and caught in a meaningless struggle against other men for survival and power. It is in this mode that Kurosawa also shows his universality as auteur. Like Shakespeare, he puts the historical background in soft focus and foregrounds personal human problems: the relation between parents and offspring, between siblings, between master and slave, and other timeless human conflicts.
There are no gods in Ran. On one level, this means that the gods are not the main issue. On another level, it means that the absence of the gods is in fact the real issue: an absence that is a kind of presence, the silence that is a kind of speech, a message that could only be obtained by a sort of negative capability to see what is not there.
There are several clues as to why the gods are implicated. The camera has an untiring interest with the clouds in the sky. The source material, Lear, also contains famous passages about the gods, which are then repeated in another form by the character equivalent of Lear‘s Fool and Kent, which are Kyoami and Tango, respectively. These lines mark the tragedy’s peak, spoken after the death of Hidetori and Saburo. The third clue is a statement by Kurosawa himself, who said that what guided his composition of Ran was the sentiment that the gods are feeling sad and powerless for the tragic fate of human beings.
The basic idea surrounding the theme of the death of God is that of abandonment: humans are essentially left alone to deal with their own affairs. And even if there were gods, they are either responsible for our suffering, or they are indifferent. Indeed, the camera never wearies of showing extreme long shots of mountains, fields, wastes and ruins. The characters are depicted as a very small part of the environment. In fact, one could say that the cinematography of Ran is based on a hypothetical perspective of passive gods who could not intervene.
This God’s-eye view reinforces the idea that, perhaps, the ideal audience of Ran is—indeed—the gods themselves. We can make sense of this idea by referring to Umberto Eco’s distinction of the empirical reader and the ideal reader. The empirical reader is you holding the book. But the book, in the very composition of the text, may also have a hypothetical addressee, whether or not this is directly stated. This hypothetical reader is a construct of the text. It is what the text imagines its addressee to be. Analogously, the same thing could be said about Ran, or the Attic tragedies for that matter. The tragedies of Aeschylus were watched by the Greeks, but they were unmistakably meant to be seen by the gods, whether or not they exist.
Perhaps in enabling the audience to take this perspective, they are better able to understand the place of human beings in the world. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), the insight that we get is utter despair over human affairs. There is no consolation at the end of Ran, no tiny sparkles of hope which litter much of contemporary nationalistic literature, in its desperate attempt to find something good in our current political suffering. “Men live not for joy, but for sorrow; not for peace, but for suffering,” says one character in the end. This dark, uncompromising wisdom echoes some passages from Ecclesiastes. Ran captures the spirit of the Book of Job, the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer, and the Ancient Greek wisdom, as cited in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, that what is best for man is not to have been born.
Ran, like Simone Weil’s view of the Iliad of Homer, extols and condemns no one. It is governed by the idea of a blind force that victimizes both oppressor and oppressed. It is true that Ran sometimes makes a sharp distinction between who is good and who is evil — just like Shakespeare’s Lear, the good and evil guys seem sharply divided into two camps. But this division, as the film and the play affirm, is meaningless. The two sides are both captives of fate, mere chess pieces of the Schopenhauerian Will. No one gains redemption and justice. Ultimately, both oppressor and oppressed meet the same fate in the film’s bloody parade of dead bodies at the ending. The film’s final moment shows Tsurumaru, an innocent blind man walking toward the edge of a precipice. He almost trips and drops his only possession—a scroll bearing the image of the Buddha. The camera then cuts to an extreme long shot, showing him alone in the wild expanse. This is the bleakest ending I have seen, and it is possible that Kurosawa saw in it some allegorical significance to the modern human condition: we are that blind man—hopeless, alone, with nowhere to go, waiting for no one, and abandoned by the gods. It is this symbol of the modern man that Kafka and Beckett do not tire of depicting.
Yet what is the significance of negative wisdom? We read and watch tragedies and continue to live. Our love for tragedy does not certainly arise from some sadistic need to see others suffer. It certainly does not make us feel better about ourselves. Perhaps we love tragedy because it gives us the full brunt of being human, the furthest reach of the meaning of humanity. It shows us “unaccommodated man”, or what man really is when he is stripped to his basic essence, which is what Lear tries to act out after meeting Tom O’ Bedlam in the heath, during the storm. The characteristic effect of tragedy is catharsis, exemplified by Job’s tearing off his clothes after misfortune has fallen upon him unjustly. This act of tearing one’s clothes as a reaction to fate is symbolic of the pleasure of tragedy: it is a kind of hyper-involvement on the part of the audience to be so married with the human situation. There is, after all, a kind of pleasure in the vicarious surrendering of oneself completely to the earth, repenting in dust and ashes like Job.
Tragedies have a fatalistic worldview. They give us the sentiment that our lives are dictated by fate, or by the whim of the gods, or by our ineradicable and inescapable human nature. Contrary to expectation, there is also consolation in fatalism. By attributing human suffering to fate, we could take a full and naked view of suffering. I believe that what tragedy wants to show us is a pure picture of suffering. Macbeth is not merely a condemnation of the tyrant. King Lear is not a calling for political unity. Oedipus Rex is not a lesson in lessening one’s pride. Tragedy does not want us to focus on perpetrators, nor on victims, nor on human justice, nor on our own faults, nor on political and social solutions, nor on the caprice of supernatural figures. Tragedy shows suffering as such. Perhaps this is the only pure and true picture of human beings, stripped of all his masks. It is in this moment of realization that we become like Lear in the heath, alone with his jester—the realization that all we have in this world is ourselves. In the end we are touched by compassion, not for a specific person or cause, but for humanity, realizing that we are punished for only one sin: the sin of having been born, the fault of existing at all.
(This article was published on Interlineal.)