Ran and King Lear

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a really good adaptation of King Lear. Many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work make the mistake of using his exact dialogue, even when recontextualizing the story in a different setting. Ran does not. Aside from being set in 1500s Japan, Kurosawa reworked the original story in multiple ways in order to translate it to the medium and genre he occupied.

The movie’s dialogue is simple but direct. There aren’t any poetic soliloquies, but the performances are still emotive and there are several particularly impactful lines throughout the film. There are also several silent moments where characters are developed through action rather than explanation. For example, in the first scene, Lord Ichimonji, the film’s analog for Lear, suddenly falls asleep during a meeting with his sons and advisors. As the attendants leave Ichimonji to rest, Saburo, the film’s analog for Cordelia, places some shrubbery so that it shades his aging father from the glaring sun. The scene perfectly establishes Saburo’s relationship with his father without a single word of dialogue.

Ran‘s storm is not a literal tempest but rather the storming of a castle, as Ichimonji’s last refuge is sieged by the armies of his treacherous sons (analogs of Regan and Goneril). The sequence is completely without dialogue and features a moving piece of score. The montage alternates focus between soldiers as they are slaughtered and Ichimonji as he looks on in horror at the desecration of his last semblance of power.

Ran clocks in at about two hours and thirty minutes, but even that sizable runtime isn’t enough to contain the totality of Lear. So, as with many Shakespeare adaptations, some elements of the original story are cut for time. However, Kurosawa purposefully reintegrates some of the cut elements in a different context. For instance, there is no clear analog for Gloucester and his sons in Ran. However, there is a character whose eyes were gouged out by Ichimonji himself during his days as a conquering warlord. There is also a character that reflects elements of Edmund. The eldest son’s wife, Lady Kaede, seduces the middle son and plots to dismantle the ruling family, but instead of being motivated by greed, Kaede seeks revenge on Ichimonji, who also slaughtered her family during his conquering days. These changes not only serve to make the play more concise by eliminating characters that are relatively peripheral to the central character, they also provide more depth to that character by directly tying the conflict to his own foolish actions as a leader.

A Song That Will Never Escape Your Mind

Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” is an expertly crafted poem that draws you in and refuses to let go. It tells the story of a man’s life, his relationships over the years, and his journey to get back to one person in particular. By the time you’re finished listening to the song, you feel like you’ve lived the speaker’s life right alongside him. The song achieves this effect through its unorthodox usage of perspective and time.

Dylan has a tendency to alter his lyrics in live performances and on different recordings, so there are several different iterations of “Tangled Up in Blue.” The most significant, aside from the album version, is an earlier recording that makes the theme of perspective evident. On the album version, the narrator speaks in the first person in each of the seven stanzas, but in this alternative recording, stanzas one through three and six refer to the same events in the third person, as if the narrator were retelling stories he heard second-hand. This difference in point of view establishes Dylan’s interest in playing with perspective, which is made more evident in the song’s final lines (which are the same in both versions).

But me, I'm still on the road
Headin' for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Dylan uses the song’s fairly repetitive structure to sweep the listener up into the flow of time, positioning them in the shoes of the speaker as his memory drifts around from one point in his life to another. Each of the seven stanzas is composed of eight lines that set the scene for whichever stage in his life the speaker is remembering, followed by four lines that resolve that stage, followed by the refrain “Tangled up in blue,” which describes the speaker’s state of being tangled up in his memories.

The stanzas flow together, but they aren’t in chronological order. The first stanza establishes the moment the speaker presently occupies before he starts his walk down memory lane:

Early one morning the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red

However, the only lines that are actually in present tense come in the final stanza:

So now I'm going back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now

This frames the stanzas that come between as motivation for the speaker’s current journey. The stories/memories that are told in these stanzas range from moments on one specific night to accounts that condense what could be years of the speaker’s life, but they all make the same argument to the speaker: he must return to the woman he left years ago.

The most poetic stanza of the song is the fifth:

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
"I thought you'd never say hello," she said
"You look like the silent type"
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue

This verse perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the song (the song is so purposefully crafted that you could make the same argument about any section) by turning a seemingly mundane interaction into a moment of enlightenment that holds great significance in the speaker’s memory. In it, Dylan describes a moment where he was struck by the beauty of a poem in the strikingly beautiful lines of his own poem. He signs the verse “from me to you,” as if he is giving the listener the same gift that the woman gave him in the book of poems.

Big Trouble in Little China’s Complicated Relationship With Orientalism

On the surface level, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is just another American martial arts movie. It stars a white protagonist who enters a mysterious oriental world, and is chalk full of Fu Manchu caricatures and other stereotypes evoking the East-Asian mysticism trope that plagues Hollywood. However, what sets Big Trouble apart – and elevates it to the status of cult classic – is the unique way its protagonist operates in the story.

The film’s IMDb summary would have you believe that Big Trouble stars Kurt Russel as the lead and a Chinese-American actor named Dennis Dunn as his sidekick. Upon watching the movie, you’ll find that it’s the other way around. While Russel’s Jack Burton may begin the film as the focal character, it quickly becomes clear that he isn’t meant to be the typical white savior character who inexplicably masters the ancient ways of a foreign culture immediately upon entering it. No, Burton is a buffoon who bumbles his way through the movie and [mild spoilers] even spends most of the climax unconscious after accidentally dropping a rock on his own head. Meanwhile, Dunn’s Wang Chi and the other Asian-American members of the cast take on the threat they, as residents of “Little China” (a fictionalized version of San Francisco’s Chinatown), are actually equipped to handle. So instead of being a story about a white man saving a foreign culture, it’s a story about people saving their own culture.

All that being said, the movie does use an excessive amount of oriental tropes. While you could argue that it does so in a tongue in cheek manner, it’s still perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Whether the positive elements outweigh those negatives is up to the viewer. Personally (and obviously I am in no way an authority when it comes to Asian-American representation), I find Big Trouble to be a refreshing subversion of the white savior narrative, and altogether a pretty fun movie.

The Harsh Fate of Hulga Hopewell

Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” concludes with a dramatic twist that leaves our protagonist, Joy/Hulga, abandoned and betrayed. The bible salesman who calls himself Manley Pointer dislegs her and leaves her high and dry. But Pointer also leaves Hulga with a lesson.

The story depicts Hulga and her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, as fairly well-off. They have a nice home and employ a helping hand of sorts, Mrs. Freeman, who Mrs. Hopewell refers to as good country people.

While Hopewell might describe herself as good country people in the company of others, and she likely believes it to be a compliment, I perceived it as a patronizing term. She refers to Pointer as good country people too, and later calls him dull. Hopewell is a member of the middle class, and while she may wish to identify with people of lower class than her who she believes to be good, salt of the earth, working people, ultimately she looks down on them and pities them as much as she respects them.

Hulga is not as different from her mother as she thinks she is. She considers herself to be an intellectual and distances herself from the outdated ways of her mother and the people she grew up around, rejects their religious illogic and embraces scientific reasoning and atheism, but she shares the same superiority complex as her mother, possibly to an even greater extent.

Hulga underestimates Pointer. She believes him to be simple minded, good country people, just as her mother does. She makes herself completely vulnerable to him, a stranger she has every reason in the world to mistrust, while wrongfully assuming that she has the upper hand, and then she pays for that assumption. Pointer shatters her patronizing fantasy of good country people. Frankly, Hulga is lucky that she didn’t wind up dead and lives on to take up a more complex view of humanity.

Vladimir Nabokov & the Empathetic Reader

Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to his book Lectures on Literature contains one sentiment that I find to be particularly rabble-rousing.

There is the comparatively lowly kind [of imagination] which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature... A situation is in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or someone we know or knew... Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers”

There’s a humorous bit of what I perceive to be self-awareness at the end of that quote, when Nabokov acknowledges that all of his dictations about what makes a good or bad reader are really nothing more than his personal preference (This… is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use). But that’s besides the point.

One of literature’s greatest powers is the power to make a unique, individual reader feel seen. We spend our lives calling out into the abyss, begging question, “Does anyone else feel the way I do, or am I alone?” It is art–literature and other media–that answers the call: “No. You are not alone. Look here, we feel the same way.”

Nabokov identifies this power as a fatal weakness on the part of the reader. While his argument that readers should seek exposure to new experiences is sensible, to discount the personal connection a reader develops with text that they can specifically empathize with is overkill.

It is also impossible for readers to embrace such an impersonal handling of their reading. As Nabokov himself says, when a reader is reminded of a personal experience while reading of some situation or another, that situation will be intensely felt. The reader cannot choose whether or not to relate to something, it’s just instinctive. And it would be foolish to actively try to block out any feelings of empathy inspired by a text while in the process of reading it. If the goal of reading is to have some visceral experience, then the reader that heeds Nabokov’s instruction would be swimming against the tide that conveniently flowed towards that goal.

All that being said, Nabokov’s ultimate message is valuable. Readers should definitely seek out literature that heralds new and foreign experiences. However, when they come across literature that calls upon their personal experience, they should embrace that feeling of empathy rather than squash it.