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Comparative Study of Fool's Character in Shakespeare’s and Kurosawa's Works

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In Akira Kurosawa’s transformation of King Lear into Ran, the flat character of the Lear’s Fool has evolved into Hidetora’s Kyoami, a character who exhibits a number of personal complexities absent from Shakespeare’s Fool. Both characters have a significant and unique position in their respective dramas, yet where the Fool is a flat character with a relatively small effect on the Lear plot, Kyoami is larger, more fleshed-out figure in Ran, one whose relationship with his Great Lord offers more personal complexities than the more familiar relationship between a Western king and his jester. Ultimately, Kyoami is a more human character than the Fool, one whose crises of conscience in remaining loyal to Hidetora are a significant aspect of the film’s morality.

In Lear, the Fool occupies a position in the Lear’s court which would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. The Fool has a greater license than any other character to criticize Lear, and indeed the Fool spends much of Act I excoriating a bemused Lear, in spite of the vaguely jocular threat of a whipping. Moreover, the Fool enjoys a position of prominence in the Court with Lear as his benefactor; Lear indeed is said to have struck a gentleman for the “chiding of his fool” (I.iii 1), and Lear, irrespective of his attitudes at any given point, exhibits a willingness to listen to his Fool and banter with him, even when the Fool’s observations are particularly biting.

In contrast to the relationship between Kyoami and Hidetora, however, the relationship between Lear and the Fool seems very one-dimensional. The Fool receives no real backstory in the play, and his position was not an unfamiliar one to early 17th century viewers: he is simply a Fool, and hence is expected to make such observations in counsel for the King. His relationship with Lear is as well a given. Roz Simon, Royal Shakespeare Company play guide writer and editor, notes the following:

Distinction was made between fools and clowns, or country bumpkins. The fool’s status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household. His folly could be regarded as the raving of a madman but was often deemed to be divinely inspired. The ‘natural’ fool was touched by God. Much to Goneril’s annoyance, Lear’s ‘all-licensed’ Fool enjoys a privileged status. His characteristic idiom suggests he is a ‘natural’ fool, not an artificial one, though his perceptiveness and wit show that he is far from being an idiot, however ‘touched’ he might be.

More importantly, the Fool himself is a very flat character, one who has no real character arc of his own; he is, in all these respects, nearly a stock character, one whose functionality in the main Lear plot as a source of observation, commentary, augury, wit, and even persuasion is more significant than himself as an actor in the play. In other words, while every other main character has a uniquely traceable story within Lear, one which includes crises of conscience and morality as well as a distinct personality, the Fool’s character features no such complexities: the Fool is always merely the Fool, and he professes to remain with the fallen King during Lear’s time of misfortune merely because he is a Fool. Despite the provocative nature of the Fool’s statements which render him an engaging force in the play, the Fool is ultimately so marginalized in the story that he merely disappears in the third act under ambiguous circumstances.

For all of Kurosawa’s intention to give Lear a stronger backstory, there exists a marked absence of a backstory for Kyoami, an aspect which underscores the complexities of his turbulent relationship with Hidetora. As with the Fool, the audience learns little about Kyoami’s past life with regards to how he came to be Hidetora’s retainer, the difference being that there apparently existed no comparable tradition of a fool-type character in medieval Japanese history. Whereas an audience can view Lear’s Fool and immediately understand the position of the character, the same cannot be said for Kyoami. Even in writing the script to the film, Kurosawa needed to grasp at the Lear story in order to accurately describe the character he was forming; on this, Alexander Leggart writes:

He has some precedent in Japanese tradition: commenting on him, Kurosawa equated him to the licensed entertainers kept by warlords and allowed freedom from the rules of etiquette. […] But he also comes from the outside: he is introduced in the screenplay as a ‘servant-entertainer, the equivalent of the fool in a medieval European court.’ This is the only Western analogy the screenplay draws. (182)

Kyoami, hence, is established in the film as Hidetora’s servant, a person of low birth and low privilege (in contrast to Lear’s “natural” Fool) who nevertheless enjoys a number of special privileges in his relationship with Hidetora. Visually, Kyoami appears in stark contrast to the rest of the hunting party in the film’s first scene. Whereas the various nobles and warriors are displayed sitting stiffly and decorously, Kyoami, in his brief performance, is a lively presence. He moves his colorfully-dressed body enthusiastically and without restraint, almost seeming to transcend the respectful rigidity of those around him. In spite of his position of subservience, Kyoami, as an entertainer and as a comic, naturally enjoys a particular freedom of movement, of dress, and of speech.

Unlike Lear with his Fool, the laconic Hidetora does not often engage in banter with Kyoami; Hidetora rarely even seems to enjoy his loyal servant-entertainer’s antics, and as the Great Lord slips into madness, he acts belligerently and capriciously towards Kyoami, at one point whipping him for his insolence. Yet there appears to exist a mutual loyalty between servant and master in this relationship, best exemplified by the early scene in which Hidetora unexpectedly slays a soldier threatening to maim or kill an unarmed Kyoami. While this incident is not explicitly discussed at any point in the film (except as the impetus for Taro’s exile of his father), that fact should not obfuscate the significant fact that Kyoami owes his life to Hidetora. Moreover, this violent act is the closest thing to an expression of gratitude or affection we see Hidetora make for Kyoami.

Whereas the Fool sticks with Lear because, he says, he is a Fool, Kyoami’s continued loyalty to Hidetora is a more nebulous matter. Despite his cynicism towards Hidetora’s warlike ways, Kyoami is clearly very emotionally invested in his service to Hidetora: he cries openly after Hidetora casts him out for disagreeing with the decision to go to the third castle. After Hidetora is mentally enfeebled by his experience in the third castle, the onus falls on Kyoami and Tango to care for their leader, which they initially do unquestioningly. Eventually though, Tango departs, and for a time, Kyoami is tasked with caring for Hidetora alone; the time the two spend together eventually causes Kyoami to undergo a moment of serious introspection. As Hidetora sleeps, Kyoami wonders aloud why he decides to remain with the fallen and helpless old man in the burnt ruins of the third castle: “Why stay with this mad old man? If the rock you sit on starts to roll, jump clear. Or you’ll go with it and be squashed. Only a fool stays aboard.”

In Lear, the Fool ruminates in similar terms, although his questioning is not private. In Act II, scene iv, the Fool uses the metaphor of a wheel rolling down a hill, concluding that it would be knavery to desert Lear: “But I will tarry; the fool will stay, / And let the wise man fly. / The knave turns fool that runs away; / The fool no knave, perdy” (76-79). Kyoami’s own conclusion to remain with Hidetora seems more emotional. Kyoami actually collects his belongings and begins to run off, only to stop when Hidetora unexpectedly calls out asking where he is. “Paradise! [Heaven!],” Kyoami responds bitterly, then walks back to pull a blanket over Hidetora and lie beside him. “All my life, I’ve been his nurse,” Kyoami remarks, as the Great Lord looks up at him with sad, hollow eyes.

From the earlier incident, Kyoami owes a debt of life to Hidetora, and this may very well factor into his decision to remain with the helpless fallen man. Yet there is a more sublime aspect to Kyoami’s personality in the story, one which Kyoami himself seems to recognize. In contrast to the violence, chaos and rampant perfidy which characterize Ran’s milieu, Kyoami is a strongly meliorating influence. He is an enthusiastic entertainer, not a warrior or a geisha; by virtue of his position, he seeks to amuse, to lighten one’s emotions and thoughts. Like the devout Sue and the blind Tsurumaru, Kyoami is an extremely pacifistic character in the film. Other than Tsurumaru, is the only male character seen without weapons or armor, and he excoriates Hidetora for his life of violence, keenly perceiving the awful consequences to a life of bloodlust (contrast this to the attitudes of Hidetora’s other loyal retainer Tango, who zealously and eagerly hunts down two traitorous former lords). Kyoami is as well a very feminine character, exhibiting a number of traits contrary to the dominant hyper-violent masculine social structure of the period, including his fanciful behavior, his physical appearance, his frequent crying, and his antipathy towards violence (the actor cast as Kyoami, Peter, was at the time a young drag performer).

The fact that Kyoami calls himself Hidetora’s “nurse” is significant. If Kyoami had indeed been Hidetora’s servant all his life, he likely did not have to take care of his Lord in quite the same fashion as he does in the ruins. Saying that he “nursed” Hidetora carries a feminine connotation and suggests that Kyoami has been acutely aware of the palliative aspects of his performance — and, perhaps, of his mere presence — for Hidetora over the years. At the scene’s end, the shot lingers on Hidetora and Kyoami lying beside each other, as Hidetora dumbly looks over his shoulder at his “nurse,” insisting on the emotional tranquility which Kyoami’s presence brings. Kyoami, in deciding to remain with his Lord, thus recognizes how much Hidetora needs him. It suggests not only that Kyoami is grateful, but also that, just as Kyoami is acutely averse to harming another person through violence, he is also averse to causing harm through inaction. Kyoami’s tender kindness in this instance thus suggests a personal morality which exists far above and beyond the violent stances of the rest of the film’s characters.

Works Cited

Leggatt, Alexander. King Lear. 2nd ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

Simon, Roz. “King Lear.” Royal Shakespeare Company. Accessed 18 April, 2008. <http://www.rsc.org.uk/lear/teachers/fool.html>.

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