By an odd coincidence, election week also happened to be the week my senior English students were watching Ran, Akira Kurosawa's movie about a transition of power. Set in feudal Japan but based on Shakespeare's King Lear, the movie is both epic and intimate, a portrayal of Hidetora Ichimonji, a ruthless warlord, who cedes his authority to the next generation with disastrous results.
Like Lear, Hidetora wants to retire and live out his days under the protection and care of his children. While Lear's pride and his rash nature alienate him from his daughters and put England in danger from an invasion from France, Hidetora's downfall is even larger – his brutal conquest of his enemies comes back to haunt him, causing the destruction of his entire clan and the dissolution of his fiefdom.
By contrast, in the real world the beginning of the transfer of power from one presidential administration to another has been remarkably smooth. From the losers have come gracious and respectful concession speeches. From the winners have come words of optimism and unity. The national figures seem ready to move past the campaign and take up the task of governance with a seriousness that the rest of the world admires.
At least that is how Americans appear in the national spotlight. Closer to home we are more like the siblings in King Lear and Ran who nurse their grudges and find ways to undermine each other. I know of African-American parents in Atlanta who were afraid to send their children to school the day after the election, and I heard from teachers in Charlotte whose black students were fearful for their own safety. I know of white students in Columbia who left school early when repeated fights broke out a week ago, and I've been appalled at the apocalyptic predictions and veiled racism in The Buzz.
Is this the country we have become?
Another Kurosawa movie speaks to that question as well. In 1950 before he was known in the West, Kurosawa directed Rashomon, a movie also based on literature, this time a combination of two short stories by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
The story is simple. A samurai and his wife in ancient Japan are attacked by a bandit in the forest. The wife is raped and the samurai killed, and when the bandit is captured, the events are told in a series of contradictory flashbacks. Each character – the bandit, the wife, and even the dead samurai – claims to be the murderer. Each one is right – or at least, each one has a point of view that is “true.”
During the presidential campaign, the candidates and their supporters had points of view and interpretations that were contradictions of each other. I gave up looking for an objective voice on cable TV and did something I haven't done in years – trolled the network newscasts and forced myself to be patient enough to watch the tediously thorough news on PBS. In the mornings I read the paper; in the afternoons I listened to the radio in the car. Still, sorting through the different viewpoints was at times overwhelming. Despite my excitement about such a historic election – and my hope that after a long drought I might finally be voting for a winning presidential candidate – I was more than ready for Election Day to be over.
Now that it is I'm ready for the country to stop shouting and start having a real conversation. I'm ready to move past Lear's pessimistic view that “when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools” and embrace instead Miranda's joy in The Tempest when she says, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!”
Literature – whether printed on the page or performed on the stage or movie screen – reminds us that the human condition transcends time and place, and that for all our differences, we are more alike. That's why a play written by an Englishman in 1600 still speaks to us – and why it translates so well into a movie about a Japanese warlord. That's why when the newly restored Rashomon opens in New York next week, new viewers will find it relevant to their own lives and to the lives of those around them. That's why I'm hopeful that if we allow it to, our literature can remind us of our common humanity and point us to a future where we show more kindness, more understanding, and more civility to our fellow travelers.