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Ran (1985, Japan / France)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa.

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Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide. Adapted from the 1606 play King Lear, written by William Shakespeare.
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao and Jinpachi Nezu.

Ran (1986) Theatrical PosterKurosawa’s epic movie Ran is a cinematic masterpiece that has survived the test of time. Dazzling cinematography on the mountain slopes and volcanic plains of Kyushu and spectacular battle scenes earned Kurosawa a Best Director Oscar nomination and made Ran the most expensive Japanese movie ever produced.

One of the elements that makes the film so compelling, is the skill with which Kurosawa remodels Shakespeare’s King Lear to Japanese legend and culture. It’s fitting that the [Studiocanal] DVD, Blu-ray and limited cinema re-release in enhanced 4K restoration comes during Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, as it is a marvellous homage to Shakespeare’s own art.

Kurosawa takes the legend of Motonari Mori, a sixteenth-century warlord whose three sons were paragons of virtue, and examines what might have happened if they had more resembled the duplicitous daughters of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Ran (1985)

Lear’s daughters become the three sons of aged Warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai): Eldest Taro (Akira Terao) is a less malicious version of Goneril, second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) is as ruthless as Regan and Cornwall and the youngest is Saburo (Daisuke Ryû), recalcitrant, but as genuine and devoted as Cordelia.

Saburo and (Kent-like) retainer Tango (Masayuki Yui) are banished in a fury by Hidetora for challenging his decision to cede power to Taro. Soon after this rift, and spurred on by his Lady Macbeth-type wife Kaede, (played with extraordinary menace by Mieko Harada) Taro compels his father to physically sign away all power to him in a contract – seen as a humiliation contrary to giri, Japan’s system of interpersonal obligations and respect for elders and parents. Taro’s mistrust and ingratitude would be seen as even more offensive than Goneril’s.

Taro’s disrespect is closely followed by insult from second son Jiro. Envious of his brother’s supremacy and resentful of his expected obedience, he treats his father’s appearance at his own castle after falling-out with Taro with disdain, refusing entry to his father’s entourage.

Ran (1985)

After the fine words of respect and gratitude from his first two sons, Hidetora is stunned and enraged by their duplicity. Unlike Lear however, it becomes clear that Hidetora is not ‘more sinned against than sinning’. His ruination resembles a form of penance and retribution for having spent his life wreaking savage violence, war and oppression – he has spilled ‘an ocean of blood’ to gain his power, his property, his castles and his lands.

Jiro’s religious wife Sue`, who watched Hidetora burn her parents to death, and her gentle brother Tsurumaru (an amalgamation of Edgar and Gloucester) who had his eyes gouged out by Hidetora whilst still a child, find some solace in Buddhism and music and although they have much cause to seek revenge, find the compassion to forgive.

Toro’s calculating wife Kaede, who saw Hidetora murder her father and brother and drive her mother to suicide, is the instrument by which this story is turned into a revenge tragedy. She first encourages Taro into disrespecting his father and when Jiro, the second son, has Taro assassinated, she seduces him so that she can use her sexuality and his weakness to manipulate him into murdering his innocent wife Sue` and complete her plan for the destruction of Hidetaro’s entire dynasty.

Ran (1985)

Too proud to reside with Saburo, the son he banished, who now lives with his father-in-law Fujimaki (equivalent to the king of France) Hidetora prefers to save face rather than ask forgiveness for his misjudgement. He languishes in his third castle when it is attacked by his other sons, and in an arresting ten minute battle sequence his world descends into hell as his castle burns and his entourage commit sepuku.

As Hidetora slips into madness the make-up worn by actor Tatsuya Nakadai becomes increasingly stylized to resemble the masks of Noh theatre.

Kurosawa’s deployment of huge armies in vast landscapes displays a pre-digital mastery that is truly astonishing, and the castle siege sequence with arrows flying, blood flowing and the whole bathed in a crimson light– is all the more magnificent for the distancing use of Tôru Takemitsu’s sombre orchestral score.

Kurosawa tells his stories in a truly visual and cinematic language. The final battle involved over 1,200 extras and 200 horses. The rival factions are identified by contrasting colours, and hierarchically arranged in circles. Many scenes, as Donald Richie points out in his book ‘The Films of Akira Kurosawa’ (1996) are reminiscent of the groupings of figures in Noh theatre. Hidetora’s increasingly stylised visage as he loses dignity and sanity, leads Richie to suggest that “he becomes a visible idea” rather than the person that Shakespeare created. His appearances become ever more abstract and unreal as much of the dialogue is spoken by the fool, Kyoami (Pîtâ).

Ran (1985)

The climax may be even more harrowing than Lear as the terrible final battle destroys the kingdom – the innocent are slaughtered, Kaede lives only to see her revenge come to fruition and after a sweet but brief reunion with his joyful father, Saburo too is killed. Hidetora dies, grief-stricken and broken.

Kurosawa chose the title Ran for his adaptation – it can mean ‘chaos’, ‘rebellion’ or more aptly ‘desolation of the soul’. It falls to the retainer Tango, addressing the sorrowing fool Kyoami, to sum up an anguished view of humanity as ‘so stupid that they believe that survival depends on killing. No, not even the Buddha can save us.’

The final shot shows blind Tsurumaru, now abandoned, as he teeters helplessly on the brink of a precipice, a sickly, scarlet sunset glowing behind him.