Legendary Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, is a legend for a reason. From parting the sea to America with Rashomon (1950) to the epic Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa paved the way for generations of Asian films to gain greater accessibility to western audiences. There are many masterpieces in his pantheon, but one of my personal favorites is Ran (1985).
Kurosawa adapted many foreign works including Dostoevsky (The Idiot and Red Beard), Gorky (The Lower Depths), Tolstoy (Ikiru), Hammett (Yojimbo), McBain (High and Low), Arsenyev (Dersu Uzala), and, of course, Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran). Like Throne of Blood, Ran sets the Bard’s epic tale of an old king’s folly against a vivid, feudal Japanese backdrop. Ran (translated as “chaos”) is an ambitious and sumptuous retelling of “King Lear.” Although based on the classic English stage drama, Kurosawa masterfully adapts it to the big screen while making it all his own and very Japanese—the story is also fuses with the Japanese legends of Mori Motonari.
The story opens with the aging Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) in the middle of a boar hunt atop a sea of rolling, green hills. We hear piercing flute tones and the gallop of horses. Lord Hidetora is feeling his age and reveals to his hunting party that he will be stepping down as Lord and giving his three castles to his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. His son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), servant Tango (Masayuki Yui), and jester Kyoami (Peter), alone express their concerns regarding this hasty decision. Hidetora treats their concerns as treachery and dissent and banishes his son and servant.
Taro Ichimonji (Akira Terao) becomes ruler of the first castle, but his manipulative wife, Lady Kaede (Meiko Harada), twists the foolish son into demanding more control and usurping Hidetora’s power further by forcing him to remove all his authority as Great Lord. Distraught and backed into a legal corner by Taro and his men, Hidetora, angrily signs away his power and disowns Taro and takes his entourage to Jiro’s (Jinpachi Nezu) castle.
Jiro treats Hidetora most unfavorably, as if his own father were just another ruler under suspicion of attack. Jiro’s Buddhist wife, Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), alone shows compassion toward the betrayed Lord, but Hidetora has trouble accepting her kindness because of his lingering guilt for murdering her family and conquering her house. Hidetora leaves the second castle in a huff and takes his hungry entourage out into the countryside, but his pride will not allow him to accept charity or food from farmers. The banished servant, Tango, shows up again to warn the former Lord of his sons’ plans to destroy each other and him too. Kyoami (the fool) cracks a joke and gets banished along with Tango. In an act of desperation, Hidetora takes his entourage to the third castle: the castle that would have gone to Saburo had he not been banished.
In what is sure to be one of the finest battle scenes ever filmed, the third castle is stormed by Taro’s army and Jiro’s army. Kurosawa drops all sound out of the film for this horrific battle. All we hear is Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score as we flash from silent bloodied soldiers, terrorized concubines killing themselves, and unyielding gunfire to the ominous clouds moving across the sky as if to proclaim the heavens’ impetus or indifference to interfere in the violent horrors of men. Hidetora’s forces are completely annihilated and, amidst the violence, Hidetora scrambles to find a blade with which to commit seppuku. The castle is burned to the ground (Kurosawa actually burned down the castle they had constructed for the film at the base of Mt. Fuji). Taro is assassinated by one of Jiro’s men. Lord Hidetora goes mad and walks out of his ruined fortress and into the wilderness, alone and broken.
Tango and Kyoami find their beloved Lord wandering around in the wilds, completely mad. They and the exiled Saburo (the three Hidetora banished and forsook) are the only ones left who remain loyal to Hidetora.
They lodge with a blind peasant in the hopes that the Lord will become well again. In a most tragic, nightmarish turn, they discover that the peasant is Lady Sue’s brother, Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura). He lives alone because Hidetora killed his family and gouged his eyes out years ago. When Hidetora recognizes Tsurumaru and sees his reluctant mercy, the distraught Lord flees in anguish. Hidetora plummets further into madness and torment at the evil deeds of his bloody past as he wanders the old battlefields of his youth.
Meanwhile, the conniving Lady Kaede is manipulating her new husband, Jiro. She demands he kill his former wife, Lady Sue, and that he further destroy Hidetora and go to war with Saburo (who has made an alliance with another Lord and has been amassing his army). Lady Kaede meticulously moves the political pawns across the ever bloodstained chessboard. Unlike Lady Sue, who has found the power of forgiveness through Buddhism, Lady Kaede seeks revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan for the wrongs committed against her and her own murdered family.
It all culminates in another huge battle between Jiro’s army and Saburo’s army (who is also marching with the Fujimaki and Ayabe armies—who are interested in Ichimonji land for themselves). The war wages, many men are double-crossed, and many more are killed. In classic Shakespearean tragedy fashion, almost everybody dies, but not before the ultimate in tragic and horrific letdowns can be revealed to them and they writhe in the grisly realization that all this evil and bloodshed was birthed from their own misguidance and blind foolishness. As the few surviving characters collect themselves and recall the tragic course of events that has become their lives, they cry out to the heavens and speculate on the motives of the gods and the awful follies of men. The death of the Ichimonji clan and the bloodshed of the innocent are truly stingingly tragic and the tragedy does not reach its zenith until the very final shot. It is a moment of ultimate insanity and despair.
Ran is a superbly directed, wonderfully acted, stunningly visual, lavish, and expansively epic film that feels like a knife cutting into your soul. And I mean that in a good way. Certain images stick with you and certain emotions will not be easily shaken. This is a film that aggressively assaults the senses and challenges views of humanity with lush, Shakespearean strokes. The way Ran uses characters, colors, juxtaposition, sound, music, makeup, and violence is truly remarkable. I consider Ran to be Akira Kurosawa’s magnum opus and it should be required viewing.
It’s one of my favorite movies. Watch it and tell me I’m crazy.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” December 8, 2009.