Kurosawa’s Ran: Japanese King Lear

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).

Bad day.

Bad day.

 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.

Wabbit season.

Wabbit season.

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.

Family picnics were never the same after Toshiro admitted he had sexual feelings for vegetables.

Family picnics were never the same after Toshiro admitted he had sexual feelings for carrots.

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.

ran13

Haha.

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.

Hell is other people. War is hell. War is other people.

Hell is other people. War is hell. War is other people.

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.

Only you can prevent castle fires.

Only you can prevent castle fires.

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.

You think it's my time of the month, do you?

You think it’s my time of the month, do you?

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.

Oh, we got way more people this movie needs to kill.

Oh, we got way more people this movie needs to kill.

Go on. Make me unhappy.

Go on. Make me unhappy.

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.

Holy Shakespearean tragedies, Batman.

Holy Shakespearean tragedies, Batman.

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.

"The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long."

“The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

It’s one of my favorite movies. Watch it and tell me I’m crazy.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” December 8, 2009.

This Island Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: Marvin vs. Mifune

The ageless tale of survival in an unfit environment meets up with classic World War II drama in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), starring legendary international cinema tough guys, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. This film stands out because there is a slight twist to the standard war movie plot. There are only two actors for the entire film and it all takes place miles away from battle.

What have you done with Wilson?

What have you done with Wilson?

The backdrop to this cool concept and character study is an uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gruff screen mug, Lee Marvin (The Caine MutinyBad Day at Black Rock, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dirty Dozen-1967, and many more man-movies), plays a nameless American pilot who has crash landed on the island, and the man from Japan, the explosive powerhouse that is Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Duel at Keymaker’s Corner, Seven SamuraiThe Samurai trilogy, Throne of BloodYojimbo, and the sword-swinging list goes on), plays the marooned Japanese navy captain.

Alone and desperate, the two testosterone-fueled brutes wage their own personal WWII on the island. Control of the beach, drinkable water, food, and supplies are the objects of their game. The winner gets to survive a little while longer. Another odd thing about this movie is that since neither character speaks the other’s language the dialogue is very minimal and unnecessary for the telling of the story. The viewer doesn’t need to know English or Japanese in order to comprehend exactly what is going on or what each character is thinking.

Mr. Lee Marvin

Mr. Lee Marvin

John Boorman (Point BlankDeliveranceZardoz, and Excalibur) directs this suspenseful and intriguing journey into the minds of these two stubborn and starving characters with much complexity and humanity. Hell in the Pacific is much more than a war movie. It’s anthropology. It’s a study of clashing cultures and a fascinating survivalist story. The American pilot (Marvin) and the Japanese naval officer (Mifune) represent a sort of microcosm for the thoughts of America and Japan during this time in history. Distrust, ethnocentrism, anger, and fear are all featured prominently in this film and capture the mindset of the time, but Boorman puts it all down to two men who are miles away from civilization. Despite their removal from all of their cultural mandates that demand they behave certain ways toward their so-called enemies, the American pilot and Japanese naval officer maintain their preconceptions and paranoia. The added complexity of their impassable language barrier makes things even more difficult to overcome. The film does not remain in this limbo of hate and fear for its entirety however.

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

After smoke, fire, sticks, bullets, urine, and other means of sabotage and psychological torment to undo their opponents, Lee Marvin’s character is captured by Toshiro Mifune’s character, but Marvin escapes and batters up Mifune pretty good and makes him his prisoner. The whole scenario is odd because both characters know full well that it is not accepted to take prisoners in a survival situation like this and that they are supposed to kill all enemies, but something seems to stay their hands. Could it be the fear of being truly alone? For whatever reason, they keep each other alive.

Exasperated by the increasing unlikelihood of rescue, Marvin eventually sets Mifune free and shouts “Well, do something!” Mifune is about to run away or attack, but begins to realize that Marvin has given up being a soldier. Their only real enemies right now are the ocean and the jungle. The two develop an uneasy alliance and decide they need to take matters into their own hands and find a way off the island. The only other human for miles may be an enemy—according to their respective governments—but right now they are their only chances at survival. They build a raft (after many inarticulate arguments over how to construct it) and man it together, pass the breakers, and sail on into the ocean. The movie becomes dreamlike as the days dissolve into each other and waves pound against them all night and the sun scorches them all day. Amidst it all, the two battered men begin to show each other bits of human kindness. Marvin tries to flag down a passing US plane, but Mifune stops him for fear of being killed if Americans rescue them. That’s right! —there’s a war still on.

SPOILER ALERT: if you would like the rest of the film to be a surprise and if you haven’t seen it then stop here.

Who's got the conch, now?!

Who’s got the conch, now?!

The final act and finale are also peculiar to the war genre. The two men spot another island and make way toward it. When they discover a Japanese base a rush of memory of who they both are and where they come from floods back, but they have still cultivated something of a friendship together and this supersedes their soldier duties…for the moment.

Mifune runs out to announce their presence, telling Marvin to stay hidden, but Marvin spots some US equipment and quickly realizes the Americans have captured the base so he runs out screaming not to shoot and shouting that the Japanese soldier is his friend. The base, however, is completely deserted. They clean up and shave off their unkempt beards and recline by a makeshift fire, drink sake, and glance over months-old magazines. A bit tipsy, they begin laughing like old friends (reminds me of another cultural gap crossed via alcohol—the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the Russians dance with the Jews in the bar). The happy moment is abruptly terminated, however, when a drunken Lee Marvin starts abrasively inquiring why the Japanese don’t believe in Jesus Christ and Toshiro Mifune discovers photographs of slaughtered Japanese soldiers next to advertisements and pictures of sexy women in an American magazine. Unable to communicate, the two men begin shouting and becoming increasingly angry with one another. The animal within is back! In the distance we hear aircraft cutting through the night sky and bombs being dropped, ever gaining. Each fed up, they stand and start to leave, bitter enemies once again, but a bomb is dropped right on the deserted base by a passing plane and they are killed together. Despite all their progress, they die foolishly like enemies.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

A puzzling ending? A maddening ending? A cop-out ending? I’ve heard it called all three and more. Maybe it is a bit of those, but I think what’s more important is what we learned and not what the characters lost. The DVD release actually features an alternate ending where they are not bombed and they just gather their things and walk off in opposite directions. The DVD also features subtitles for those curious as to what Mifune is muttering through the whole movie (most of it being a combination of “shut up” and “white beard”).

After watching Hell in the Pacific several times and watching almost everyone’s disappointment with the ending I wonder why it still doesn’t bother me so much. It may not have been the best ending, but I got so much out of watching these two characters grow, and my heart was genuinely disturbed by how fragile it all was. I knew things could never be lastingly happy between these two erratic men. Hell in the Pacific is a social and cultural character study more than a war movie and when you take it as such I think it is a much more rewarding experience. . . On another interesting note, both Marvin and Mifune served in WWII (adds another fun dimension to it all, I think).

And you thought "Saving Private Ryan" had a downer ending.

And you thought “Saving Private Ryan” had a downer ending.

Why did I like it? Well, if it’s not already obvious, I am a fan of both Lee Marvin (ever since I saw The Dirty Dozen as a kid) and Toshiro Mifune (ever since I saw Seven Samurai and started getting into Kurosawa). These are two awesome, salty, manly actors with wonderful screen presence and power. Putting them together to fight and survive on a small island Lord of the Flies-style is great. Having them teach me about another time and different mindset is just the icing on the cake. It’s a pleasure watching these two guys on film and I think the story is more than worth their efforts. It’s smart and different and I love that. I am also a fan of war movies from the 50s and 60s so that adds a lot (some of my favorites being Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, The Guns of Navarone, and The Devil’s Brigade). Hell in the Pacific easily makes my list of great must-see war movies. If you love classic war movies, Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune, or stories of survival than you really shouldn’t miss Hell in the Pacific. I strongly recommend it.

For another movie about WWII soldiers stuck on an island (but with vastly different themes), check out Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (1991).

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 16, 2010.