Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû, Mieko Harada
Watch Ran online in the UK: BFI Player+ / BFI Player / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“It’s how the world is made. Men prefer sorrow over joy. Suffering over peace.”
The word “epic” is used all the time these days. Epic haircut. Epic breakfast. Epic photo of a sloth. The word has become a casual shorthand to describe everyday objects and occurrences that are above average in quality – or to mock minor errors that are far from catastrophic. The re-release of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in 4K this weekend, then, is a welcome reminder of true meaning of the word.
Made in 1985, the Japanese director’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear was released in cinemas three decades ago – almost the same amount of time that had passed between Ran and Kurosawa’s other iconic Shakespeare adaptation, Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth). Restored in ultra high-definition, the film’s extravagant visuals and colossal ambition have never been clearer – or more astounding.
The film originally began as a loose take on a Japanese legend about an elderly warlord with three loyal sons, a motif that, over time, became fused with King Lear (himself based, in part, on the legendary Leir of Britain). And so the film brings us a story with enough tweaks from The Bard’s familiar play to make it both quintessentially Shakespearean and unmistakably Kurosawan.
Gone are Lear and his three daughters – Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. In their place? Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his three sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû). We join this ageing ruler as, like Lear, he plans to hand over his kingdom to his heirs. But this is 16th-century feudal Japan and so things unfold in a slightly different manner.
That relocation of events is vital to Kurosawa’s interpretation, which also takes the bold step of adding a back-story to his characters – a far cry from Shakespeares in medias res approach to his narrative. And so we see recognisable beats of old Bill’s tale, as Hidetora banishes his youngest son, Saburo (along with his servant, Tango), for proving disobedient. It’s a foolish move, because, as with Cordelia, Saburo is the only one of the king’s offspring who is actually loyal to him. But Hidetora is not just an elderly man being manipulated by power-hungry descendants; he’s a warlord with his own path of brutality behind him.
The result is a story that feels more political than emotional. While Lear is concerned with his daughters proving their love to him, Hidetora is concerned with his sons proving their love for each other, by uniting to manage the kingdom (with him retaining his status in title only). Three arrows bundled together cannot be broken, he demonstrates to them in the opening scene, while single arrows are weak and can be snapped in half.
Shakespeare is a master of juxtaposing the political and personal (Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, the list goes on), but Kurosawa is every bit his match, framing his movie with a series of contrasts between the interior and the exterior. The tiny indoor spaces are the extreme opposite of the expansive landscapes where the brotherly conflict unfolds, while one pivotal scene, involving Lady Kaede (Taro’s wife, played by the chillingly ruthless Mieko Harada) and Jiro, occurs behind closed screen doors.
With shades of Lady Macbeth, we soon discover that Kaede wants revenge upon Hidetora for killing her family, something that sees her pull the strings of the unknowing siblings, while Taro nastily decrees that no one in the kingdom should help his father. She’s not the only one with motives to turn against the lord, though: Jiro’s wife, too, has been hurt by Hidetora, with her brother, Tsurumaru, blinded during the lord’s cruel rise to power.
Those back-stories only reinforce the political consequences of personal hatred, turning subplots into central campaigns of vengeance. It’s no coincidence that Ran begins with a hunt, something that foregrounds the murderous nature of humankind’s relationship with the world around it. Where Shakespeare’s Lear is a tragic, sympathetic character (his God-appointed, medieval rule giving way to the man-made ambitions of Edmund’s ilk), there’s even more of a sense that Kurosawa’s king has partly brought it on himself. Madness, blindness, death; it all becomes cause and consequence of our story’s period setting.
No wonder, then, that Hidetora is driven to madness by the violence that rises up around him. The make-up worn by the phenomenal Nakadai has its roots in Japan’s traditional Noh theatre, a white visage that increasingly resembles a pale mask of death – contorted by the actor’s shocked facial expressions and highlighted by the contrasting appearance of the androgynous fool, Kyoami, who accompanies him on his rambling journey through the wilderness.
The title, Ran, translates as “Chaos” and the film certainly lives up to it: Jiro, Taro and Saburo’s battle for power escalates into a relentless, unflinching war, the peaceful green countryside of the introduction giving way to smoke and blood. Again, the juxtaposition between public and private drives the film’s impact, as Kurosawa deliberately presents his big battles as made up of tiny actions: we don’t see sweeping shots of troops colliding, as you would with a modern blockbuster, but individual deaths stacking up over and over again.
A crucial set piece halfway through sees Jiro and Taro besiege Saburo’s empty castle (where Hidetora is sheltered), a blistering montage of arrows and bullets, cut with shots of people’s eyes getting pierced and crimson bodily fluids pouring down wooden rafters. It’s one of the most horrifying action sequences ever put on celluloid, even more so thanks to Kurosawa’s brazen use of colour, which not only highlights the red stuff spilling out everywhere, but also uses primary colours to clearly distinguish between the opposing forces.
That visual storytelling nous (Kurosawa painted storyboards of his films before shooting them) becomes even more important, thanks to the director’s decision to remove sound from the sequence completely: the whole thing unfolds accompanied solely by the Wagnerian score composed by Tôru Takemitsu, giving everything the feel of a day-lit nightmare. As the castle burns, Hidetora stands on the steps and we share his vision of the hell that has opened up.
If that intimate connection with his madness strikes home, though, it’s the magnitude of the movie that leaves your jaw dropping open: in the climactic confrontation, we see our soldiers turn to witness a force gathering on top of a hill in the distance, a perfectly composed sight that, in modern cinema, would be a relatively simple task for CGI, but in 1985, would have seen Kurosawa physically command miles of countryside just for one shot.
Scope is an understatement for what he achieves here – Ran literally, and thematically, zooms out from King Lear’s personal tragedy to deliver a commentary upon humanity on a more explicit level, one that allows us to both identify with Hidetora and stand back as dazed, objective onlookers to the destruction. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport,” says Lear in Shakespeare’s play, but the gods in Kurosawa’s vision leave us to get on with it ourselves.
“Are you so bored up there, you must crush us like ants?” cries Kyoami to the sky. “Is it so fun to see men weep?”
“It is the gods who weep,” replies Tango, soberly. “They see us killing each other over and over since time began. They can’t save us from ourselves.”
A study of mankind’s ability to wage war with itself, Ran takes King Lear’s family drama and blows it up to an almost impossibly big scale. At its heart, the simple foolishness of one dad’s inability to see the impending chaos around him. Three arrows bundled together cannot be broken, he teaches them – but, as one son proves, they can. All it takes is a bit of brute force. Shakespeare’s ability as a dramatist was to hold the mirror up to nature and reveal such universal truths. How fitting that a Japanese director should amplify that universality in another language altogether. Ran is ambitious, audacious and breathtaking cinema. 30 years after its release, it remains, quite simply, epic.
Ran is available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.
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