Kurosawa’s epic version of King Lear places style over substance, but offers many glorious visual treats
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Hidetora Ichimonji), Akira Terao (Taro Ichimonji), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro Ichimonji), Daisuke Ryu (Saburo Ichimonji), Mieko Harada (Lady Kaede), Yoshiko Miyazaki (Lady Sué), Mansai Nomura (Tsurumaru), Hisashi Igawa (Kurogane), Peter (Kyoami), Masayuki Yui (Hirayama Tango)
An ageing Lord lays down the burdens of office to his three children. Two flatter the old man: the third tells him he’s a fool. The lord banishes the third child and treasures the other two, who betray him tipping him into a lonely madness, screaming on a moor. Sound familiar? Kurosawa takes Shakespeare’s King Lear and transposes it to the final days of Samurai Japan. Lear becomes Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his daughters become sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), with the latter two taking on Hidetora’s land.
Ran translates as “Chaos”. That’s really what the film is about. Kurosawa’s Lear is strikingly nihilistic. Anything from the original play that could be called remotely optimistic – there is no good servant figure, no sensible Albany and no Edgar caring for, and avenging, his blinded father – is removed. Instead, Hidetora’s decision leads to unrelenting death and destruction, a carnival of bodies piling up in burnt out, ruined castles. This is Lear, tinged with the sort of Beckettian-wasteland theorists like Jan Kott would love: bleak and hopeless with only suffering at its heart.
As you expect with Kurosawa, its filmed with poetic beauty. The more frantic, Western-action, stylings of Kurosawa’s youth are gone, a victim perhaps of his auteur reputation. Ran is a self-consciously important film, an epic taking place in a series of stately medium and long-shots (I can barely remember more than a few close-ups), in luscious Japanese countryside, peopled by hundreds of colour-coded extras. Kurosawa’s fault is that he sometimes focuses on this, at the cost of the thematic complexity of Lear.
But what he certainly gets right is the bleakness at its heart. Kurosawa is not remotely seduced by any glamour in Hidetora. Played by Tatsuya Nakadai in a deliberately classical noh-style (full of elaborate poses and declamatory, plot-heavy dialogue) designed to stress how out-of-touch he is, compared to the more modern styles of the other actors. A vain, proud man who expects to be obeyed without question, Hidetora is never a truly sympathetic figure until his final moments.
Everything we learn about him hammers home his past of violence and brutality – he wiped out of the families of both of his daughters-in-law to steal their lands, he blinded Ran’s prince-turned-beggar Tsurumaru, who wanders the wilderness and gives Hidetora shelter. Falling from power, he’s as stubborn and arrogant than ever, leading his retainers to their death in an ambush. There is none of the “very fond, foolish old man” about him (there isn’t much of that about Lear either), just a tyrant who brings himself low.
Hidetora’s greed has also introduced a serpent into his own nest. Many have seen Taro’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) as a Lady Macbeth figure, but really she’s a sort of Edmond or Iago. Seductive, vengeful and interested only in furthering the chaos, she lives in her murdered father’s castle, married to the son of the man who killed him. She schemes to turn both brothers against each other, seduces Jiro and pushes him to murder his wife. Using her body and her brain, she works to destroy the clan, her hatred motivated by Hidetora’s past cruelty.
Chaos is the perfect time for her schemes to take hold. Kurosawa’s setting of Ran near the end of the Samurai era, adds an additional blood-tinged brutality to the film’s battles. This was the time when the Samurai were learning their swords and arrows were poor defence against muskets. The battles are massacres: massacres of people fighting two different kinds of war. One is that of guts and honour: another the brutal long-distance finality of the bullet. Samurai are mowed down in their dozens on futile charges, while two of Hidetora’s sons are shot down from a distance, never seeing their killer’s faces. It’s a million miles from the traditional boar-hunt that opens the film – and it’s a world none of the characters manages to adjust to.
The violence of these battles is the central touch of mastery in Kurosawa’s epic. A whole castle was built – out of plywood – solely so it could be burned down during the pivot sequence at the centre of the film. Hidetora’s last castle is surprised by the armies of both sons, whose soldiers spray it with a never-ending stream of bullets and fire arrows. Playing out in silence under a haunting score, this is a chilling showpiece for Kurosawa’s visual mastery, a terrifyingly nihilistic view of the horror and destructiveness of conflict.
Inside Hidetora’s men are ripped apart or punctured like pin cushions, leaking gallons of crimson blood. His harem commits seppuku. The castle burns down around him. All while Hidetora sits in stoic disbelief at the top of a tower, his connection with reality collapsing. He eventually leaves the castle – walking through the parting invading forces (a shot that could only be attempted once as the set literally burned down around him) and out of the smoking gates. It’s an extraordinary sequence, the finest in the film: wordless, poetic and terrifyingly, hauntingly, brutal.
From here, Kurosawa’s Ran embraces the bleakness of Lear: Hidetora loses all trace of sanity, rages in self-loathing in the same fields he lorded over in the film’s opening sequence, is reduced to pathetically begging for food from the man he blinded and ends the film cradling the body of his murdered son. Around him his fool – an extraordinary performance from Japanese variety performer Peter – mocks his actions and tells bitter jokes about the savagery of the world while despairing and raging at the horrific position he has been reduced to in caring for his master.
Kurosawa embraces that bleakness: but how much does of Shakespeare’s depth does Kurosawa grasp? I’m not sure. In stressing the cruelty and madness of Hidetora, he robs him of Lear’s growing self-realisation about the emptiness of power and his own failings as a ruler. Hidetora is a two-dimensional character, as are most of the others. Kurosawa’s simplification of Lear removes the destructiveness of fate, the grotesqueness of chance and the punishments of loyalty (there is no Gloucester character, while the Kent figure is largely sidelined – both I feel is a real loss).
In making Ran, Kurosawa focused on two things: a depressingly post-Nuclear age vision of the world as a wasteland in waiting, and the pageantry of grand-settings and beautiful imagery. Compare Ran to the faster-paced dynamism of his earlier films (Seven Samurai may be nearly as long, but it doesn’t feel like it compared to the slow-paced Ran). There is a self-important artiness about Ran: it’s more stately style feels like Kurosawa showing he could do Ozu as well as he could Ford, while it’s indulgent run-time (there are many moments of near-silent nihilistic wilderness, that add length and import but not always depth) can test your patience.
Ran is basically a simplification of Lear that takes the core of the story, strips out many of its themes and contrasting sub-plots, and focuses on a single message, of man’s inhumanity to man. In doing that it loses the scope of a play that astutely looks at the personal and the political, the intimate and the epic, that understands the self-deceiving flaws of good and bad men. It’s large and important, but it’s not as powerful a tragedy as Lear because its fundamentally a simple film.
Which is not to say it is a bad film. But it is to say that Kurosawa had perhaps become seduced by his status as a legendary “Great Director” into believing that long and beautiful were synonymous with quality and importance. Ran is a fascinating and chilling film, with many striking and haunting moments. But it also misses some of what made its source material great, and it’s a triumph of moments and visuals than it is of intellect and depth.