At 75 years old, Akira Kurosawa delivered his last great gift to the world. Ran is based on King Lear, but retold as an atmospheric samurai epic full of sound and fury. After decades of illness, a lack of appreciation and a paucity of work, Kurosawa, inspired by stories of daimyo Mori Motonari, hit on an idea that was to be his swansong. Kurosawa worked on the film and searched for funding for almost a decade, before finding salvation in the French producer Serge Silberman, who allowed Kurosawa to realise his vision and fund the $11 million budget, the highest budget for a Japanese film produced up to that time. Now it’s being re-released in a beautiful 4K restoration, which can only add to an audience’s appreciation of the film’s spectacle. It’s a simple story, and one that will be familiar to many already well-acquainted with Shakespeare, but the film is driven largely by its themes, and works as a rumination on love, death, poverty and war.
It’s remarkable how well Shakespearian tragedy translates to feudal Japan – Throne of Blood, another of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, imagines the Scottish play as a Noh drama about a samurai who kills his lord – and Ran is no different. Lear’s counterpart is Lord Hidetora, an ageing warlord, who, unlike Lear, can not be said to have been “more sinn’d against than sinning”, having spent his life dealing in merciless death and destruction. In an attempt to bring peace to the land, he divides it up between his three sons, but while falling prey to the flattery of two of the sons, the third son warns Hidetora of his folly. Allowing his pride to get the better of him, he banishes Saburo, the only son who truly loves him. Of course, true to Saburo’s warning, the two sons are too selfish to be trusted, and conspire against him, whilst starting a bloody war in the process. Hidetora decends into madness, accompanied only by his fool, who ironically and in true Shakespearian tradition is one of the few wise characters not blinded by desire.
The atmosphere Ran (which means ‘chaos’) creates is, like, many of Kurosawa’s samurai films, bleak yet sumptuous. Kurosawa sees the beauty in sombre outdoor landscapes, and frequently uses them in his films. In contrast with the backgrounds are the lavish costumes, which give the film its vividness. The battle scenes are magnificent, and are equally visceral and alarming as the fights in Seven Samurai. Even today it isn’t easy to find a battle scene as imposing and shocking as the attack on the Third Castle.
For all of its brutal extravagance, Ran truly shines in its quiet moments. Hidetora is played by Tatsuya Nakadia with a theatrical intensity, and brilliantly captures the character’s insanity, whilst finding a way into this monstrous human being, allowing the audience to feel sympathy for him. If you know anything about Kurosawa’s life, it is difficult not to see parallels between his story and Hidetora’s. Kurosawa himself was left to wander the wilderness like Hidetora after a few years of success. He was eventually dismissed as too westernised and old-fashioned, and found great difficulty in getting the money together to make films. Kurosawa surely saw some of himself in that lost old man, tired from a lifetime of hostility. At the film’s heart is an artist bearing his soul, which thankfully doesn’t get lost in Ran‘s sprawling spectacle.
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
Scr: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Riu
DP: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Run time: 160 minutes
Ran is re-released in cinemas 1 April