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Directed by Akira Kurosawa — 1985, Japan – 160 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 – Drama
IN BRIEF, dramatically and visually shattering adaptation of King Lear, set in feudal Japan.
Ran (literally “Madness” or “Chaos”), is legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s twenty-seventh of thirty films, is not only the summit of his artistry but a universally acclaimed masterpiece.
Kurosawa spent ten years meticulously preparing every detail of, and scouring the world for funding for, his magnum opus, a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear [free online] transposed to sixteenth century feudal Japan. The aging Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai in a monumental performance) decrees that his land be divided among his three sons (changed from Shakespeare’s three daughters). Blinded by the flattery of the two older sons, he banishes his youngest for speaking the truth. The remaining heirs, driven by power and greed, shun their father and turn on each other. A broken man, Hidetora descends into madness as he watches the kingdom he had held together for fifty years disintegrate into apocalyptic destruction. We see, and feel, the “Ran,” the literal chaos of the title, in the destruction of the bonds of duty which once united a son to his father, a brother to his brother, and a samurai to his lord. Kurosawa makes no apologies for taking the time he needs to explore every nuance of his characters and themes. This magisterial film is an aesthetic triumph, with sequences ranging from one of the most overwhelming (and influential) battles ever filmed to intimate scenes which begin with ritualistic formality but then erupt into volcanic passion.
Ran (1985) is also a perfect capstone to Kurosawa’s entire career (although he would make three more films, none as ambitious, before his death at age 88 in 1998). I recently spent a month watching virtually all of his films in chronological order (a pleasure which I highly recommend). It was fascinating to see one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, and artists, discover his vision, through image and sound as much as through theme. Before this retrospective, I had admired Kurosawa (who doesn’t?); but afterwards, I was in complete awe of his achievement, from many scenes in his earliest films, made during World War II, to his first two masterpieces, Stray Dog (1949; a Film Noir about a cop, played by Toshirô Mifune – the star of sixteen Kurosawa films – who searches Tokyo for his stolen gun and finds much more than he bargained for) and Rashomon (1950; which explores the same event from four strikingly different perspectives), to such later triumphs as Seven Samurai (1954; although set in feudal Japan, it shows Kurosawa’s love for and mastery of the Westerns by such American directors as Ford and Hawks); The Hidden Fortress (1958; acknowledged by George Lucas as a primary influence on the plot of Star Wars); the entertaining Yojimbo (1961); the boldly experimental Dodes’ka-den (1970); and the ravishingly beautiful and poignant tale of cross-cultural friendship, Dersu Uzala (1974). Three other highlights of his filmography are his Shakespeare adaptations: Throne of Blood (1957) from Macbeth, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) from Hamlet (set in the cutthroat world of modern big business), and of course the film discussed in this essay, which brings together his passion for Shakespearean tragedy, Japanese history and philosophy, and his profound understanding of human nature.
Kurosawa brings an uncanny balance of psychological insight, thematic density, and visual and aural mastery to his reinvention of Lear. He gives us a developed backstory for Hidetora (although some would argue that Shakespeare’s Lear is so dominating a presence, both on the throne and in madness, that he does not need more of a personal history). Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance is, in a word, overwhelming. He brings out all of his character’s pathos despite the traditional Noh makeup which Kurosawa has only this one actor wear. As the Production Notes on the DVD point out, he begins with a fierce visage resembling the traditional demon mask, “Akijo,” but as he descends into madness, his deeply-lined face and red-rimmed eyes tellingly suggest “Shiwajo,” the sorrowing old man spirit forced to wander the earth to pay for his sins. What might have been a mere distancing technique in a lesser filmmaker is here shattering, as we are constantly reminded both of Hidetora’s artifice and heartbreaking humanity.
Kurosawa also made a fascinating decision not only to expand the role of the Fool, here named Kyoami (see the photo of him and Hidetora), into a major character (while eliminating Shakespeare’s Gloucester/ Edmund/ Edgar subplot), but to make him both sexually ambiguous and totally beguiling. Kyoami is played by the Japanese transgender pop star known simply as Peter. Kyoami is, in a way, the healing opposite of the chaos (“Ran”) of the title, as he balances both masculine and feminine energy, great courage as well as flexibility and tenderness. As we see, those qualities are especially important in a rigidly hierarchical society, founded on macho posturing, like the one disastrously promulgated by Hidetora.
Kurosawa’s other major addition is Lady Kaede (brilliantly played by Mieko Harada), who exists as a sort of demonic opposite to Kyoami. Although based on Shakespeare’s Goneril, she is a much more complex and important character in the film. Her unstoppable vengeance brings down the House of Ichimonji, first as the wife of Jiro the second son, then as the mistress of Taro, the eldest son. Without giving away some of the film’s most dramatic plot revelations, let it be noted that what Hidetora did to Lady Kaede’s parents, years earlier, provides the reason for her unwavering hatred, which plays a pivotal role in the destruction of Hidetora’s society.
Although I have never seen or read (over a dozen times) a more overwhelming play than King Lear, and although Kurosawa sometimes freely adapts the plot, still I believe that the filmmaker has been entirely faithful to the spirit of the most revered author in Western literature. (For the record, King Lear also has been brilliantly filmed, in Russian, by Grigori Kozintsev in 1969; this is another of the 10 Best Films Based on Shakespeare which I have seen; British director Peter Brook released his first-rate film of the play in 1971; and although I am a devout admirer of Jean-Luc Godard, his deconstructivist King Lear (1987), featuring Burgess Meredith as Lear, Norman Mailer and… Woody Allen, is not as penetrating as most of his other films.)
Each of Kurosawa’s changes not only works supremely well in his unique dramatic, and philosophical, conception of the story, it can be argued that they also cast a revealing light on Shakespeare. One example of this is Kurosawa’s expanded, not to mention transgendered, Fool, who raises a host of provocative issues around gender roles, power structure, and what qualities might be necessary to survive in a chaotic world (feudal Japan or 21st century America – take your pick).
Besides his exemplary cast, Kurosawa makes evocative use of landscape to realize his vision. The mountains and plains of Hidetora’s domain were shot at Mount Aso, an active volcano in the broad central plains of Kyushu, Japan’s still largely wild southern island. Kurosawa, as Japan’s most highly respected filmmaker, also obtained rare permission to shoot at two of the country’s most cherished landmarks, the ancient castles at Kumamoto and Himeji; the third castle, which was burned to the ground, was constructed of plastic and wood on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Costume designer Emi Wada, who won an Oscar for Ran, worked with Kurosawa to create the 1,400 costumes, accurate to the last detail and hand-made by master tailors. It took four months just to make each beautifully colored robe, and three years to complete all of the work.
Kurosawa himself spent ten years meticulously planning every aspect of Ran, including its visual scope. There is something poignant about one of the world’s great filmmakers spending a decade painting hundreds of canvases for the film he most wanted to make, but for which he was never sure he would be able to raise the money. (Some of Kurosawa’s magnificent pictures – he was a painter before a filmmaker – are included in the published screenplay of Ran.) Even after the success of Kagemusha (1980), financed by his American admirers, filmmakers George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars) and Francis Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), Kurosawa could not raise the money for Ran, which everyone knew would be the most expensive film ever made in Japan. After years of frustration, Serge Silberman, the French producer who backed the later films of Luis Buñuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire), gave Kurosawa the budget he needed to make Ran.
Kurosawa is, of course, a visual master, and that is what I want to look at now. Granted, some people find his style, especially in the later films (including Ran), austere. But for me, his use of image and sound is exactly, almost preternaturally, revealing about his subjects. Look at this opening shot of Ran (reproduced here in its correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1). Throughout the opening sequence, of just over a dozen shots, he used his “multi-camera method,” employing three camera shooting simultaneously, but with different lenses and from different angles. You can chart the progress of the film visually by comparing this opening image, with its ominously massing thunderclouds, which presage the coming storm, to the blood red sunset of its final image in the final shot included below. (Although Kurosawa was infamous for sometimes waiting weeks to get exactly the cloud formations he wanted, that did not happen with Ran, where the shooting proceeded smoothly over its ten-month schedule.) In the opening image, notice how, despite the stillness of the four horsemen waiting in motionless silence, there are intense visual dynamics: The contrast of earth and sky, the severely limited number of visual planes (this effect was created by using a telephoto lens and shooting a great distance from the actors), the tension produced – despite the bright full sunlight – by having each of the riders staring in a completely different direction (plus there was the added mystery of not knowing what they are searching for so intently, since we we are not yet aware that they are on a boar hunt). This one image sets up the entire film, both visually and dramatically: Those four warlords, standing at sharp right angles, will soon pull apart not only each other but their entire world.
To appreciate the subtlety and power of Kurosawa’s artistry, compare it to a film which is visually so different from Ran yet equally sublime. In the frame to the left (1.33:1 aspect ratio, as filmed) from Othello (1952), you can see how director/actor Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil) translates the dense, unsettling metaphors of Shakespeare’s language – and the emotional turmoil of the doomed title character – into image. The disorienting high angle, tortured composition, and ominous contrast of light and shadow are a dead-on visual correlative to Shakespeare. (You are welcome to read my comments on this sequence from Welles’s Othello, which includes seven key shots and a link to a free unabridged online copy of the play.) But whereas Welles literalizes Shakespeare’s metaphors through design and composition, Kurosawa captures, with breathtaking fullness, the emotion of Shakespeare, both the depth of his characters and the profundity of his insights into society.
Within his unified stylistic design, Kurosawa uses several techniques to bring Shakespeare to the screen. One of his most powerful strategies involves employing a static composition – which paradoxically makes us feel both godlike and powerless – and then abruptly brings action into the frame. We can see this clearly in the first battle sequence, filmed with breathtaking horror and silence – except for Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score. (Some people consider this the greatest war scene ever filmed; it has inspired many films since, including the acclaimed opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).) We view the carnage from a detached, almost omniscient point of view, when suddenly Kurosawa thrusts a new atrocity into the frame. The overwhelming power of this sequence is compounded by the deliberate, ritualistic pacing of the scenes which have preceded it. You can see the aftermath in the first still reproduced at the top of this page, with the now-shattered Hidetora, flanked by awe-struck soldiers, shambling away from the flaming ruins of his castle. Visually, Kurosawa makes us understand how and why the once omnipotent ruler has become a wraithlike madman.
Kurosawa is also a master at judiciously using jump cuts, which move to a slightly later action in a scene, creating an effect of acceleration, or even slight disorientation. They are dynamic but also suggest an unstable, rapidly shifting, slightly unsettling world. (Many critics, and filmgoers, consider Kurosawa one of the world’s greatest editors.) A perfect example of how Kurosawa uses jump cuts occurs in the film’s visual stark, and emotionally overwhelming, final scene (which made me physically tremble). Kurosawa isolates the blind young man Tsurumaru (played by Takashi Nomura), another victim of Hidetora’s ruthlessness, as a taps his way to the edge of a vast precipice. He just barely misses falling over. But the camera shows us what he can not see – but which we know he can feel – a hellish red, flat, utterly desolate world, with him the tiny figure in the center. It is a stark contrast to the opening shot, with its verdant plains and blue sky, and it is a perfect end to Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and a visual encapsulation of the emotional climax not only of Ran, but of Shakespeare’s King Lear too.
- Directed by Akira Kurosawa
- Written by Kurosawa, Masato Ide & Hideo Oguni,
based on Shakespeare’s King Lear
- Produced by Serge Silberman & Masato Hara
- Edited by Kurosawa
- Original Music by Tôru Takemitsu
- Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô & Masaharu Ueda
- Production Design by Shinobu Muraki & Yoshirô Muraki
- Costume Design by Emi Wada
- Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora
- Akira Terao as Taro, the Eldest Son
- Jinpachi Nezu as Jiro, the Second Son
- Daisuke Ryn as Saburo, the Youngest Son
- Mjeko Harada as Lady Kaede, Taro’s Wife
- Yoshiko Miyazaki as Lady Sue, Jiro’s Wife
- Peter as Kyoami, The Fool
- Masayuki Yui as Tango, Hidetora’s Servant
- Takashi Nomura as Tsurumaru
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Wellspring has created an exceptional fully-restored DVD of this film, which completely eclipses the earlier DVD from another distributor (a revealing split-screen Restoration Demonstration, included on the disc shows the striking differences between the old and new releases). Wellspring created a high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer and then further refined it digitally, to remove any visual imperfections. As a result, the image and sound quality are vivid, and the many extra features – including two separate, full-length commentaries (on optional sound tracks) – are excellent. Since I have a preference for close readings of a film’s visual style – composition, color, camera movement, and how they relate to the drama and theme – I especially appreciated film scholar Stephen Prince’s superb, almost shot by shot analysis of the film. Peter Grilli’s commentary, which took a more anecdotal approach, was also informative and enjoyable.
- Widescreen anamorphic format, from a new high-definition transfer, digitally restored.
- Presented in the original theatrical release format (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
- Restoration demonstration and split-screen comparison with the previous DVD release (the improvement is striking)
- Commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa
- Commentary by filmmaker and Japanese specialist Peter Grilli, producer of Kurosawa
- Production notes – brief but revealing
- Kurosawa filmography
- Both European and home video trailers
- $34.98 suggested retail
Reviewed May 17, 2003 / Revised October 27, 2020