Akira Kurosawa was one of the few directors whose average movie was better than the cream of most other filmmakers. His 1985 epic, Ran, is no exception to this. It is not Kurosawa’s best work, but pit it against anything by, say, a contemporary Hollywood director, and there is almost certainly no contest (particularly when one considers his biggest fan, George Lucas). And while Ran is often compared to Shakespeare’s King Lear, with which it no doubt shares many elements, Ran is actually based on the legendary tale of a real warlord- Kurosawa was only made aware of Lear midway through production- and is far more complex and well realized than the play. It is surely not, therefore, simply a retelling of Lear set in feudal Japan, as many critics like to claim. The plot is relatively straightforward, but rarely do elements ever seem contrived. Certain scenes and performances make you feel like you’re watching a Noh drama, but that’s about it. This is not a big deal for me, even if it is unrealistic; and apart from these small instances of style over substance, there is not a lot that I can criticise the film for.
The film was conceived as early as the 1970’s, but at the time was seen to be too great an undertaking, most notably for the sheer scale of its battle scenes. So, Kurosawa would practice his craft in Kagemusha (1980), before mastering it in Ran. With its beautiful colors- unlike anything else in Kurosawa’s production- coming mostly from the dazzling warrior costumes (each taking 3-4 months to make), Ran’s most picturesque and vivid scenes are also its most destructive and bleak. Indeed, the decision to begin the film full of movement and noise (both visual and auditory), and to end it with stillness, silence, and emptiness, was clearly a conscious one. It brings us full circle, in a film whose tonal diversity is almost bewildering. The cinematography, emulating the artistic style of a Japanese landscape painting, flattens the image. There is hardly the depth of field to effectively part-objects or people. This makes the frame feel somewhat close, and constricted, even despite the wide open spaces. This effect is amplified in the battle scenes to the highest degree. Yet, there is also the very tangible feeling of isolation throughout. These conflicting effects are created by the camera lens alone, and they serve the purpose of imbuing the film with much beauty, tension, and chaos (often simultaneously). Additionally- from the dense and chaotic imagery of great armies laying siege, to the fragile Hidetora, aimlessly wandering the plains- there is always a sense of the lens’s detachment. We, the audience, experience the viewing of Ran, not unlike that of viewing a nature documentary about wild animals, or insects. For we witness the human struggle from a god’s eye view. It is almost difficult for us to empathize with Ran’s characters as a result (though I will not comment on whether I think this was a mistake or not, as some claim).
Of all the characters, the two most well developed are Hidetora himself, and interestingly enough, his fool. The weakest characters- and elements- of the film are without a doubt Lady Kaede, and her pawn Jiro. [The scene in which Kaede threatens and seduces Jiro into becoming her pawn, being the most unrealistic and silly of any.] To create a single-minded villain (if you can call her a ‘villain’) is a difficult task, for single-mindedness runs the risk of translating as single-dimensionality- a risk not evaded in the case of Lady Kaede. While this (not to mention her portrayal by Mieko Harada) is the great downfall of Kaede’s character, the great downfall of Jiro’s character is his weak-mindedness. He has no wits about him and is easily manipulated, yet his own machinations are ill-conceived and transparent. The reason I consider this a flaw in the character of Jiro- as opposed to merely a ‘character flaw’- is because, had he not been so brainless, the schemes of Lady Kaede would have fallen flat, and Jiro would have become the villain: destroying his father early on, and winning power through his cunning, and not just out of sheer luck (a stray bullet of his general’s gun, to be exact). As it is, the story works fine, but for the fact that the characters are made to fit the plot, rather than the other way round. Nonetheless, this is very much a character-oriented story, and one with sufficient depth and insight into the human condition to upstage most theater productions. For that, it deserves praise. The dynamic between Hidetora and Kyaomi is fantastic, and even when bereft of his marbles, Hidetora feels like a perfectly realized human being- even if one living in a strange, and chthonian, hallucinatory world. Kyaomi is not a samurai and therefore bears no great obligation to Hidetora, yet remains the most loyal to, and the most candid with, the aged man of anyone- whether he is the most powerful warlord in the land or a senseless and senile old fool. Kyaomi is so often seen to complain about his circumstances, blaming Hidetora for his troubles, before comforting or protecting him. This is almost the sole glowing ember of humanity in Kurosawa’s chaotic world- one devoid of compassion, or meaning.
That last line may have rung a little strong, but this film does seem to be a sort of exaggerated emulation of Kurosawa’s life. At 75, Kurosawa was of a similar age as his protagonist, in the twilight of his career. He had fought all of his battles and won his reputation as the greatest filmmaker in the land, but then was rejected by the very country in which his movies had reigned supreme. He had become too western for the Japanese palate, and this, among other things, caused him to fall into depression. At one point he even attempted, though failed, suicide. This is actually eluded to in Ran when Hidetora is unable to commit seppuku- his sword without a blade; and as Kurosawa was losing his sight, so did Hidetora lose his mind. The legacy Kurosawa would leave behind was in the cinema of the west, but Hollywood gives little credit for the towering enterprises they build upon foreign foundations. Kurosawa struggled, and ultimately, never really succeeded in Hollywood, so late his career. Even with the help of prominent supporters, such as George Lucas, caught as he was between the western and Japanese stylistic traditions, Kurosawa failed to appease the mainstream.
This alloy of style was no surprise if one considers the sources from which Kurosawa drew- many being western, or Russian, that were not native. These included: Fritz Lang, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Dostoevsky, Gorky, John Ford and of course Shakespeare, among others. The influence of Shakespeare is sure to be found in Ran specifically- even if Kurosawa was not aware of King Lear when he first formulated it. The influence was a much later imbuement, but it is there. The film- 27th of the 30 he would complete- is effectively an amalgam of many things: of the legend of Sengoku era warlord Mori Motonari; of the story of King Lear; and of the life of its co-writer and director. Kurosawa always imparted onto his films the element of personal experience. Interestingly, Ran is rather more impersonal and distant with its protagonist than Lear is, which is a striking divergence; this is possibly a reflection of how Kurosawa saw himself in the world.