The way to approach Ran is not to think of it as a fusty "reworking" of King Lear as a samurai epic, but as a discovery of how much of a sense of epic samurai fatalism there already was in Shakespeare's work. The movie is, indeed, based on King Lear, but it has not been turned into a lockstep product; far too much personal passion and bitterness has been brought to it for it to be a mere reading of the play. It is easily Kurosawa's best film next to The Seven Samurai or Ikiru, far grimmer and more pessimistic than those two movies but no less masterful or compelling.
This was Akira Kurosawa's fourth movie since 1965, made almost twenty years after that, and produced at a time in his life when any spiritual similarities between himself and Lear were probably unignorable. After his long-winded but essentially earnest Red Beard, he was dismissed in his own country as being too genteel and old-fashioned to be worth banking on. The cinematic tastes of his country were leaning heavily towards the newly-discovered genres of the ultraviolent gangster movie and "pink film" (soft-core erotica). Unable to find financing, he turned to fellow directors of his and created a production company collective with them. The first film produced from this organization was Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den, which failed commercially and destroyed any other chances for the company to get off the ground. He worked for 20th Century Fox for a brief time on their Pearl Harbor movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, but either quit or was fired depending on what version of the story is told (and none of his work was included in the final print regardless). In disgrace, he then attempted suicide, slicing open his arms in the same manner that his brother had, but did not succeed.
Somehow he found the strength to move on. His next film after this was Dersu Uzala, made in Russia — a Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, but a box-office flop, and further proof to the Japanese that Kurosawa was dried up. Five years later, his longtime admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, both of whom had watched Kurosawa's movies with wonder in film school, co-financed his magnificent Kagemusha, about a warlord impersonated by a common thief. The film was a huge success at home and abroad, and reawakened Kurosawa's presence to Japanese audiences more than a decade after he had been dismissed. But he was still unable to find the money for the movie he had really wanted to make, the movie he had called Kagemusha a "dress rehearsal" for. This was a film he had spent ten years meticulously writing and rewriting, and had created hundreds of paintings for, each one illustrating a different shot of the film. (His eyesight had by this time degenerated so much that he could only see a tiny amount of the paper in front of him, but the images are still breathtaking, and have been published in a book along with the screenplay.)
That film was Ran, of course, and he eventually found financing through Serge Silberman's Greenwich S.A. Silberman was the Frenchman who bankrolled many of Luis Bunuel's movies, and risked his own money in the production (some $12 million). Because of the way the money was divided, the film was the subject of a bitter dispute between the French and Japanese producers over who really owned the film. This kept it from being re-released for years, but the rights issues have since been resolved and the film is now available once again in a restored home video edition, looking as fine as it did when I first saw it in a New York City theater in 1985. Ran was probably my first official introduction to Japanese film, and it overwhelmed me completely (as well as my mother, and her friend, who couldn't take the horrific war scenes and had to leave).
Ran means chaos in Japanese, and it is a suitable subtitle for King Lear's original text: An old king has decided to retire from ruling and divide his power equally among his three daughters. But nothing goes as planned, because he cannot simply abdicate his power without also abdicating everything that goes with it, including facing the responsibility for all the evil he did with that power. His moral conscience is given voice by his jester, who stays with him when all others abandon him and go to war with each other. He loves a daughter who does not return his affection, and dies only just after he understands how foolish his gestures of power really were. The story is universal enough (as is almost all of Shakespeare) to appeal across cultures and ages; Kurosawa himself had recast Macbeth in the samurai era in his dreamy, lurid Throne of Blood decades earlier. One of the advantages of bringing Lear into classical Japan is that it frees the story from the weight of all our previous associations to it: we see it anew and rediscover in it what has become buried by habit and cliché.
Ran's basic story is the same — the warlord Hidetora, aging but with a gruff dignity nonetheless, has decided to cede his power to his sons. In a much-discussed scene, he sits with them on a hillside and shows them that they must stand together to remain strong, and uses a bundle of arrows as a metaphor for this. Hidetora has spent most of his life defeating one enemy after another, ruling with an iron fist, smashing down his enemies. Now he wants peace for himself and others, but the only reason others will have peace is as a by-product of his own desire. His ceding power is essentially selfish. His youngest son speaks up against the hypocrisy, out of love for him, not wanting to see him destroy what he has achieved, but to no avail: an incensed Hidetora expels him from the kingdom, only to have him marry into the family of a rival warlord.
Hidetora's fool, Kyoami (played magnificently by Peter, a famous Japanese female impersonator who starred in such avant-garde productions as Funeral Procession of Roses), not only mocks the old king's short-sightedness but puts it up for public consumption by acting it out for the other retainers. When one of them makes the mistake of imitating him, Hidetora shoots him dead from his tower. Only Kyoami has that dispensation, evidently, but it does Hidetora no good — before long, he finds that his sons are stripping him of his power and his retainers. The irony of course is that none of what they are doing is any different from what Hidetora has declared would happen, but now it's happening on their terms. He raised his sons a little too much in his image.
A parallel plot development unfolds with Lady Kaede, the wife of the eldest son, with shaved eyebrows and icy, metallic kimonos. Hidetora murdered her family; for him that was a lifetime ago, but for her that was yesterday. She has a subtly horrific scene when she sits side by side with Jiromasatora (the middle son) and calmly tells him of her plans to get even. In another scene of legendary impact, she tricks him into trusting her, then slashes his neck, demands to know the murderer of her husband, terrorizes him by ripping apart the sleeve of her robe — and then (in what has to be the movie's least subtle symbolism) sucks the blood from the wound as she agrees to become his mistress in exchange for his life. She uses the position to manipulate him and drive him into fighting against his brothers: all the better to destroy Hidetora's works on earth.
The middle section of the movie, with Hidetora's castle under attack, is astounding, possibly one of the best battle scenes ever filmed. Kurosawa shoots it in dead silence save for Toru Takemitsu's blood-chilling score (described in the screenplay as "the wailing of a hundred Buddhas"), and showing one appalling image after another: the guard tower with blood pouring down its sides like rain; the soldier holding his own severed arm in shock (a shot copied in Saving Private Ryan), the concubines rushing to spare Hidetora from musket fire and being cut down en masse; the house servants committing suicide; the body of a dying man rolling downhill like a fallen apple. Then, with the crack of a gun, the sounds of battle return, and we see the now-mad Hidetora stumbling out of the flaming wreck and into the wilderness.
The latter half of the movie is slower, but no less powerful. Hidetora and Kyoami try desperately to find shelter, and wind up at the house of another man who suffered at his hands: Tsurumaru, whose eyes were put out by Hidetora a decade ago. His sister, Lady Sue, a devout Buddhist, tells Hidetora earlier that she bears him no malice, but Hidetora refuses to believe that her piety is sincere. "Buddha is gone from this miserable world," he spits at her, framed against a burning sunset. Kyoami knows all too well that what little comfort he has to give is no match for the weight of the old man's psychic suffering: "Man is born crying," he proclaims at one point, "and when he's cried enough, he's dead!"
As Hidetora's madness becomes complete, we see what form it takes: not only regret for having wronged so many, but regret for not having been able to comprehend his own capacity for evil — and, most of all, regret for not understanding how well his sons would emulate him. And they do, destroying the kingdom in the process, with Kaede goading on Jiromasatora to fight against his own brothers (and meeting a spectacularly horrific death in the process). Even when Hidetora is reunited with his estranged son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), there's no reprieve: the son is killed by a sniper shot, and Hidetora dies draped over him. "Men prefer sorrow over joy," Hidetora's retainer Saburo fulminates at this, "and suffering over peace." The movie seems to be saying the same thing — and that they do so because, like old Hidetora, they cannot see the real nature of the work they have wrought.
More than anything else Ran is visually magnificent. Even though Kurosawa was virtually blind by the time shooting started and had to have assistants frame his shots, he gives us one astonishing scene after another almost offhandedly. Not just the epic battles, but even the simple scenes of people sitting and talking have a splendor that comes through. The attention to detail the crew gave to the film was also legendary: every single one of the costumes was handmade by a team of designers, a process that took two years, and an entire castle was constructed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji and burned for real. No technology existed then to create massive armies on computers (a la Lord of the Rings); everything you see in Ran is as it was filmed.
Donald Richie criticized Ran in his book on Kurosawa, reducing the film's philosophy to one of "people are no damned good" and calling it conceptually flawed. This to me is a dismissal of what the movie itself tries to bring up: if people are, in fact, no damned good, there are probably very real reasons for it, and the movie does not shy from them. The movie also touches on the essential impermanence of all things human — Hidetora's empire would in fact be most easily undone by his own flesh and blood, because they would be of all people the ones most suited to destroy it. The very last shots are of the blind Tsurumaru standing alone in the ruins of his castle, a scroll of the Buddha lying torn at his feet, and in his script Kurosawa concludes his description of this scene with one word that sums up all of the anger and pity that fuels this movie: Wretchedness!emusic.com=11080133