Ran

Ran: Akira Kurosawa

★★★

(directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

I’ve just joined LoveFilm and am busily kicking myself for not having discovered it years ago, thereby saving myself hundreds of pounds on DVDs. I began with Ran, which is the first Kurosawa film I’ve really paid attention to (I saw Yojimbo at my university film club, but don’t remember much about it). I ordered it because I was intrigued to see how Kurosawa would adapt his source material of King Lear into a Japanese setting – Throne of Blood, which takes on Macbeth, is also on my wishlist.

As far as I can judge, Ran is an immensely successful adaptation: you don’t need to know the original to appreciate this tragic story; and in some ways Kurosawa’s story clarified my understanding of the play by offering a different perspective on the plot. Now, I know that reams has been written about Kurosawa as a director and this film in particular, but I haven’t read it (yet), so what you get here is my raw and completely unbiased take on things. It’s not ideal to come to a film of this stature without really having the context to place it in, but I suppose we all have to start somewhere.

Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), the Great Lord and head of his clan, is getting old. He has spent his life fighting to secure the territory that his clan now rules and, after a lifetime of war, he plans to sit back and enjoy the peace he has created in his old age. To do so, he proposes to divide his territory between his three sons, giving Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest, his overriding authority over the clan, and his two younger sons Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) a castle each to rule. He envisages long days of peace, with the three brothers working together to safeguard the land. But Saburo speaks up: the plan is a foolish idea, because the taste of power will set the brothers against each other and Hidetora’s hard-won peace will be shattered. Shocked at his son’s cynicism and disrespect, Hidetora banishes him, along with a retainer, Tango (Masayuki Yui), who has the courage to speak in Saburo’s defence.

Ran: Akira Kurosawa

Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) exiled into the wilderness

Of course, it isn’t long before Saburo’s vision is realised. Hidetora has romantic notions that he will be able to keep his status and dignity even after he’s given up his rule; but Taro’s own ambition, and that of his unscrupulous wife Kaede (Mieko Harada), get in the way. Taro soon finds himself demanding submission from his own father, to prevent a divided rule. Indignantly, Hidetora rides out to the castle of his second son, Jiro, where he finds a similarly cool welcome: wary of his father’s remaining soldiers, and harbouring his own ambitions for their realm, Jiro has no desire to keep Hidetora around to complicate matters. In a fury, Hidetora leads his retinue to the third castle – that promised to Saburo, before his exile – where Taro and Jiro finally make their move on him. Bereft of courtiers, soldiers or protectors of any kind – and too ashamed to contemplate calling on Saburo – Hidetora sinks into madness, wandering the wilderness with only his devoted fool Kyoami (Peter) and the loyal Tango to keep him company.

I’m not that used to watching Japanese films and so there are certain things that jarred with me simply because I’m unfamiliar with the artistic context: the acting, in particular, seemed rather overblown on occasion. The battle scenes went on for much too long: I swear there were five solid minutes towards the end when I watched men falling off horses, again and again and again. The whole film felt a bit sprawling, in fact. I’m sure some of you reading this will be shocked at my philistinism, but I can’t help it: it’s a long film, almost three hours long, and I don’t think it would have been harmed by being a bit shorter. Plus, the blood was obviously red paint. Those are the negatives.

Ran: Akira Kurosawa

The fearsome Kaede (Mieko Harada)

Moving onto the positives, the cinematography was breathtaking. Kurosawa has a way of using light and shade, and arranging colours on the screen, to create utterly beautiful frames that are more like paintings than a film. I lost count of the number of times I was struck by the compositions. The characters play out their story in sweeping, splendid landscapes, beneath skies which mirror the turbulence of the world beneath. The battle scenes, for all their length, have a brutality and complexity that becomes almost hypnotic. As Hidetora, Nakadai had a difficult job to pull off a convincing fit of madness, but his bewildered and sometimes even catatonic state was  poignantly plausible as that of a frail old man who has seen all his convictions and achievements ripped to pieces before his eyes. I did, however (spoiler) think that his death scene was a bit melodramatic.

Maybe he just seemed excessive on occasion because the latter part of the film sets him against Peter’s much more naturalistic acting as Kyoami. I haven’t seen King Lear for ages, so I can’t draw a direct comparison, but I thought he managed to convey the utter hopelessness of a man bound to a lord who doesn’t even recognise him any more: whose loyalty is so ravaged by despair that it hangs by a thread, which never quite snaps. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Fools… Finally, I thought Harada was fantastic as Kaede: blending grace and pitiless malevolence, she was the most driven of all the characters, determined to avenge the loss of her family. Her thirst for revenge was even more striking when set against the grieved but gentle submission of Sue and her brother Tsurumaru, who have suffered similar fates.

By the end I felt fairly crushed: this is proper Jacobean-tragedy-style stuff. You can count the named characters who are still alive at the end of the final act on the fingers of one hand, with room to spare. But it was beautifully made, gorgeous to look at, and had some moments of real poignancy as Hidetora came to terms with the darker side of human nature. I feel inspired to go back and tackle the original again now; and I can’t wait for Throne of Blood to come through, so that I can see what Kurosawa does with Macbeth.

Buy the film

Ran: Akira Kurosawa

Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the Fool (Peter)

9 thoughts on “Ran

  1. Heloise says:

    I'm glad you (mostly) liked the movie, and now that you've seen it, wouldn't you agree that Kurosowa would have been just the guy to direct the movie version of King Hereafter? 😛

    I watched Ran first when on its cinematic release, but also saw it on DVD a few times, and some things make a lot more sense on the big screen – the battle scenes in particular just lose much of their impact when watched in your living room rather than in a cinema. As for the acting – I am by no means an expert (actually, I don't have the first clue about the subject) but I strongly suspect there might be some influence of traditional Japanese drama at work there (possibly Noh?) which requires some adjustment from European viewers as it's obviously quite different from what we're used to. I think that part in particular gains on repeated viewings, at least for me it got progressively less irritating every time I watched the movie.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Of course, I only watched it to judge his directorial capabilities 😛

    I really did like it, and I'm fully aware that my misgivings, such as they were, grew from not knowing this field well enough. I'm sure you're right about the influence of traditional forms of Japanese theatre – plus, there's no doubt it would be much more imposing on the big screen (although you'll still have men repeatedly falling off horses, just on a larger scale!). Not having any real knowledge of Kurosawa's films, however, I think I did well to start with one of the greatest – and this means that I'll be better placed to appreciate his style (and the Japanese form of cinema) when I get round to Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai etc. Maybe when I've got a better grasp of the genre I can come back to Ran and appreciate it from something slightly more than a newbie's perspective – but I didn't want to bog myself down in reading too much before I saw it for the first time 😀

    I'd love to be able to understand more about Japanese cinema (and Chinese and Korean too, come to that) – not the horror films so much, of course, but more the historical films and the character dramas. At least with LoveFilm I can take risks that I'd be unwilling to take with expensive DVDs from the shops…

  3. Heloise says:

    Very true about the risk-taking – there is so much wonderful stuff out there one normally doesn't even hear about, let alone gets to watch. And that of course doesn't apply just to Asian cinema, but European and even American as well, it all gets pushed aside by Hollywood mainstream blockbusters. I do hope you'll keep us updated on the movies you'll encounter. 🙂

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh, I'm glad to hear you enjoyed A Royal Affair! Now that it's out on DVD I'm wondering whether I shouldn't buy it (or rent it) and watch it again. Solely on the strength of that film, I'm keen to see more of Mads Mikkelsen. I really thought ht was great.

    Yes, you're absolutely right about the different filmmaking styles between countries. I think across most of Europe we probably have a fairly united cultural approach, although even Scandinavia seems to have a subtly different visual imagination. But outside Europe / the US? *Sighs* There is so much to learn.

    I was hoping for Throne of Blood from LoveFilm next, but I've just found out they're sending me Season 1 of Girls instead. Ah well. A change is as good as a rest. 🙂

  5. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    I haven't seen this film and the nearest I've seen in early 90s Chinese films, but from that as well as the Japanese dramas I've seen, you'll get used to it the more you see. It's interesting how we've got methods of theatre and film, in every country, so that viewing another seems so literally foreign (of course they are foreign, but hopefully you know what I mean).

    This sounds a good film; I'm kind of glad to read about the paint blood because it sounds quite graphic!

    Off topic: I watched A Royal Affair on your recommendation – loved it. Both interesting and wretched.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha – God, that would be surreal, wouldn't it?

    The principle is that you draw up a rental list and they send you your choices randomly. You can select some items as high priority, so that they'll send these first, but if you have more than one item in the high priority list then that becomes a random selection as well. As I have a shocking number of films / series that I want to see, I put a handful as high priority to make sure I got them this side of Christmas.

    A colleague of mine is always talking about Girls, and I've heard good things about it, so I thought I'd give it a whirl before I get too embarrassingly behind the times. You never quite know what's going to come next, which is quite fun. A little extra spontaneity in life is a good thing, I think. 🙂

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