(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.
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.
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.