Japan Movie Reviews: Ran

Ran by Akira Kurosawa

Ran by Akira Kurosawa.

by Hemanth Kissoon, July 2007

"In a mad world, only the mad are sane" Kyoami.

Released in 1985, acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa turned to another Shakespeare tragedy - King Lear, having tackled Macbeth in Throne of Blood, and masterfully turned it into a samurai tale that engages the big themes of greed, vanity, violence and the corrosive, seductive nature of power.

Opening on beautiful countryside a court hunt for wild boars is in flow. Led by aging Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, he is a master of all he can see in the valleys and hills. Since 17 years old he has conquered many of his neighbours, and now at 70 he wishes to split his land among his three sons (instead of three daughters as the play), with the eldest, Taro, in charge overall. Hidetora will retain his title as Great Lord, with trappings, and reside with his sons in rotation as he sees fit.

The character revelations are already beginning: the pride of Hidetora, the weakness and obsequiousness of Taro, the aggression of Jiro (the middle son), and the honest but blunt nature of Saburo. When his father had fallen asleep his elder siblings mocked the old man, but it was the youngest that cut some branches and planted them in the ground to shield his father from the sun.

The two eldest sons are happy with this passing of rule, however the youngest, Saburo, speaks out and claims the idea as from an insane person. He deeply insults his father, especially as it is in front of courtiers and guests.

Saburo claims that as Hidetora was merciless, bloodthirsty and power-hungry the traits have been passed onto his children, and how can he expect peace between them and good rule.

Hidetora's self-absorption prevents him from seeing the genuine Saburo's correct assertion, and the fake pandering of his other two children. Hidetora disowns Saburo and banishes him. Once the youngest is out of the way, power-games from the major characters ensue as double-crosses and violence erupts across the land.

A mirror is held up to Hidetora, by his court jester (Kyoami) and the repercussions of his actions that now rear their head, as he realises to his horror the atrocities he has committed throughout his life, and in particular what kind of children he has raised. The devastation one person can cause is literally mind-blowing. He speaks of himself in the third person, which is an allusion perhaps to both self-regard, as well as a distancing of his ruthless actions from himself.

Ran is a deeply impressive film. Kurosawa does Shakespeare's King Lear proud, filtering the tale through the prism of Shogunate Japan. He carries through the universal themes of self-knowledge, avarice, pride, betrayal, cruelty and leadership. The characters are not painted in black and white, all are given motivations, and all are both victim and perpetrator. Even Saburo, like Shakespeare's Cordelia, is flawed was there a need to humiliate his father in giving the speech, and thus reduce its effectiveness?

The film has some bold creative choices. Absent, as compared to Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, are the entertaining set-pieces. Instead the action is bathed in pathos. One long scene, the attack on Hidetora and his bodyguard by Taro, is without voices or sound effects, just score. Also each protagonist is given their own colour-scheme, which adds beauty to the eye as well as clarity to the mind.

As in Yojimbo, Kurosawa also appears to be debunking the myth that the time of the samurai was of order and peace the frailty of humanity is timeless. There appears to be very little hope in the film, bar loyalty shown in different forms: honesty whatever the cost, duty whatever the cost, and obedience whatever the cost. Ran could be viewed as almost misanthropic. There is no glamour in this samurai pic. The last image is truly haunting. Even those familiar with King Lear will be left moved.

"Man is born crying. When he has cried enough he dies" Kyoami.

Japanese Cinema Reviews by Hemanth Kissoon

Black Rain
Castle in the Sky
The Castle of Cagliostro
Cyber City Oedo 808
Grave of the Fireflies
My Neighbor Totoro
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Porco Rosso
Tales From Earthsea
Tokyo Godfathers
Throne of Blood

Books on Japanese Cinema