from Jim Clark's Film Reviews


Ran (literally "Madness" or "Chaos"), legendary director Akira Kurosawa's twenty-seventh of thirty films, is not only the summit of his artistry but a universally acclaimed masterpiece.

Kurosawa spent ten years meticulously preparing every detail of, and scouring the world for funding for, his magnum opus, a free adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear transposed to sixteenth century feudal Japan. The aging Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai in a monumental performance) decrees that his land be divided among his three sons (changed from Shakespeare's three daughters). Blinded by the flattery of the two older sons, he banishes his youngest for speaking the truth. The remaining heirs, driven by power and greed, shun their father and turn on each other. A broken man, Hidetora descends into madness as he watches the kingdom he had held together for fifty years disintegrate into apocalyptic destruction. We see, and feel, the "Ran," the literal chaos of the title, in the destruction of the bonds of duty which once united a son to his father, a brother to his brother, and a samurai to his lord. Kurosawa makes no apologies for taking the time he needs to explore every nuance of his characters and themes. This magisterial film is an aesthetic triumph, with sequences ranging from one of the most overwhelming (and influential) battles ever filmed to intimate scenes which begin with ritualistic formality but then erupt into volcanic passion.

Ran (1985) is also a perfect capstone to Kurosawa's entire career (although he would make three more films, none as ambitious, before his death at age 88 in 1998). I recently spent a month watching virtually all of his films in chronological order (a pleasure which I highly recommend). It was fascinating to see one of the world's greatest filmmakers, and artists, discover his vision, through image and sound as much as through theme. Before this retrospective, I had admired Kurosawa (who doesn't?); but afterwards, I was in complete awe of his achievement, from many scenes in his earliest films, made during World War II, to his first two masterpieces, Stray Dog (1949; a Film Noir about a cop, played by Toshirô Mifune – the star of sixteen Kurosawa films – who searches Tokyo for his stolen gun and finds much more than he bargained for) and Rashomon (1950; which explores the same event from four strikingly different perspectives), to such later triumphs as Seven Samurai (1954; although set in feudal Japan, it shows Kurosawa's love for and mastery of the Westerns by such American directors as Ford and Hawks); The Hidden Fortress (1958; acknowledged by George Lucas as a primary influence on the plot of Star Wars); the entertaining Yojimbo (1961); the boldly experimental Dodes'ka-den (1970); and the ravishingly beautiful and poignant tale of cross-cultural friendship, Dersu Uzala (1974). Three other highlights of his filmography are his Shakespeare adaptations: Throne of Blood (1957) from Macbeth, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) from Hamlet (set in the cutthroat world of modern big business), and of course the film discussed in this essay, which brings together his passion for Shakespearean tragedy, Japanese history and philosophy, and his profound understanding of human nature.

Kurosawa brings an uncanny balance of psychological insight, thematic density, and visual and aural mastery to his reinvention of Lear. He gives us a developed backstory for Hidetora (although some would argue that Shakespeare's Lear is so dominating a presence, both on the throne and in madness, that he does not need more of a personal history). Tatsuya Nakadai's performance is, in a word, overwhelming. He brings out all of his character's pathos despite the traditional Noh makeup which Kurosawa has only this one actor wear. As the Production Notes on the DVD point out, he begins with a fierce visage resembling the traditional demon mask, "Akijo," but as he descends into madness, his deeply-lined face and red-rimmed eyes tellingly suggest "Shiwajo," the sorrowing old man spirit forced to wander the earth to pay for his sins. What might have been a mere distancing technique in a lesser filmmaker is here shattering, as we are constantly reminded both of Hidetora's artifice and heartbreaking humanity.

Kurosawa also made a fascinating decision not only to expand the role of the Fool, here named Kyoami (see the photo of him and Hidetora), into a major character (while eliminating Shakespeare's Gloucester/Edmund/Edgar subplot), but to make him both sexually ambiguous and totally beguiling. He is played by the Japanese transgender pop star known simply as Peter. Kyoami is, in a way, the healing opposite of the chaos ("Ran") of the title, as he balances both masculine and feminine energy, great courage as well as flexibility and tenderness. As we see, those qualities are especially important in a rigidly hierarchical society, founded on macho posturing, like the one disastrously promulgated by Hidetora.

Kurosawa's other major addition is Lady Kaede (brilliantly played by Mieko Harada), who exists as a sort of demonic opposite to Kyoami. Although based on Shakespeare's Goneril, she is a much more complex and important character in the film. Her unstoppable vengeance brings down the House of Ichimonji, first as the wife of Jiro the second son, then as the mistress of Taro, the eldest son. [ I believe the reviewer has this backwards.] Without giving away some of the film's most dramatic plot revelations, let it be noted that what Hidetora did to Lady Kaede's parents, years earlier, provides the reason for her unwavering hatred, which plays a pivotal role in the destruction of Hidetora's society.

Although I have never seen or read (over a dozen times) a more overwhelming play than King Lear, and although Kurosawa sometimes freely adapts the plot, still I believe that the filmmaker has been entirely faithful to the spirit of the most revered author in Western literature. (For the record, King Lear also has been brilliantly filmed, in Russian, by Grigori Kozintsev in 1969; this is another of the 10 Best Films Based on Shakespeare which I have seen; British director Peter Brook released his first-rate film of the play in 1971; and although I am a devout admirer of Jean-Luc Godard, his deconstructivist King Lear (1987), featuring Burgess Meredith as Lear, Norman Mailer and... Woody Allen, is not as penetrating as most of his other films.)

Each of Kurosawa's changes not only works supremely well in his unique dramatic, and philosophical, conception of the story, it can be argued that they also cast a revealing light on Shakespeare. One example of this is Kurosawa's expanded, not to mention transgendered, Fool, who raises a host of provocative issues around gender roles, power structure, and what qualities might be necessary to survive in a chaotic world (feudal Japan or 21st century America – take your pick).

Besides his exemplary cast, Kurosawa makes evocative use of landscape to realize his vision. The mountains and plains of Hidetora's domain were shot at Mount Aso, an active volcano in the broad central plains of Kyushu, Japan's still largely wild southern island. Kurosawa, as Japan's most highly respected filmmaker, also obtained rare permission to shoot at two of the country's most cherished landmarks, the ancient castles at Kumamoto and Himeji; the third castle, which was burned to the ground, was constructed of plastic and wood on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Costume designer Emi Wada, who won an Oscar for Ran, worked with Kurosawa to create the 1,400 costumes, accurate to the last detail and hand-made by master tailors. It took four months just to make each beautifully colored robe, and three years to complete all of the work.

Kurosawa himself spent ten years meticulously planning every aspect of Ran, including its visual scope. There is something poignant about one of the world's great filmmakers spending a decade painting hundreds of canvases for the film he most wanted to make, but for which he was never sure he would be able to raise the money. (Some of Kurosawa's magnificent pictures – he was a painter before a filmmaker – are included in the published screenplay of Ran.) Even after the success of Kagemusha (1980), financed by his American admirers, filmmakers George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars) and Francis Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), Kurosawa could not raise the money for Ran, which everyone knew would be the most expensive film ever made in Japan. After years of frustration, Serge Silberman, the French producer who backed the later films of Luis Buñuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire), gave Kurosawa the budget he needed to make Ran.

Kurosawa is, of course, a visual master, and that is what I want to look at now. Granted, some people find his style, especially in the later films (including Ran), austere. But for me, his use of image and sound is exactly, almost preternaturally, revealing about his subjects. Look at this opening shot of Ran (reproduced here in its correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1). Throughout the opening sequence, of just over a dozen shots, he used his "multi-camera method," employing three camera shooting simultaneously, but with different lenses and from different angles. You can chart the progress of the film visually by comparing this opening image, with its ominously massing thunderclouds, which presage the coming storm, to the blood red sunset of its final image in the final shot included below. (Although Kurosawa was infamous for sometimes waiting weeks to get exactly the cloud formations he wanted, that did not happen with Ran, where the shooting proceeded smoothly over its ten-month schedule.) In the opening image, notice how, despite the stillness of the four horsemen waiting in motionless silence, there are intense visual dynamics: The contrast of earth and sky, the severely limited number of visual planes (this effect was created by using a telephoto lens and shooting a great distance from the actors), the tension produced - despite the bright full sunlight - by having each of the riders staring in a completely different direction (plus there was the added mystery of not knowing what they are searching for so intently, since we we are not yet aware that they are on a boar hunt). This one image sets up the entire film, both visually and dramatically: Those four warlords, standing at sharp right angles, will soon pull apart not only each other but their entire world.

To appreciate the subtlety and power of Kurosawa's artistry, compare it to a film which is visually so different from Ran yet equally sublime. In the frame to the left (1.33:1 aspect ratio, as filmed) from Othello (1952), you can see how director/actor Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil) translates the dense, unsettling metaphors of Shakespeare's language – and the emotional turmoil of the doomed title character – into image. The disorienting high angle, tortured composition, and ominous contrast of light and shadow are a dead-on visual correlative to Shakespeare. (You are welcome to read my comments on this sequence from Welles's Othello, which includes seven key shots and a link to a free unabridged online copy of the play.) But whereas Welles literalizes Shakespeare's metaphors through design and composition, Kurosawa captures, with breathtaking fullness, the emotion of Shakespeare, both the depth of his characters and the profundity of his insights into society.

Within his unified stylistic design, Kurosawa uses several techniques to bring Shakespeare to the screen. One of his most powerful strategies involves employing a static composition – which paradoxically makes us feel both godlike and powerless - and then abruptly brings action into the frame. We can see this clearly in the first battle sequence, filmed with breathtaking horror and silence – except for Toru Takemitsu's haunting score. (Some people consider this the greatest war scene ever filmed; it has inspired many films since, including the acclaimed opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).) We view the carnage from a detached, almost omniscient point of view, when suddenly Kurosawa thrusts a new atrocity into the frame. The overwhelming power of this sequence is compounded by the deliberate, ritualistic pacing of the scenes which have preceded it. You can see the aftermath in the first still reproduced at the top of this page, with the now-shattered Hidetora, flanked by awe-struck soldiers, shambling away from the flaming ruins of his castle. Visually, Kurosawa makes us understand how and why the once omnipotent ruler has become a wraithlike madman.

Kurosawa is also a master at judiciously using jump cuts, which move to a slightly later action in a scene, creating an effect of acceleration, or even slight disorientation. They are dynamic but also suggest an unstable, rapidly shifting, slightly unsettling world. (Many critics, and filmgoers, consider Kurosawa one of the world's greatest editors.) A perfect example of how Kurosawa uses jump cuts occurs in the film's visual stark, and emotionally overwhelming, final scene (which made me physically tremble). Kurosawa isolates the blind young man Tsurumaru (played by Takashi Nomura), another victim of Hidetora's ruthlessness, as a taps his way to the edge of a vast precipice. He just barely misses falling over. But the camera shows us what he can not see – but which we know he can feel – a hellish red, flat, utterly desolate world, with him the tiny, tiny figure in the center. It is a stark contrast to the opening shot, with its verdant plains and blue sky, and it is a perfect end to Kurosawa's masterpiece, and a visual encapsulation of the emotional climax not only of Ran, but of Shakespeare's King Lear too.


* Directed by Akira Kurosawa
* Written by Kurosawa, Masato Ide & Hideo Oguni, based on Shakespeare's King Lear
* Produced by Serge Silberman & Masato Hara
* Edited by Kurosawa
* Original Music by Tôru Takemitsu
* Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô & Masaharu Ueda
* Production Design by Shinobu Muraki & Yoshirô Muraki
* Costume Design by Emi Wada

* Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora
* Akira Terao as Taro, the Eldest Son
* Jinpachi Nezu as Jiro, the Second Son
* Daisuke Ryn as Saburo, the Youngest Son
* Mjeko Harada as Lady Kaede, Taro's Wife
* Yoshiko Miyazaki as Lady Sue, Jiro's Wife
* Peter as Kyoami, The Fool
* Masayuki Yui as Tango, Hidetora's Servant
* Takashi Nomura as Tsurumaru



October 1, 2000


Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" is inspired by "King Lear," but may be as much about Kurosawa's life as
Shakespeare's play. Seeing it again in a fine new 35mm print, I realized the action doesn't center on the old
man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a
great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes
to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil. There are parallels not only with kings
but also with filmmakers, who like royalty must enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy,
finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.

Today we include Kurosawa (1910-1998) among the greatest directors, but for years he was without honor
and funds in his own country. He was master of his destiny for only 15 years of a long life, from 1950
("Rashomon") to 1965 ("Red Beard"), and in that span he made the masterpieces "The Seven Samurai,"
"The Throne of Blood," "Ikiru," "The Hidden Fortress." "High and Low" and the twin samurai films
"Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro," among others.

Then his times grew hard. Condemned as "too Western" and old-fashioned in Japan, he begged for his
budgets. His "Dodes'ka-den" (1970), a Dickensian view of life among the poor in Tokyo, was rejected by
Japanese audiences. Another five years passed before he found Russian financing for "Dersu Uzala," the
story of a Mongolian woodsman who guides a Russian explorer; it won the Oscar for best foreign film, but
was a failure at the box office.

In 1975 he announced he wanted to make a samurai epic based on "King Lear," but could find no
financing. In 1980 he made the magnificent medieval epic "Kagemusha" as a "rehearsal" for the big film;
although it was a success, there was still no money for "Ran." He filled notebooks with drawings of
locations and costumes, and storyboards of scenes. Finally he found an angel in the maverick French
producer Serge Silberman, who had backed outsiders such as Luis Bunuel and now found the funds for
"Ran." Kurosawa had directed 12 films from 1950 to 1965, but "Ran" was only his fourth in the next 20

I recount this history because I think there is much of Kurosawa in "Ran," made when he was 75. He was
preoccupied with mortality in his later years. His eyesight was failing, he attempted suicide, and although
he announced "Ran" would be his last film, he returned to end-thoughts in "Dreams" (1990), based on an
old man's reveries, and "Madadayo" (1993), about an ancient professor who is honored by his students on
his birthday; the title translates as "Not yet!" and refers to the old man's defiant annual affirmation that he is
still not dead.

Now look at "Ran" (its title means "chaos"). There is much from "King Lear" in it, including an old king
who unwisely divides his kingdom into three parts (among sons, not daughters). There is a fool to keep
him company, and a loyal follower to shadow and protect him; there is exile after his sons claim their
father's troops overtax their hospitality; he jumps from a cliff that turns out to be a small rise in the ground;
he descends into senility but has a flash of insight and is able to apologize to one he has wronged. Certainly
the image of the crazed old man, cut loose from authority and lost in the wilderness, will remind audiences
of Lear.

And yet, as the critic Stanley Kauffmann has pointed out, the movie is at least as much about war as about
an old man's pride and decay. Lear is driven mad because he does not love the daughter who loves him,
and sees his folly when his other daughters betray him. Hidetora, the hero of "Ran," is driven mad, says
Kauffmann, because of the wars between his sons: "The change is from the spiritual to the physical." Lear
was personal, Kauffmann says, but "Ran" is "gigantically catastrophic."

"King Lear" has the old man at its center. In "Ran" we sometimes get the impression that life is hurtling
past Hidetoro (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wanders from one tragedy to another, pushing in from the margins,
bewildered. We learn from Hidetora in an early scene that he spent his life waging war, until finally he
controlled all that he saw. Now he divides his three castles among his three sons, thinking this will bring
peace to the land. His youngest son, who loves him most, tells him this will never work. Hidetora
banishes him (he marries into the family of a powerful warlord, as Cordelia married the king of France).
Then wars consume the land, as the other two sons battle for control. As Hidetora stumbles through this
landscape, accompanied by his Fool, his sons and their warriors are more concerned with their battles than
with this pathetic, peripheral figure.

Kurosawa combined "King Lear" with a Japanese medieval epic that supplied him with Lady Kaede, the
wife of Tarotakatora, the oldest son. Kaede (Mieko Harada), with her painted eyebrows perched high on
her forehead in perpetual disapproval, could herself be inspired by Lady Macbeth. After Tarotakatora is
killed, she threatens the life of his brother Jiromasatora before sparing him to become his mistress (she
sucks the blood from a cut she has made in his throat). Her bizarre demands of revenge marginalize the old
man still further: Vengeance and beheadings go on relentlessly, as a reproach to his foolish dreams of
peace. Kaede's long-overdue death, unseen below the frame but producing a great splash of blood against
a wall, is a masterstroke of timing and execution.

The film is visually magnificent. Kurosawa refined everything he learned about battle scenes in
"Kagemusha" and the earlier samurai epics. He uses several static cameras to film the action, cutting
between them; because his cameras don't dart and whirl, we are not encouraged to think of ourselves as
participants but as gods, observing, taking the long view here and then a closeup look. (One shot, of a man
holding his own severed arm, no doubt inspired the similar shot in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private

Emi Wada's costumes, which won an Academy Award, carry most of the film's color. I learn from
Cinebooks that the 1,400 costumes were handmade in Kyoto, traditional seat of Japanese tapestries: "It
took three to four months to make each beautifully colored robe (the work was done simultaneously), and it
was nearly three years before all were finished." Kurosawa frequently chooses drab backgrounds--barren
soil, gray slab courtyards, rock steps--to show off their dazzling beauty.

Every age gets the Shakespeare it deserves. "King Lear" was written at a time when kings still ruled by
divine right. It was the Renaissance belief that human destiny was influenced by one's inner humors;
Lear's pride brought about his fall. "Ran" is set in medieval times, but it is a 20th century film, in which an
old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power
to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his
children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs
tearing at a carcass.

Did this express Kurosawa's own view in his 75th year, as he looked back on one of the most remarkable
achievements in the history of the movies? Did he reflect that while the West was happy to buy, gut and
remake his work, he had lost all power and respect in the country whose films he once ruled?
Note: It is a measure of Kurosawa's worldwide influence that "Hidden Fortress" helped inspire "Star
Wars," "The Seven Samurai" was remade as "The Magnificent Seven," and "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro" were
transformed into the Clint Eastwood westerns "A Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More." On the
other hand, Kurosawa remade, too: "Throne of Blood" is from "Macbeth," "Lower Depths" is from Gorki,
"The Idiot" is from Dostoyevsky, and "High and Low" is adapted from an Ed McBain police procedural.


See useful links at: http://www.ran2000.com/ or at http://artscentral.mediacorptv.com/feature/ran/links.htm

More than an adaptation, Ran re-invents Lear
and wrings a terrible beauty from its bleak heart.
Now in re-release to mark its 15th anniversary,
Ran qualifies as required viewing for for any
devoted lover of film.

The story is stormy and blood-soaked, the
dialogue is in Japanese with subtitles, the setting
is the distant past in a culture so foreign it could
have come from another planet. And it runs two
hours and 40 minutes long.

That is to say, it is everything that makes some
people avoid foreign films.

If you are one of those people, you would do
yourself a favor to see this film. Just sit in the dark
and surrender — to its delicate rhythms, its
silences and its music, its terrifying fury, its breathtaking battles. Do that, and it won't seem
strange and unfamiliar for long.

Margaret McGurk, the Cincinatti Inquirer http://cincinnati.com/freetime/movies/mcgurk/122900_ran.html


From the New York Times:



By Vincent Canby
Published: June 22, 1986


In any context, in any year, the grandeur of Akira Kurosawa's ''Ran'' could not go easily unrecognized. One would have to be willfully blind. In this mingy season, however, ''Ran'' is almost a religious experience - an epiphany, a reminder that there still can be life before one softens to death in the ooze of late 20th-century popular culture. ''Ran'' stands above all other 1985-86 movies with the implacable presence of a force of nature.

That, at least, was the revivifying impression on seeing it again at the Cinema Studio the other Thursday afternoon, nearly nine months after watching it the first time at the New York Film Festival, and in the 25th week of its continuing first-run engagement that began last December at the Cinema 1.

It's difficult to write about ''Ran'' without making it sound terribly worthy - the sort of movie that's a solemn duty to see. Everything about it is intimidating.

It's the 27th feature of this most celebrated of Japanese directors, one of the two most long-lived of still-active, contemporary film makers - the other being John Huston who, at 80, has a slight edge on the 76-year-old Kurosawa.

With the popular success of ''Ran,'' it's clear that Kurosawa remains a glorious anachronism -an independent, self-absorbed artist in a field that's totally dependent on profits from investments that (considering all of the other needs of our society) are unconscionably extravagant. Yet he doesn't make movies that, by the stretch of anybody's imagination, could be said to possess built-in appeal.

He's survived into old age in an art ravaged by the constant search for the ''new.'' He's persisted in making only those films that express his own concerns (with, among other things, man's moral responsibilities and his relation to the universe), in a style that pays little attention to current fashions but, instead, is virtually an anthology of cinema from its earliest days to the present. It's not an arbitrary style, but a form dictated by the subject matter that, in turn, is illuminated by visual eloquence.

Brought in on a budget of $12 million (which is approximately half of what ''Ghostbusters'' cost), ''Ran'' is the most expensive film ever made in Japan. What's even more intimidating is that it's Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's ''King Lear.''

In this darkening day and age, even planning a $12 million ''Lear,'' much less actually making it, would seem to be grounds for the court's appointment of a legal guardian. In the place of a legal guardian, Kurosawa has a producer who shares something of the director's infinitely optimistic madness - France's Serge Silberman, the man largely responsible for making the final years of Luis Bunuel's career so abundantly productive.

''Ran'' sounds intimidating, but it could hardly have continued as long as it has in first-run here if it were only a fashionable film of the moment. Since ''Ran'' opened last December, at least a half-dozen other fashionable films-of-the-moment have opened and closed.

The audience the other rainy afternoon at the Cinema Studio - about equally divided between senior citizens and young aficionados - applauded at the end, a response that usually arouses my suspicions, especially when the film being applauded is a long one and has just opened to rave reviews.

Because there's nobody around to receive the applause, there's something self-congratulatory about such a response. It's either ''Look at us! We're among the first people to see this week's 'nothing-less-than-a-revelation' hit,'' or it's ''Look at us! We've endured a three-hour cultural event and are still alive to tell the story.'' At this point, however, nobody in that Cinema Studio audience was going to impress anybody by announcing that he or she had just seen ''Ran.'' These patrons had been swept up in the kind of all-embracing movie experience that's rare in any era.

''Ran,'' which translates as either ''chaos'' or ''turmoil,'' is long - just under three hours - but it's also a rousing, exotically costumed, period melodrama that works from the viscera upward to the brain. It's an epic whose spectacularly staged and photographed battle scenes (equaled only by those in Olivier's ''Henry V'') are both functions of the fable being told and hallucinatory representations of the emotional chaos in which Hidetora, the film's gullible old Lear, finds himself.

Hidetora is not really Lear, nor is ''Ran'' a ''King Lear'' transposed to feudal Japan. Kurosawa has borrowed what he wanted from Shakespeare (which is quite a lot) to give bleak point to the apparently well-known legend of Motonari Mori, a 16th-century warlord whose three sons are regarded as examples of filial virtue in Japan. Feeling that Shakespeare never adequately explained why Lear brought down such a terrible fate on himself, Kurosawa has supplied his own reasons while turning a favorite tale inside out.

Hidetora, now a vain, arrogant, physically failing tyrant of 70, has acquired his vast domain during a life devoted to nonstop wars of a ferocity and brutality that, he fondly believes in his dotage, have led to this time of peace and plenty. He has married off his two eldest sons to the daughters of defeated chiefs and, as ''Ran'' opens, is considering bids from two other warlords who offer their daughters in marriage to Hidetora's youngest son, Saburo.

At this marriage conference, the old man announces that he's retiring. He's dividing his lands among the three sons and asks them to swear allegiance to him and to one another. Only Saburo objects, not because he's an innocent but because he realizes that such a fragile understanding will be no adequate defense against the violence and greed that are his father's most enduring legacies.

Saburo is immediately banished, but it's not his brothers who are the principal causes of Hidetora's undoing - they're totally faithless, but not very imaginative. Kurosawa's most nervy invention is Lady Kaede, the delicate, seemingly self-efacing wife of Hidetora's eldest son, Taro. At the proper time, Kaede becomes an amalgam of Goneril, Regan and Lady Macbeth, though she's a woman fired not by ambition but by revenge on the clan that murdered her family and installed her in luxurious bondage.

As played by Mieko Harada, Lady Kaede is so supremely, breathtakingly evil that her audacity is exhilarating. She's a spellbinding woman and a character of truly Shakespearean proportions. She can hold a dagger to a man's throat one minute, and start slowly to cut, and, in the next minute, seduce the poor fellow so effectively that he thinks he doesn't want to live without her.

In counterpoint to Lady Kaede, Kurosawa introduces Lady Sue, the wife of Jiro, Hidetora's second son. She has submerged her grief not in a lust for revenge but in a Buddhism that has released her from what might be called ''misdirected desire.''

There are plenty of parallels to ''Lear'' in ''Ran,'' including the faithful Fool, the ''mad'' scenes on a Japanese heath, and even some lines (''I have tales to tell, forgiveness to ask''), but ''Ran'' is a magnificent original.

It couldn't be anything but what it is - not a play or a novel or an epic poem. It works entirely through film artistry, not through language (Japanese translated by functional English subtitles) and certainly not through mere plot, though it's a good one. ''Ran'' defines the differences that separate movies (films, cinema, pictures, flicks, talkies) from all of the other arts.

I suppose that ''Ran'' is a tragedy, but Hidetora, played with high theatricality by Tatsuya Nakadai in exaggerated, Noh theater makeup, doesn't exactly elicit pity. Like the film's vast landscapes and elaborate castles, like the apocalyptic battle scenes, and like the violent weather that accompanies its great events, Hidetora is awesome. As in all of Kurosawa's greatest characters - from the dying bureaucrat in ''Ikaru'' to the warlord's peasant ''double'' in ''Kagemusha,'' there's also in Hidetora a streak of stubbornness that becomes heroic.

Kurosawa regards Hidetora with concern that extends to the entire human condition. In the past, Kurosawa's so-called humanism has been praised by being equated with a sort of easy optimism, exemplified by the poor woodcutter's adoption of the baby at the end of ''Rashomon.'' He's far more rigorous now. Kurosawa is a humanist, but in ''Ran'' he expresses himself with no hint of sentimentality.

''Ran'' is very much the work of a man who's lived a long, rich and sometimes deeply troubled life. Now there's no time left to cater to the genteel sensibilities of others. In spite of all its beauty, ''Ran'' is blunt. It makes its points abruptly, which may be what his younger Japanese critics mean when today they describe the Kurosawa oeuvre as ''old-fashioned.'' It's hugely entertaining but never soothing.

Kurosawa said somewhere recently that he wouldn't attempt to make a film about life in contemporary Japan. His reason: he couldn't possibly express everything he wanted to say about a society in the midst of such devastating changes. The world is moving too fast for him to dare to undertake the sort of social satires, comedies and dramas that he turned out with such exuberance in the late 1940's, 1950's and 1960's.

However, by looking into the past, as he is in ''Ran'' and the earlier ''Kagemusha,'' he's not escaping from the present but only clearing away its modish debris, in this way to be able to deal more efficiently (and with less emotionalism) with themes common to all men, in all eras.

Much like Kurosawa at this point, ''Ran,'' a masterpiece, stands outside time.


See Miles Imhoff's Review:

Ran (1985)

Published: October 9, 2005


Ran is a reflection of the state of human affairs, an accurate tale of the perpetual balance between action and repercussion which occurs in the midst of those who kill and those who are killed. It is a story about two brothers and their machiavellian approach to their acquisition of power, about a rogue brother led by truth and rejected for speaking that which would ultimately and ironically come to pass, about one woman and her desire for vengeance against all those who shattered her youth, about one father blinded to truth who pays for the sins of his past with the blood of his sons both loyal and treacherous, and finally it is a story about all those caught in the twisted web of Ran, which tRanslates aptly into "chaos."

An elderly, hardened ruler: the Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, suddenly begins to soften following a strange dream. Showing affection, he makes his sons uncomfortable, as he prepares to break some astonishing news. Hidetora has decided to cede his vast sprawl of land to his beloved sons. His son Taro would rule absolutely over the land, while Hidetora would continue to reign as Great Lord by name only, escorted by thirty loyal warriors. His other sons, Jiro and Saburo, would receive tracts of land in conjunction with the second and third castles respectively. Taro and Jiro accepted with great glee, but Saburo rejected his father's wishes. Blinded by his own fury, unable to see the forest through the trees, Hidetora banished Saburo into exile. Tango Hirayama rushed to Saburo's defense, but his pleas were met with a banishment of his own. Nobuhiro Fujimaki, in private, approached Saburo and offered his daughter in marriage, and his land as sanctuary. Meanwhile, Tango re-infiltrated the land of the Ichimonji, adopting a guise and continuing to offer his allegiance in secret.

Hidetora was quick to realize that the error in his conduct was not listening to the son who challenged him, for he was the one whose presentiment was key. Lady Kaede was always at Taro's right ear, and she filled his heart with pride. Taro grew arrogant with his new standing, and soon began to treat his father with conduct unbecoming of he who still retained the title of "Great Lord". Kyoami, somewhat of a jester in Hidetora's camp, was nearly killed for his biting, satirical chant against Taro. Hidetora, in response, murdered the official who pulled a sword against Kyoami, and Taro, furious, forced his father to sign a contract and seal it in blood, officially stabilizing Taro as the supreme authority in his land. Insulted and dishonored, Hidetora and his escort marched off toward he whom he believed to be a more respectful host...

Jiro received a letter from his ruling brother, warning that their father was coming, and that his senility and instability were a liability. In the second castle, Jiro schemed with his men, for his arrogance and thirst for power had also swelled. They plotted their own bid for domination as Hidetora arrived. Alas, his escort was denied entry into the castle, and insulted by yet another betrayal, Hidetora was forced to move on to the third castle, where he took residency shortly after Taro's men had taken command of this particular stronghold.

Suddenly, Jiro and his army staged an assault on the third castle, as Taro and his army stormed the keep. Brother fought brother, and in the chaos, dozens of men lost their lives in a gruesome display of horror. Taro was shot dead, and Hidetora's escort was all but eliminated. Hidetora's once benevolent gesture to his sons had erupted into a consuming fire, and the land of Ichimonji was being swept up in the flames. Emerging from a conflagration tower, Hidetora resembled a ghost, as the parting crowd of soldiers watched in silent awe as the Great Lord, now a barely sane shell of his former self, escaped into the plains. Tango and Kyoami, still loyal, managed to rescue Hidetora, and they fled into the wilderness...

Jiro Ichimonji was now the supreme ruler of the land, but Lady Kaede, mad with a thirst for vengeance, not for her fallen husband but instead for her tragic past, seduced the new Great Lord and regained her position in the new court of Ichimonji. Jiro, however, was married to Lady Sue. Lady Kaede would not have it, and demanded to see her severed head. Shuri Kurogane, understanding the motives and manipulations of Lady Kaede, disobeyed, stalled, and attempted to reverse the order. For a great while, he succeeded...

Tango, Kyoami, and a crazed Hidetora returned to the wilderness, where the former Great Lord began to come across the darker side of his legacy, that which had been for years hidden under honored victory. They came to the impoverished home of the brother of Lady Sue: Tsurumaru, whose family's castle was burned and whose eyes Hidetora had gouged from their sockets. He spoke to the Great Lord with contempt, as Hidetora recoiled in horror at the hidden evils he had wrought upon the people. Once they had continued on, Hidetora came to that castle which he had burned, and his wits began to return. He remembered that which he had done; he had remembered the vain and senseless destruction. Fleeing into the desert, he escaped Kyoami's watchful eye and disappeared...

While Hidetora's location was still a mystery, Tango had summoned Saburo and requested his assistance. Hidetora, in his pride, could never face Saburo, for his son was right all along; however, if Saburo could come to his father's aid, wounds would heal and the former Great Lord would finally find sanctuary. Jiro's men met Saburo's small rescue force with belligerence, as Fujimaki's men stood ominously on the ridge. Despite the gravity of the confrontation, the new ruler gave permission to his brother to simply fetch his father. It was not long after Saburo sped to his father's rescue however, that war erupted. Jiro's forces were outmatched by guerilla tactics, as word suddenly reached the battlefield... Fujimaki's men had staged an assault against Jiro's stronghold! Looking in disbelief at the men on the ridge, it was soon discovered that their presence was merely a means of decoy. Lady Kaede, proud that through her manipulations she had avenged her family (who were slain by Hidetora when she was a child) was murdered in the castle shortly after she successfully ordered Lady Sue's demise. As Jiro met his end in battle, the Ichimonjis' web of betrayal and deceit was finally dissolved, and Fujimaki had, as Tango had earlier predicted, procured the land.

Saburo, meanwhile, finally discovered Hidetora, and he had returned to his senses completely, begging forgiveness and looking forward to peace. Hidetora, however, was not yet paid in full for his past, for a rogue archer downed his last remaining son, the only one who, in his dissent, proved to be the most loyal of all. Hidetora finally departed from this world, as an embittered and lonely Tsurumaru lingered on... standing alone atop a steep ledge.

Dissent. That was the key thematic element which drove the plot. Were it not for the dissent of the character of Saburo early on, there would be no development. It was dissent that first defined Saburo, not as a rebel, but as one of the only characters that understood the gravity of the request. Taro's and Jiro's unwillingness to dissent against the offer of their father also, conversely, defined their characters as more arrogant, greedy, and easily coerced. These aspects would be even further enhanced by the vengeful Lady Kaede.

Vengeance. Though basically a main support beam in many of Kurosawa's samurai films to one degree or another, it becomes the driving force to the eruption of chaos. It is Lady Kaede who represents vengeance, for it is through her wish to avenge her fallen family that she sends an entire land into disarray, using her manipulation and seduction. Without her lust for retribution, her seduction would not have led Taro to cut his own father with betrayal and shame. Without her lust for vengeance, her seduction would not have led Jiro into an all-out war. Without her lust for comeuppance, many would have lived peacefully, and Lady Sue would not have met her tragic end.

Consequence. Although dissent and vengeance drove the movie, consequence was the effect that resolved the cause. Several deaths were the direct consequence of the actions of those who experienced this fate. Taro had swelled with pride and usurped his father's honor. He grew powerful and arrogant, and in the process, became a target for his brother's envy. In the midst of battle he was gunned down by Jiro's forces. Jiro too had swelled with pride, drew his sword against his brother, and under Lady Kaede's influence, attempted the murder of his wife. In the end, his belligerence led to war, and he was ultimately murdered in battle. Lady Kaede sought to send the land of Ichimonji into pure chaos to avenge her family, many were killed, and in revenge, she too was slain. Hidetora ignored Saburo's warning, banished him, ceded his lands to his reckless children, and the ensuing bloodshed of his ill-planned actions led to the capture of his lands, the death of his sons, and his own bitter demise.

Of course, the thematic elements and deliberate development were brought to life by the respective roles of the dignified actors. Of every performer, there was not one poor performance. Even Shin'nosuke Ikehata's portrayal of Kyoami, though a comical character, is simply brilliant, and his Range of emotions not only brings humor to his role when his character is summoned to foreshadow or symbolize the transpiring events, but also tragedy and sadness to the scenes where his character is forced to deal with interpersonal relationships, which are often stained in sorrow, like that which he shares with Tatsuya Nakadai's character. Nakadai lent his performance the entire Range of human drama, from blissful ignorance, to blind indifference, to unmitigated anger, to painful loneliness, and tragic loss, like that experienced with the death of Daisuke Ryu's character. Daisuke Ryu gave his character exactly what he needed, a roguish demeanor, but an underlying dimension of love and understanding. It was in his body language and line delivery that he managed to separate himself and show that he was truly a diamond in the rough, as opposed to Akira Terao and Jinpachi Nezu's characters. Their roles required, quite simply, a constant, gradient swell of ego. Arrogance, contempt, and succumbing to seduction of both power and passion beamed from their performance. Mieko Harada bestowed bitterness, a lust for vengeance, and a passion for attaining these goals to the tone of her character, and she became Lady Kaede. Yoshiko Miyazaki (whose character was killed by Lady Kaede) brought to her character a sense of tranquility, but it was merely a thin veil that held back her underlying hostility. It was this that so angered Tatsuya Nakadai's character, who upon seeing her, could not help but feel remorse for having destroyed her character's past. But, she still had her brother, and that bond of love was clearly shown to Mansai Nomura's character. Mansai Nomura managed to make his character as embittered as Mieko Harada's character, but as passive as Yoshiko Miyazaki's. The tone of his lines and his words of contempt for Nakadai's character are truly chilling.

The complexity of the events, and the fine weaving of the story complimented and enhanced the cinematic elements of the film, but on their own accord, the brilliance of the execution is breathtaking. The full details of war, that which is normally not extant in a Kurosawa film, is here in its full revulsion. Bloodshed, gore, and agony envelope all the characters in at least one respect, and from simply a visual standpoint, the social commentary is quite clear, especially when the sound is muted during the first battle. The realism is uncanny, and peaks with the conflagration of a castle, an effect of visually stunning proportions due to the size of the actual structure constructed specifically for this scene. It became a vivid climax to the horrors of the early conflict, and a truly ghastly scene as Nakadai's character emerged like a ghost from the doomed architecture. The atmosphere, an eerie tone with an underlying feeling of doom, was enhanced by the score, which draws attention from the ears while the eyes are entranced. The more traditional themes, such as the opening music, add to both a level of mystery and a dimension of dignity, while those such as the eerie and ominous theme that accompanies the battle at the third castle, maintains a haunting air. Both large-scale conflicts, the former and the latter, were emphasized in size and gravity by the sheer volume of people and horses utilized. In all, the number of extras surpassed one thousand, and the accuracy of the scenes was enhanced by this epic proportion. The costumes, each individually crafted, took two years of concentrated effort to finish. The volume and size of the battles, all reflective of human vice and the human condition, were completely and perfectly placed into perspective.

Ran is simply among the most artistic and intriguing of Kurosawa's long list of films. One's eyes and ears are attuned to the violence, chaos, and consequence... the dignity and the drama. Among Kurosawa's films, and many films, judged solely by their calibur, Ran is a step ahead of most. It is the culmination of a life's work, the elements of Rashomon , Seven Samurai (1954), and The Throne of Blood (1957) are clearly visible throughout... and the Shakespearean influence cannot be missed. Ran is one of Kurosawa's golden masterpieces, created in his golden years. It is a must see for not only the fan of the genre, but for the fan of cinema as a whole.


See also a nice review at: http://keralaarticles.blogspot.com/2007/04/ran-movie-review.html