Japan (1985) Dir. Akira Kurosawa
For his last major epic film, legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa turns to Shakespeare’s King Lear for inspiration in a tale which some scholars say was also somewhat autobiographical.
In feudal Japan, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) announces on the eve of his 70th birthday that he would abdicate his rule of the Ichimonji Clan to his three sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû). As the eldest, Taro would become leader with Jiro and Saburo acting in support, while Hidetora retains the title of Great Lord.
Taro and Jiro are naturally pleased with this development but Saburo is not, warning his father that this will only lead to betrayal by his brothers. Saburo is disowned by his father but once the change over of power takes place, it seems the dissenting son was right after all.
Ran (which translates to either “chaos” or “rebellion”) is of course not the first time Kurosawa has adapted the Bard for a Japanese audience, with 1957’s Throne Of Blood being a Sengoku period retelling of Macbeth. The major difference here however is that Kurosawa incorporated stories from the legend of the daimyo Mōri Motonari to further satisfy the historical setting.
The Japanese film industry may have been deemed Kurosawa “old fashioned” since the 1960’s but Ran is not a film from a man slowing down due to old age, rather one from a man who wants one last chance to prove himself. While Hidetora may represent the director, his fate is a little less different.
Having decided to keep the title and accompanying privileges of the Great Lord, Hidetora’s plan was to spend time with his three sons in each of their castles, an idea scuppered by Saburo’s excommunication. Almost immediately Hidetora gets a shock when Tora and his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) have him sign a pledge to officially hand over all power to Tora as per his original decree – something he can’t refuses since by his own order, Tora is the leader.
A miffed Hidetora reluctantly signs the oath then leaves taking over the empty third castle while seeking support from Jiro. However Kaede continues to manipulate the situation and creates a rift between the two brothers while Hidetora begins to go slowly mad as he finds himself exiled from his own kingdom while things get out of control.
The plot is pure Shakespeare but has that malleable quality to fit into any circumstances in any time period as many of his best plays do, but let us not underestimate Kurosawa’s vision and ability to make that transition a successful one. The only problem with Ran, which may sound blasphemous, is that it is a little too long at 162 minutes, resulting in many scenes of unnecessary longueurs which could have been excised without affecting the narrative in anyway.
A preferably sprightlier pace would have added a more effective sense of drama and intrigue to the machinations of Tora and more so Kaede, who is seeking revenge against Hidetora for murdering her family and forcing her into marriage with Tora. For someone who is that much of a poisonous influence over the plot developments, her role feels somewhat underplayed in comparison to moments which receive greater attention such as Hidetora’s mental and emotional downfall.
Thus it takes a while to get into this film and the viewer experiences many peaks and troughs but to his credit, Kurosawa pulls it altogether to keep your attention, punctuating the main story with two very bloody and exhilarating battles which must rank as his most violent ever scenes.
The first involves the storming of Hidetora’s castle which is a tightly staged encounter resulting in a real building being burned down; the climatic clash starts on the field with the two opposing armies swarming across the lush green countryside like ants on the front lawn, before the body count piles up in a sea of red.
At $12 million it was at that time the most expensive Japanese films made but Kurosawa was experienced and smart enough to not waste a penny of it, from the towering castles of the Ichimonji clan to the vibrantly coloured and carefully replicated kimonos worn by the cast (which earned costume designer Emi Wada an Oscar).
Every soldier, peasant, samurai, servant, retainer, female and lord is attired in the authentic splendour of the day, shown off to full effect in the aforementioned battle scenes which remind us that even at age 75, Kurosawa was still had ambitions of an epic scale.
This was pre-CGI so the fires and smoke was real, the structural damage was genuine, the hordes of soldiers and warriors were actual extras and severed limbs were prosthetics. The only slight aspect which cheapens the effects is the blood, a watery bright red solution which suggests red paint was thrown over the cast and the set as opposed to the more realistic plasma spillages of today.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune in mind when writing the role of Hidetora, which went to another veteran actor, Tatsuya Nakadai. It is evident from the way he is directed that Nakadai was asked to channel his inner-Mifune in come of the mannerisms in his portrayal, which also takes an old Noh theatre approach. Similarly Mieko Harada’s essaying of Kaede is something of a throwback to the old ways, given that she is the most prominent female in the film.
As mentioned earlier it is suspected the central themes of Ran mirrored Kurosawa’s position at that time as a veteran film maker in a world of younger, paradigm breaking modern directors. If this film shows anything it is that he had enough fight left in him to produce something of ambition and epic in scale which he demonstrated with effortless flair.
Perhaps not his best work for this writer but still a worthwhile reminder of how vital Kurosawa’s legacy is to the history of cinema.