Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/25/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Based on William Shakespeare's classic play King Lear, Ran tells the story set in the 16th Century about a king who abdicates his throne to his three sons that would lead to tragedy and war as two of his sons betray him while his youngest is banished as the king descends into madness. Directed by Akira Kurosawa with a script he co-wrote with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, Ran is Kurosawa's most ambitious and epic film yet with a budget for $12 million. With an all-star cast that included Kurosawa regulars Tatsuya Nakadai, Hisashi Igawa, Masayuki Yui, Daisuke Ryu, Jinpachi Nezu, Akira Terao, and Mieko Harada. Ran is a superbly grand yet phenomenal film from Akira Kurosawa.
After many years of ruling his land, Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) holds a council meeting that consists of his three sons, his general Tango Hirayama (Masayuki Yui), his court jester Kyoami (Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata), and two rival warlords in Seiji Ayabe (Jun Tazaki) and Nobuhiro Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) during a hunt. He decides to abdicate the throne to his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) while retaining his title and some authority as he also has his three sons run each castle. The youngest Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) doesn't like the news believing that Taro nor his older brother Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) are trustworthy after disproving a logic that three arrows together can't be broken. Hidetora banishes Saburo for his words while Taro and Jiro claim to be grateful for their father's gifts through Tango admits that Saburo is right as Hidetora banishes him. After the meeting, Saburo and Tango run into Fujimaki who makes an offer to Saburo to marry one of his daughters to ensure a union as Saburo decides to join the warlords while Tango decides to go on his own out of respect for Hidetora.
Returing to the main castle with Hidetora, Taro reveals to his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) the news about his new role as the celebration becomes brief following an incident involving Koyami has Hidetora kill one of Taro's guards with an arrow. Taro banishes his father as he and Kyoami go to Jiro with their escort including guards and concubines only to be rejected by Jiro despite a meeting with Jiro's Buddhist wife Lady Sue` (Yoshiko Miyazaki) whom he's admitted to some wrongdoing towards her family. When Hidetora runs into Tango with some news about what Taro and Jiro are doing, Hidetora travels to the third castle for shelter while Taro, Jiro, and Jiro's general Kurogene make plans to raid the castle. The raid becomes bloody leaving Hidetora trapped as Tango and Kyoami watch in horror as something terrible happens in the battle leaving Hidetora deranged as he walks out of the castle in a state of shock with Kyoami and Tango later finding him.
With Jiro now in full control with his men including Kurogene, Lady Kaede seduces him into power as he is unaware of her true motives. Seeking shelter at the home of Lady Sue`'s blind brother Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), Hidetora, Tango, and Kyoami figure what to do next as Tango suggests to reach out to Saburo for help much to Hidetora's troubled state of mind. Back at the main castle, Kaede plans an assassination on Lady Sue` for Kurogene to carry the order to his reluctance while Tango learns from the banished old generals what Jiro is doing as he leaves to find Saburo. With Kyoami having to take care of the mad Hidetora, Saburo eventually arrives with Ayabe and Fujimaki to battle Jiro while things become more tragic and darker leaving all of those questioning about the way the world works.
The story of a father who gives his three children new properties and such only to be betrayed by two of them with other being banished for being honest is really a study of character and morals from the viewpoint of its original writer, William Shakespeare. Kurosawa, a fan of Shakespeare's work who also adapted Macbeth for his 1957 classic Throne of Blood, found a lot of themes and discussions that Kurosawa seemed to thrive on for King Lear. In the case of Ran, instead of having three daughters like in the original play, he went for three sons. Also using the legend of Mori Motonari, a lord who ruled Japan during the 16th Century, the film is really a study of sin, morality, vengeance, and regrets all centered around this aging warlord. In some respect, there is claim that Ran is also one of Kurosawa's most personal films since there's references to his own life following the latter part of filmmaking career after 1965's Red Beard.
The script by Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide is about a lord's pride and how it leads to the downfall of his own clan. When his youngest son Saburo reminds him of how he became powerful through means of evil, treachery, and such. He is banished for his honesty while his two elder sons would falsely praise him only to betray him later on. It's the pride of Hidetora that would lead to his own downfall as he realized he is suddenly forced to face his own sins. This includes the killing of families and such of people including Lady Kaede and Lady Sue`. The latter of whom had embraced Buddhism and is willing to forgive her father-in-law for his sins but he couldn't accept her forgiveness. In the former, there is something far more sinister planned as the other character revolving that includes Tango and Kyoami represent the audience and moral conscience of sorts in the film.
The film's ending is suddenly, more about spirituality and existentialism. It's in the view of the two supporting characters of Tango and Kyoami who wonder about the way the world works. Kyoami, angry over the outcome of tragedy while Tango is the one who realizes the cynicism of the world and how something like peace is really just a dream. It's men who is willing to destroy themselves with God forced to watch with amusement that really upsets Kyoami. This reinterpretation of King Lear is truly astounding thanks in large part to a very complex, character-driven, and thematic script that is heightened more by Akira Kurosawa's direction.
Kurosawa's eye-wielding, observant, and eerie direction is really the highlight of the film itself. On location in the plains and mountains of Mount Aso, Mount Fuji, and two real castles, Kurosawa goes for a visual approach that is stimulating to watch in every frame. With shots of clouds and the plains, the film is overall presented in a theatrical style that isn't just similar to Shakespeare but also Noh theater. The film's first sequences in the plains of Mount Aso are colorful and rich but as the film progresses, the film becomes less colorful and more eerie. Kurosawa's approach to staging from the meetings and to the more individual sequences involving Hidetora's madness are done in an intimate, theatrical style.
The battle sequences in the film are nothing short of brilliant but it's more than that. The epic scale of the battle scenes are brilliant to convey the horrors and such in the film's second act while the third is to convey the sense of tragedy. The intensity of the battle scenes that is a wonderful mixture of Kurosawa's staging and editing plus the camera-work, special effects, and use of blood is amazing for its sense of chaos. Yet, there's a sense of nihilism to the violence that's far more aggressive than in Kurosawa’s previous films with no sense of pride and such for these deaths. Instead, with a few exceptions, there's characters who don’t get a chance for atonement but rather die in ways to exemplify God's cruelty on sin.
The direction of Kurosawa is overall brilliant while his work as an editor is as potent as ever. The use of jump-cuts and transitions to convey the film's emotions and Hidetora's madness also works to give the film a pacing that at first, might start off slow. Yet as the story progresses, it is more invested in the situations and characters as they play a part of what is to come in the moments of battle and tragedy. Yet, it all comes down to Kurosawa and his direction as he creates a film that has the intimacy of a play while maintaining its epic, visual style that is very cinematic. The result is truly Kurosawa at the top of his game.
The film's cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, and Masaharu Ueda is extremely hypnotic from its colorful look to the film's first act to the darker look in the second and third. The camera-work is exquisite with intimate lighting schemes for some of the film's interior sequences in the two castles to lovely exterior shots including Hidetora's meeting with Lady Sue`. The use of colors and black sand for several of the exterior scenes is brilliantly shot as its trio of cinematographers capture a look and feel into the mind of Hidetora.
Production designers Shinobu Muraki and Yoshiro Muraki do amazing work with the film's color schemes from the black-yellow banner of the film's opening scene to the traditional look of Japanese palaces along with the decayed look of castles to show the world of Hidetora through his madness. Costume designer Emi Wada does amazing work to the film's costumes from the differing colors for the three sons, Taro in yellow, Jiro in red, and Saburo in blue. Wada's costumes are exquisite for the period with Lady Kaeda's shiny-white look is wonderful to convey her icy persona as Wada's Oscar-winning work is worth noting.
The sound work of Fumio Yanoguchi and Shotaro Yoshida is brilliant for its design and momentum, notably the battle scene as if it sounds like the real thing. The gunshots sound like hammers as it represents the full chaos and nihilism of these battle scenes. The location shots are also wonderfully recorded to convey the deteriorating mind of Hidetora. The music of Toru Takemitsu that is inspired by Gustav Mahler is a wonderful mix of traditional, Japanese percussion music and huge, orchestral pieces that captures both the sense of chaos and tragedy of the battle scenes with the Japanese percussion to heighten the film’s drama. The use of a flute in the scenes with Tsurumaru is also brilliant for its drama as it would only bring horror to Hidetora. The music overall is brilliant and truly one of the film's highlights.
The film's cast is overall brilliant for its many varied performances from every actor involved. In the role of Saburo's general Mondo Naganuma, Toshiya Ito is great as the loyal general and strategist who manages to outwit Jiro with help from Ayabe and Fujimaki. In the respective roles of warlords Ayabe and Fujimaki, Jun Tazaki and Hitoshi Ueki are excellent as the two men who respect Hidetora while finding a much larger respect for Saburo as they help him in this chaotic conflict. Hisashi Igawa is also excellent as Jiro's general Kurogene who finds his loyalty to Jiro shaky when Lady Kaede is involved that includes the attempted murder of Lady Sue`. Kazuo Kato and Norio Matsui in the respective roles of Ikoma and Ogura, are superb as the two generals of Hidetora who unwittingly betray him only to pay the price for their betrayal.
Mansai Nomura is great as the blind Tsurumaru, the younger brother of Lady Sue` who is still grieving over the loss of his parents and sight with contempt towards Hidetora. Yoshiko Miyazaki is radiant as Lady Sue`, the wife of Jiro who is trying to find some peace through spirituality as she represents the rare sense of good through a film that is very cynical. Mieko Harada is brilliant as the conniving, vengeful Lady Kaede, a woman who hopes to gain power and more by seducing Jiro into power and is the epitome of evil as she plays part in the downfall of a clan.
In the role of Taro, Akira Terao is great as the eldest son who hopes to have his own moment of glory and power as he would end up blinded by his own cruelty. Jinpachi Nezu is also great as the scheming Jiro, the middle son who wants power all of his own and with Saburo out of the way, his planning works only to find himself falling for the conniving Kaede. Daisuke Ryu is even greater as the more honesty, loving Saburo, the son who may be disrespectful but also opinionated but is the one who really loved his father is trying to do what a great son must do as Ryu's performance is amazing.
Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata is phenomenal as the court jester/fool Kyoami, the comic relief in the film who is a cross dresser as he tries to figure out his master's madness and the way the world works. Ikehata's performance is brilliant as he kind of represents the Greek chorus who voices the concerns and frustrations about Hidetora's state of mind. The film's best supporting performance easily goes to Masayuki Yui as the loyal general Tango, who is also the film's moral conscience of sorts. Here's a general who has a loyalty to his lord while trying to tell him what is right and wrong as does all he can to help him while in the film's ending, he's the one who reveals about the way the world works in all of his cruelty. His performance is noteworthy for being the voice of cynicism that is a reflection of the world itself.
Finally, there's Tatsuya Nakadai in what has to be the performance of his career as Hidetora. Putting on make-up and a presence that is in the tradition of Noh theater, Nakadai's performance is just nothing short of brilliant and superb as he channels all of the complex behaviors of Hidetora from his ignorant sense of pride to his own fall into madness as a man who's become broken only to seek redemption. Nakadai's performance following the fall of the third castle in the way he walks is just filled with a sense of command that is very regal as he just owns the film in every way. This is truly one of the greatest performances captured on film from one of Kurosawa's great actors.
Ran is a brilliant yet provocative film from Akira Kurosawa and company helmed by Tatsuya Nakadai's theatrical performance. Fans of war films, epic films, period films, or any kind of film should see this movie while it isn't just one of Kurosawa's great masterpieces but also one of the best films ever made. Fans of Shakespeare will no doubt enjoy Kurosawa's reinterpretation of King Lear as it's a film that even those studying Shakespeare will enjoy. The film overall has great morals and a great message though its cynicism might be hard to take. Yet, in the end, Ran is a must-see for anyone who loves a great movie and who better to come from than the Emperor himself, Akira Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa Films: (Sanshiro Sugata) - (The Most Beautiful) - (Sanshiro Sugata Part II) - (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) - No Regrets on Our Youth - (One Wonderful Sunday) - Drunken Angel - (The Quiet Duel) - Stray Dog - Scandal (1950 film) - Rashomon - The Idiot (1951 film) - Ikiru - The Seven Samurai - (I Live in Fear) - Throne of Blood - (The Lower Depths (1957 film)) - The Hidden Fortress - The Bad Sleep Well - Yojimbo - Sanjuro - High and Low - Red Beard - Dodesukaden - Dersu Uzala - Kagemusha - Dreams (1990 film) - (Rhapsody in August) - (Madadayo)
© thevoid99 2012
Ran was my intro to Kurosawa. I had never seen anyone put such vibrant color in the creen. Fantastic film and a great review!
A Great essay on arguably the greatest Kurosawa movie of all time. Ran also happens to be my favorite Kurosawa movie along with Dersu Uzala. Now, I eagerly await your review of Dodesukaden :-)
@100 Years of Movies-Thank you. It's among my favorite Kurosawa films although the DVD I rented from Blockbuster had a strange framing transfer.
@Murtaza Ali-I will definitely be watching Dodesukaden this weekend, finally. It's the only Kurosawa film that was on TCM recently and I decided to DVR it. Hopefully more Kurosawa films will come soon as I unfortunately missed the Kurosawa retrospective they did 2 years ago on that channel.
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