In film, nothing surpasses Ran,
play, King Lear.
Kurosawa directed, edited, and co-wrote the production. In reviewing the
film in 1985, the late Roger Ebert introduced Ran by saying: “Our next
movie represents the triumphant peak of the long career of Akira
Kurosawa, the 75 year-old Japanese director whose credits read like a list
of the world’s great films.”
To deem Ran “the triumphant peak” of the career of a director who crafted
, among other films, Rashomom, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo, is saying something. And it is a triumph while being a tragedy so
grim, so hard-minded that it will leave you wrung out even while you are
swept away by the cruelly perfect beauty of its plot.
Nothing new there: generations found Shakespeare’s King Lear simply too
much to take; Nathum Tate’s 1681 revised version, The History of King
Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia survive, became the standard production
audiences would view for well over a century.
Kurosawa templates Shakespeare’s tragedy onto Japan’s Sengoku
period—literally the “warring states era”—in the 16th century, a time of
almost constant civil war. In Japanese, “ran” means “chaos,” “turmoil,” or
In a clever twist, Kurosawa bases Ran’s protagonist, Lord Hidetora
Ichimonji, on the brilliant strategist and powerful feudal lord, or daimyō,
Mōri Motonari, who had three valiant, utterly devoted sons; unlike
Motonari, Lord Hidetora’s sons will betray their father . . . and each other.
Like all great tragedies, whether Shakespearean or otherwise, several
moral and philosophical themes obtain. For the aged Lord Hidetora
(played with thespian authority by Tatsuya Nakadai), the ruthlessness that
made him a supreme warlord returns to haunt him. In the West we say
“you reap what you sow;” in Japan they call it karma. Ironically, through
his naive decision to step aside and cede power to his eldest son—and is it a
gesture of magnanimity or vanity?—Hidetora brings down utter ruin upon
his entire clan. And while he spent a lifetime fighting and outfoxing his
fellow daimyō, there’s a far more powerful adversary he overlooked who
has been biding her time, the Lady Kaede, wife of Hidetora’s eldest son,
Taro. Hidetora slaughtered her family years before; now she will become
the chief agent of karmic retribution.
In every sense, Ran is a timeless movie, from its eternal themes to its age
-defying cinematography. And oh, the sheer spectacle of nearly every shot!
This movie’s vibrant primary colors—the lush greens of the steep Japanese
mountains, the astonishing cumulus clouds rising before the electric blue of
an indifferent sky—depict the world as if it had just been created. It is a
film to ravish the eye, especially on the big screen.
Roger Ebert went on to say that Ran was “a remarkable statement by an
old man about an old man.” That old man, in both cases, was Kurosawa
himself; like the beleaguered Lord Hidetora, Kurosawa battled the
conspiracies of aging. Incredibly, he’d been almost blind for nearly ten
years when he made this movie. His directorial productivity had dropped
off with only two films completed in the ten years prior to Ran. We’re all
lucky that this genius decided to rally, showing the world and himself that
he was far from finished. Wisely, he decided to collaborate with another