February 2024


Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Music has many cross-genius collaborations. The Beatles cover Chuck Berry. Led Zeppelin covers Robert Johnson. Everyone covers Bob Dylan. Or there’s one of the greatest Jazz albums: Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington.

In film, nothing surpasses Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. Think about it: Kurosawa covers Shakespeare. There’s an artwork you go back to again and again and on a recent snowy night I did just that.


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 “confusion.”

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 genius.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland’s University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2024 Patrick Walsh
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




February 2024

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