Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”
-Shakespeare, King Lear
Ran is one of acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa’s most visually stunning films. An epic, bloody, colourful, and apocalyptic piece of celluloid, the film garnered Oscar nominations for Best Director, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design (won!).
Ran (the Japanese word for “Chaos”) is loosely based on King Lear, Shakespeare’s cautionary tragedy focused on the dangers of power, succession, family ambition, madness and loyalty.
Ran tells the tale of Hidetora Ichimonji, a powerful but aging warlord who decides to retire from ruling and divide his kingdom between his three sons. Hidetora will retain his role as the Great Lord. His son Saburo objects, noting that Hidetora himself often used questionable means to retain power and to expect his sons to remain loyal was foolish. For his pointed advice, Saburo is exiled and the lands divided between the two remaining sons.
Son #1 (Taro, the eldest) is killed by Jiro (Son #2)’s general, and Jiro, naturally enough, steps up to assume the position of Great Lord. He also ends up in an affair with his dead brother’s manipulative widow Kaede, who tries to suborn him into murdering his own wife, who flees. At this point Jiro also decides to dispatch assassins to finish off his troublesome (and now quite mad) father Hidetora.
At this point, not one but three armies are entering the field – Saburo (Son#3), re-appears alongside two rival warlord allies. Jiro makes a hasty peace but then promptly backstabs his meddlesome brother as soon as his brother hears that Hidetora is alive and insane. Saburo rides off to rescue Hidetora, Jiro looses his assassins, rival warlords and armies clash and in short order Saburo recovers Hidetora, mends his broken relationship, helps him recover from his madness, just in time to be promptly and thoroughly murdered by Jiro’s assassins.
Hidetora dies, stricken by the loss of his only loyal son. Jiro’s fugitive wife dies, murdered by assassins. Jiro’s general Kurogane (who so kindly took care of Son #1 for Jiro) finds out about how Son #1’s widow manipulated events and promptly decapitates her in a fit of honourable angst. In a final bloody, flaming conflagration, Jiro, Kurogane etc. all go down in a blaze of…well, not glory for sure, chaos springs to mind, when the rival warlords besiege the castle in the final doomed battle.
In any case, there is a great heap of bodies, a nice funeral procession and some sad symbolic irony at the end.
Visually dazzling, Ran is an epic, sweeping, stylistic rendering of the Lear tale, pulling out the themes of war, chaos, loyalty, madness and nihilism into a masterclass of film. Ran is chock full to the brim with suffering, horror, murder, hypocrisy, and the doomed.
Lear was written by Shakespeare in 1606, a time of particular caution in England as Queen Elizabeth had died childless and unmarried in 1603. She was succeeded by the young King of Scotland James I, son of her executed rival Mary, Queen of Scots. The advent of a new King, after 44 years of Elizabeth's rule, was a shocking herald to a new age and a new political reckoning. It was not helped by the bloody aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot in 1603, a failed assassination attempt on Parliament and the new King that shook the foundations of the nation to its core.
The nature of power, succession and how a kingdom can teeter into chaos dominates the themes of Lear, bringing the differences and potential dangers faced by the new regime into sharp focus. Kurosawa himself noted that Ran was intended as a powerful metaphor for nuclear war and the grinding, systemic and industrial quality inherent in the advent of modern warfare. It is notable in that it is a samurai epic where almost every important figure dies by gunfire, not by sword.
It is a telling story. And one well worth a watch.
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star.”
― Shakespeare, King Lear