Ran (1985): “In A Mad World, Only The Mad Are Sane”

Akira Kurosawa is one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century. Through his feudal films, we saw the works of Shakespeare reborn and new tales that have been told for decades. Through his modern-day exploits, we looked into the heart of humanity at the time, peering into the souls of many. In his 1985 latter-day masterpiece Ran, we saw the best of both worlds. This is likely one of the most powerful pieces of film I’ve ever seen. I simply can’t fathom one word against it. So, I am going to bring you all on a tour of the elements of Ran, and how they are absolutely astonishing in execution and affect. Now this review will delve into mild spoilers, nothing too serious, but I highly recommend that you all watch this masterful film prior to reading. But if you do read through this, I hope it compels you to watch this gargantuan marvel of a motion picture, or heck, even re-watch it on account of this.

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a 1985 feudal adaptation of legendary English playwright William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The story is about the fall of the Ichimonji House that begins when Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, decides to transfer power over to his three sons. What he fails to realize is how this power impacts his sons and those around them, which ultimately leads to upheaval and infighting that not even Lord Hidetora could escape. The story is a classic Shakespearian tragedy, packed with chaos and unending supplies of despair. The corruption yielded by the power Hidetora bestowed on his sons is fascinating in how it unfolds. The one son who opposes Hidetora’s decision, Saburo played Daisuke Ryû, turns out to be the lone loyal son, for he is the one openly believes that the young men aren’t fit to rule as of yet while Hidetora is still alive and remains loyal in spite of everything. And it appears his beliefs which get him disowned hold true, for older brothers Taro and Jiro, played by Akira Terao and Jinpachi Nezu respectively, turn against their father, throwing him out of the First and Second Castles of the Ichimonji House, leading to exceptional amounts of blood and betrayal. After a hectic battle at the Third Castle where Hidetora takes refuge, the Great Lord is reduced to a deranged lunatic in one of the film’s most famous shots. 

The shear effect of the power struggles inherent in Ran make for compelling drama alone, but the theme of the effects of past actions heightens the weight of this corruption. On Hidetora’s travels across the barren yet lush landscapes of feudal Japan, the effects of the wars he waged as the Great Lord haunt him, as he comes across the people and places ravaged by his men. Even in his maddened, Hidetora is profoundly impacted by the sights and sounds of the now decimated lands. Probably the strongest moment is when he finds the castle and happens across its former inhabitants, Lady Sue played by Yoshiko Miyazaki and former lord Tsurumaru played by Mansai Nomura. The shear fear present in Nakadai’s performance during this scene is incredible. Another great example of the effects of past actions is found in a victim of the power held by the Ichimonji family, Lady Kaede, played with chilling zeal by Mieko Harada. Kaede is one of the finest takes of the callous Shakespearean woman, someone who seeks vengeance for her family through the destruction of the Ichimonji House. She is a cold, calculating, and manipulative specter of those trampled by the family in the past. Even the fool Kyoami, portrayed by Pîtâ, channels the sentiments of those crushed by Hidetora’s power with searing jests made in Hidetora’s manic state. Some of the most fascinating scenes are had with the conversations between Kyoami and Hidetora, particularly in showing how far gone Hidetora becomes, with lines such as “if the rock you stay on starts to roll, jump clean.”

The script penned by Kurosawa, regular collaborator Hideo Oguni, and Kagemusha screenwriter Masato Ide is a brilliant example of the cultural transcendence of Shakespeare’s stories. Themes of revenge, madness, and power are such universal themes that, when placed under different cultural lens, still yield the same impressive effect. The whole cast also aids in bringing a stage-like feel to the film. Tatsuya Nakadai’s work as Lord Hidetora is just a marvel to behold, capturing the power, madness, and torment of his character with captivating ease. Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, and Daisuke Ryû are all equally stunning as the three sons. Terao is just as cold and cunning as Harada, Nezu is exceptionally manic as the film progresses, and Ryû is the most down-to-earth of the three, giving the film a sense of realism in the midst of all of these surreal performances. All of these elements culminate to help Kurosawa take the audience on an agonizing journey through the well-developed script, but Ran is not just a film of substance.

Ran is quite simply one of the most visually peculiar, and visually stunning films I’ve seen in quite some time. Kurosawa famously did the bulk of pre-production work on this film, designing costumes and even storyboarding the vast majority of the film with paintings. Not quick little doodles, not even detailed drawings, but straight up painting out his film. Dedication like that is something I rarely come across. The results are saturated scenes of action on a grand scale. In terms of shot composition, this film is similar to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in that only two types of shots are employed. In the case of Persona, it was decided that only closeups and wide shots were to be used, creating a unique visual effect. In Ran‘s case, it was decided that only wide shots and mid-range were to be used. This gave the film a unique feel. On one hand, this practice almost feels as though Kurosawa is presenting Ran as a play, where you can see everyone and everything, but never in great detail even in the front row. But on the other hand, the film is given a grand sense of scale. The famous scene in which Hidetora descends from the flaming Third Castle couldn’t have packed the same punch if the camera was focused solely on Nakadai’s horrified, unsettling expression. The shot had to contain everything to provide the pure power the scene needed. To see the once Great Lord, descend from what was his own castle at a time, in front of hundreds of what were once his men and subjects, all in one shot is the kind of knockout image and excess that Shakespeare’s work was best known for.

Another area of this wonderful expressionistic style is the art direction. While dark in subject matter and plot, the film is up to its neck in color. Blood is of the traditional bright red theater variety, and the makeup applied to Tatsuya Nakadai to increase his age and paleness are stunning on camera. Emi Wada’s costuming is absolutely astounding with colorful robes and effective translations of Kurosawa’s suit designs. But the cherry on top of it all are the lovely rich greens captured by the cinematographers that create a vivid pastoral landscape that is simply intoxicating. The fields and storms are all handled almost in an impressionist manner, as if they are attempting to drag you into your own memories of these landscapes, regardless of where you were or are. The saturation of the film at large heightens the impact of the drama and the elaborately shot battles.

One small thing of note is Kurosawa’s use of clouds. While Kurosawa’s editing is rather dry, generally lacking dissolves and primarily using simple procedural cuts, he employs clouds as a sort of plot-tracking device. The more corrupt the characters and the more desolate the story, the cloudier the skies. These clouds also appear to serve as a symbol of change. Shots of clouds are almost always associated with pivotal developments, like the banishing of Saburo and trading off of power, or the ultimate stage of Hidetora’s lunacy where the sky is green. I found that these scenes almost always had a weather shot about them that fostered an idea of “changing winds,” the nature of change itself in the story’s context. Little touches like these really add to the film’s atmosphere, giving it a dreamlike quality in some respects. But the cherry on top of this mammoth, blood-soaked sundae is the music.

Toru Takemitsu’s musical score for Ran is one of the most impressive pieces of music in terms of sheer power. Through a fusion of western and eastern musical styles, Takemitsu captures the bleakness and drama of the story perfectly. An ominous motif passed about the whole score that signals the ultimate fate of the House of Ichimonji and Hidetora, a stark figure that opens and closes the film. This motif has the same effect as Bernard Herrmann’s “Rosebud” leitmotif from Orson Welles’s 1941 drama Citizen Kane in that it anticipates the finale of the film early on. In the case of Citizen Kane, Herrmann answers the question as to what “Rosebud” is. In the case of Ran, Takemitsu predicts the unfortunate fate of the Hidetora and the House of Ichimonji. The weight of this motif is best exemplified when Hidetora happens across Tsurumaru early on, and plays the motif on his beloved flute, triggering a deranged response from Hidetora as a flood of repressed memories wash over him in his fragile state. One thing of note is that the motif is typically associated with traditional Japanese instruments. Strong doses of traditional percussion like woodblocks and taiko drums abound beneath the motif, and a transverse flute is one of the key instruments in the score for Ran. This further binds the motif to the Ichimonji House via the period instrumentation. While the motif fits snuggly in with the exquisite oriental orchestration, the occidental music written at Kurosawa’s request may very well be the scores most powerful influence.

The western influence on the score is found in a grand, pastoral theme meant to simulate the same effects as the tragedian sounds of the famous Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. During discussions regarding the score, Kurosawa asked Takemitsu to essentially “go beyond Mahler,” to achieve a robust, sorrowful sound to match the film’s visuals. What he got was the cue “Hell’s Picture Scroll,” a composition of unbridled pastoral magnificence and weight that contrasted the brutality and madness of the attack on the Third Castle. Its slow, elegiac demeanor perfectly complements the despair felt by Hidetora, and contrasts the chaos of the battle. And amidst the cue, there sits the doom-laden motif, a damning statement as to the fate of the Great Lord and his House, now forever torn apart by the unquenched thirst for power.
The overall effect of this stylistic fusion is that of a wholly unique atmosphere that enhances the impressive visuals and gripping story with chilling motifs and impressive orchestration.

With a powerful adaptation of an already potent Shakespeare play enhanced by outstanding production design, naturalistic cinematography, phenomenal acting, and a completely unique musical score, Ran proves to be one of Kurosawa’s finest. As someone who fell in love with the heartwarming intimacy of works like Ikiru and the cold studies of human nature like High & Low and Stray DogRan is the ultimate fusion of the two in my mind. We grow to learn about the characters on a uniquely intimate level in spite of the camera never getting close to them, but all we find are blackened hearts corrupted by the power bestowed upon them or the power they fell victim to. On one hand, we see a man who consolidated his power and begins to have it wielded against him, ultimately sending him down a path where he rediscovers how his same brutal ways impacted others. On the other, we see the abuse of power in the present with the two sons turning against their father, and even each other while other forces, like Lady Kaede, intend to use their power to finish the House of Ichimonji. Ran conveys all of these notions in such an incredibly frank manner that is just absolutely fascinating to watch. But the emotions felt are adequately enhanced by Kurosawa’s expressionistic approach. Almost everything about this film is gloriously overdone, and yet it never lapses into absurdity and it never clouds the emotions of the scenes. Ran is in my mind one of the real landmarks of cinema, a master filmmaker creating a titanic spectacle out of a classic tragedy of the stage on the silver screen. What Kurosawa has created is a true cinematic experience; a piece that you could only find on celluloid. And that alone is enough for me to recommend this film. If you wish to see something with such a majestic scope and scale to match its gripping tale of feudal power, to see something that could only happen on film, go and see Ran. This may very well change your thoughts on what film is truly capable of.

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