Obviously you can’t really talked about Ran, one of Akira Kurosawa’s grandest and most spectacular films, without talking about King Lear, or Shakespeare himself. Ran is a re-telling of King Lear, with aspects of a couple other well known tragedies from the Great Bard, but with a Tokugawa-era spin that transforms a well-known story into a Japanese war movie on a scale as epic as any Lord of the Rings film. When I finished watching Ran, I wanted Kurosawa to come back to life and tell every Shakespeare story to me through Japanese eyes; a selfish but well-intentioned desire.
I read King Lear in college, and while I remembered the general outline of the story from that undergrad Shakespeare class, the majority of my Lear knowledge comes from Christopher Moore and from a Canadian television show called Slings and Arrows. Christopher Moore is a humorist and novelist who often writes historical fiction with a comedic twist. In Fool, he tells the story of King Lear from the court jester’s point of view. Slings and Arrows, one of the greatest television productions to ever grace the little screen, is about a theater company who performs only Shakespeare, and it’s both funny and authentic in its depictions of the thespian lives of its performers. The third season of Slings and Arrows takes viewers through the tragedy of King Lear, weaving the plot lines of the show’s characters with the story of Lear in a masterful way. Select scenes, played out by actors within the show, offer up some of the best Shakespearean acting you’ll see on screen. The difference between show and play here is that Slings and Arrows is rarely tragic, instead offering up warm alternatives to Shakespeare’s tales of woe.
Ran is not funny, aside from some somewhat desperate humor found in the court jester’s antics. Ran is one of the darkest re-tellings of King Lear that I can imagine. There is a grimness to the characters in Kurosawa’s version that exists no where else, a fatality to every action that evokes in the watcher a sense of hopelessness. Yet, it is a hopelessness that must be endured because there’s no turning back once you’ve fallen under Kurosawa’s spell. You see things through to the bloody, horrific end, and you are perhaps changed by that endurance.
The story opens with Hidetora, head of the Ichimonji household and a warlord of monumental success, hunting. He has three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Taro and Jiro are power-hungry, but weak-willed and fawning, traits made clear immediately. Saburo loves his father, unlike his older brothers, and gives him unflinching honesty and unwavering loyalty. He is rewarded with exile, while his brother Taro, the eldest child, is rewarded with inheritance. Hidetora hands control of the house to Taro, and simply asks to be treated well by his sons. He is not treated well, and the fallout is one long struggle through madness and treachery.
Kurosawa does a few things different with this story than did Shakespeare. For one, he wraps the tale in war. The scale of Ran is tremendous. We see armies that number in the thousands, castles burning, men horrifically dying, and battle scenes to equal any found in cinema. Kurosawa turns a familial struggle into a national spectacle, and it works really well. But it remains a familiar struggle because central to every death and swordstroke is the fight between father and son, brother and brother. That these men command such loyalty is almost unbelievable, yet history backs it up.
Kurosawa also adds in a tale of revenge in the form of Lady Kaede. There is a scene in this movie that, for me, stands out as one of the greatest I have ever seen in film. It involves Lady Kaede, wife of Taro, confronting Jiro, his brother, and there is such a range of emotion and viciousness in it that I could only sit back, eyes wide and mouth open as the intensity of it washed over me. I’ve not felt so stunned by many films, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget Mieko Harada’s display of wrath as Lady Kaede. She plays a Lady MacBeth-like figure, and while Kurosawa could be accused of mixing up his plays, I think her inclusion is perfect. She adds a feminine presence, which was stripped from the movie by the gender swapping of the three brothers, and does so in such a powerful way that one questions the martial might of everyone involved. She is powerful by sheer force of will.
The other big standout is, of course, Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora Ichimonji. The role of King Lear, in the theater, is one of the most prestigious and difficult in the entire lexicon of Shakespeare. Much like Hamlet, King Lear descends into madness, but Lear’s madness can never spiral out of control as one might suspect of Hamlet. Lear’s descent is not obsessive, but the result of repeated betrayal, and it is this measured fall that makes the role so precise. Nakadai does this as though directed by William himself, and though one could argue that in the end he comes out of his madness entirely too quickly, he nevertheless descends into it as proficiently as anyone. Adding to this is one of the few times I’ve seen make-up used with such obvious intent and success. As Hidetora succumbs to the demons in his mind, his face becomes more and more Kabuki-like, the lines running deeper and deeper into his skin. His visage becomes frightening to look upon, manifest of the wanderings in his brain.
King Lear is certainly one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I think Ran pulls it off to such a degree that I enjoy it even more. I would have preferred had the three sisters motif of the source material been carried over, but at the same time I understand that the cultures of the time were very different (though perhaps 8th century England wasn’t so different from feudal Japan). As I continue my Kurosawa journey, I begin to wonder if there’s a film I won’t like. Am I so enamored of Japanese culture that I’m giving a pass to any and all films? I think that I am carrying some bias, but at the same time these films are sticking with me in a way that only my favorite movies ever have. I think about them long after the credits roll, and for me that has always been the mark of a great piece of cinema.