In the 1970s, Akira Kurosawa was reading about Mori Motonari, a prominent feudal lord in Japan during the Sengoku period in the 1500s. He started planning a new movie and was eventually influenced by Shakespeare’s ”King Lear”, borrowing the idea of an aging regent stepping down and causing a rift between his three sons. It was the second time the director looked to the Bard; Throne of Blood (1957) was based on ”Macbeth”. But it took time to find the financial backing to make Ran; in the meantime, Kurosawa made both Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980). When Ran was finally made, it became the legendary director’s final great epic.
Preparing to step down
The warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), head of the Ichimonji clan, is getting old and prepares to step down. He informs his three sons Taro, Jiro and Saburo (Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu) of his decision; Taro, the eldest will be the new leader of the clan, but his brothers will be rewarded with separate castles. Hidetora intends to keep the title of Great Lord. However, things don’t go as planned. Saburo defies his father, pointing out that the siblings won’t be loyal to him. Hidetora exiles him, but soon learns that Saburo was right.
Taro is influenced by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) who wants her husband to have all power over the Ichimonji clan; she’s also after revenge because Hidetora’s army killed her family many years ago. Taro wants his father to give up the title of Great Lord, but Hidetora leaves the castle in anger. Heading for Jiro’s castle, he’s in for more disappointment… and a lot of bloodshed.
Similarities between Kurosawa and Hidetora
Ran is often an overwhelming epic to behold, but it is nevertheless deeply personal. Kurosawa lost his wife of 39 years, Yoko Yaguchi, during the production and the character of Hidetora resembled the director himself to a large degree. His last decades as a filmmaker were tough, with box-office failures, diminished standing among his Japanese colleagues and declining health; there was even a suicide attempt. As Hidetora turns into an increasingly frail figure, with his sons battling each other, it is easy to understand how Kurosawa might have seen himself in this tragic figure.
Nothing positive comes out of this story; it firmly lives up to its traditional theatrical genre. Nakadai is very good in the lead, taking us on a journey from absolute power to insanity and an entire family’s downfall, the actor looking more and more like a pale ghost near the end. Among the cast, Peter is also a standout, the gay entertainer (who borrowed his stage name from Peter Pan) who plays Hidetora’s fool, the flamboyant tease who amuses Hidetora’s court but is also constantly provocative; in the end, the fool is Hidetora’s only confidant. The story is rich, adding elements that were lacking from Shakespeare’s original play, giving some of the characters a proper background.
Kurosawa has us in his grip throughout, but the visual look of the film plays an important part. This is a brilliantly directed and edited film. As in Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa used multiple cameras for the battle sequences to have not only different angles but different ways of filming to choose from in editing; as in Kagemusha, the use of the arquebus becomes an explosive part of warfare, and there’s a dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality to some of the shots.
Colors play an important role, especially red. This was a very expensive film and you can see the money spent in all the eye-catching details, including the massive production design and the Oscar-winning costumes by Emi Wada.
Ran 1985-Japan-France. 161 min. Color. Produced by Masato Hara, Serge Silberman. Directed and edited by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide. Play: William Shakespeare (”King Lear”). Screenplay: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda. Production Design: Shinobu Muraki, Yoshiro Muraki. Costume Design: Emi Wada. Makeup: Tameyuki Aimi, Chihako Naito. Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Hidetora), Akira Terao (Taro), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro), Daisuke Ryu (Saburo), Mieko Harada, Peter.
Oscar: Best Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Foreign Language Film, Make Up Artist.
Last word: “It often happens in battle scenes, for example in ‘War and Peace’, that you have no idea which are the Russian troops and which are the Napoleonic ones, and it’s not very kind to the audience. So it was very deliberate to attach different colour banners so you knew exactly what was happening. I was also very careful to pay attention to the fact that the armies of Jiro always entered from left to right, and Saburo’s armies were always filmed the opposite way, from right to left.” (Kurosawa, Time Out)