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What Is Ran? Akira Kurosawa Epic Is Not King Lear

What is Ran? Mieko Harada has the answer
What is Ran? Akira Kurosawa period epic is not an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Mieko Harada pictured.

“Critical cribbing” is a term I coined in regard to the tendency of critics, in all fields, to not engage a work of art directly, but rather to fall back on lazily repeating claims that have been made by others about the work they are reviewing. Sometimes, these are positive blurbs; other times, they are bits of misinformation repeated endlessly – e.g., the (nameless) characters’ names in films such as Alain ResnaisLast Year at Marienbad and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Typical examples of critical cribbing can be found in reviews of Akira Kurosawa’s 27th (of 30) films, Ran (1985), a very good effort despite problems with character development and some mediocre acting. The critical cribbing comes from the almost offhanded way most reviews of the film claim that Ran is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. This is simply not so. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]

Yes, there certainly is an influence, but a retelling implies a certain fidelity to the source. Kurosawa, as he often did, improved on the source material with his own touches – mostly adding background, depth, contrast, and historical ties to Japanese culture. In short, Shakespeare’s play is a parable filled with caricatures. Ran is not. And aside from the fact that these supplements vastly improve Shakespeare’s overrated play, I seriously doubt most of the critics who nonchalantly toss about those claims have even read or seen an adaptation of King Lear. Else, Ran‘s many divergences from and expansions of the plot would have been apparent.

The film’s title means “chaos,” and that’s not a bad description of the action. The lack of character development in a realistic way, unlike Kurosawa’s other late epic, Kagemusha, is a serious impediment to claims for Ran‘s greatness. In fact, Kagemusha‘s strength is its realistic characters and historical fidelity; those make it a better film than Ran, even if, like Ran, it is a bit too long. Another problem: Ran never plumbs within the human psyche the way Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and The Bad Sleep Well do.

On the surface, its plot, like King Lear‘s, is simple enough. An aging warlord, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), decides to split his fiefdom in three, giving equal shares to his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). They are to get the first, second, and third family castles. Taro is to be head of the clan while Hidetora remains warlord emeritus.

The two younger brothers are to support Taro, and an ancient Japanese metaphor is used to demonstrate this – Hidetora shows that a single arrow is easily broken, but three together are not. Yet, while he cannot break it with his bare hands, Saburo shows he can break the trio across his knee. While Taro and Jiro flatter their father, Saburo says he is foolish for trusting his sons with power – he is thus banished.

Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), who was a prize won when Hidetora vanquished her own clan and seized their family castle, now unfurls her own plan for revenge, and pushes her husband to castrate his father’s power. Suddenly, the old man senses he made an error. More family intrigue follows.

Where Ran differs most notably from King Lear is in its depth of background. The film is based upon a real-life warlord who had three loyal sons he wanted to bestow his empire to – an inversion of the Lear mythos. Curiously, Kurosawa claimed he only became aware of King Lear midway through the filmmaking process, when others mentioned it to him. He also did not like the fact that Lear’s characters had no credible backstory, and that the three daughters in Lear (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) were rather one-dimensional. While Taro, Jiro, and Saburo could have been fleshed out more, especially since nearly twenty-five minutes pass in the opening ritual scenes, they are certainly more realistic and well sketched-out characters than Shakespeare’s siblings.

Also, like Lear, all in the clan end up dead. But there are some major differences, aside from the depth and realism found in Kurosawa’s film. Lear’s past is an unknown. When we observe his suffering, we are apt to feel pity for him as a character – even in poorly wrought scenes. Hidetora, on the other hand, is (or was) a monster whose life entailed almost daily murder for fifty-plus years. Thus, Ran is an example of karma, not life’s randomness and folly. This also vitiates another of the most cribbed points of criticism about the film (one repeated in Stephen Prince’s audio commentary) – that it is somehow a meditation on war and violence, asking why it exists. There simply is no evidence of this.

It’s true that Hidetora asks these queries, but he is not the film. Ran does not bask in needless violence. For instance, when Kurogane beheads Lady Kaede, we do not see the act, only the resultant arterial spray of blood on the wall behind her. Never does the film question, explicitly or implicitly, its world. Violence just is. Even Saburo, Ran‘s noblest character, is resigned to the world of violence and treachery he inhabits, while Lady Sue, in her retreat into Buddhism, has accepted the world and its evils.

Never does a character contemplate existentially on their world, the way, say, the soldiers in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line do. The few times Hidetora does, it is in a selfish – not existential – manner, as he regrets his own evil and all that has befallen his family. One might argue this is the only way in which King Lear is superior to Ran, but that presupposes that merely questioning something is an endpoint. The characters in Ran, if they are less introspective than those in Shakespeare’s work – and I do not fully accept that interpretation – are certainly more realistically engaged in their worlds. There is no poseur moment wherein a soliloquy will break out, no matter how inapt.

Then there is Lady Kaede, and much is made of her adaptation from Noh dramas. This may be so, but hers is also the character that is the least believable from a historical standpoint. That’s because Noh drama was not reality. No female wielded such power in East Asian medieval societies, and her desires for revenge are so one-dimensional that she seems even less real than the male characters; in fact, she rivals some of the wackier versions of the female character portrayed by Machiko Kyo in Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

The scene where Lady Kaede dominates then seduces Jiro is a masterpiece of balletic drama, but as a piece of realism it is laughable. She would have been struck dead in an instant. It’s almost a precursor to the silly scenes that appear in virtually every Hollywood action flick now, wherein a sexy, buxom young female of 120 pounds or less somehow physically overwhelms a musclebound male over twice her size, and does so with ease. It’s become a cliché of modern action films (insert the name/idea of your favorite screen siren here) that it is interesting to see where it first began. But once that interest fades, we are left with a hollow character in dire need of expansion. This may, indeed, put Lady Kaede in the Noh tradition, but since it does not serve the film well, that fact is merely a bit of trivia.

Another mistake found in Ran – although it is a well-conceived and wrought mistake – is the distance maintained from the film’s main characters. While Kurosawa wanted to portray war and familial squabbles as petty (hence the film’s title refers to the generic situation, not the particulars), thus opting for the view from on high, by doing so he made all the characters look like insects. As a result, it is hard to sympathize with their plight.

The Wellspring “The Masterworks Edition” DVD actually offers some different features than the later two-disc from The Criterion Collection. Both offer enhanced versions of the film. The Wellspring DVD still has some dirt and splotchiness, although the colors are well restored. And unlike Criterion, Wellspring uses gold subtitles, which are easier to read than the white ones.

Disc 1 offers production notes, Ran in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a restoration demonstration, and two trailers. The chief difference lies in the commentaries: The Criterion version has a commentary by film historian Stephen Prince; French filmmaker Chris Marker’s documentary on Kurosawa, AK; as well as Toho Studios’ “It Is Wonderful to Create” series of documentaries on Kurosawa. Wellspring has no featurettes, but their DVD offer commentaries by Prince and film producer Peter Grilli.

Grilli’s commentary is flat and uninvolving, filled with sweeping generalities about film in general, and Ran specifically. It is also punctuated by several minutes of silence. Stephen Prince’s is similar to the later commentary he did for Criterion. Prince, I should add, is a very hit-and-miss commentator, but his take on Ran is one of his better ones. While he always tends to over-prepare, coming across as bland while reading notes, this commentary is quite scene-specific; Prince even seems to have loosened up a bit.

In Ran, Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, and Masaharu Ueda’s cinematography shows that there’s much more to great cinematography than just good scenery. One needs only look at films like Sean Penn’s Into the Wild or Walter SallesThe Motorcycle Diaries to see that beautiful mountainscapes do not equal great art. Ran‘s cinematographers, by contrast, show how framing and flattening out imagery with telephoto lenses can render reality into a sort of Japanese flat art depiction of the world.

That also illustrates the superfluity and flat out wrongheadedness of most critical writing on the use of certain types of lenses to get certain effects, whether in Ran or in general. Why? Because the flattening of images (such as in the openings ceremonial scenes in the mountains, especially when the frame is crowded) is not important for how it is achieved, but for what it imparts to the viewer. In these cases, the flattening of images into an almost classical Oriental illustration makes the objects and characters in the frame seem to be closer to each other than they really are in the internal reality of the film’s narrative, which, in turn, makes the scenes seem and feel almost claustrophobic.

As a result, the viewer feels what the characters do emotionally, as they are uneased by the internal circumstances and crowding just as the viewer is uneased by the external composition onscreen. Thus, we’re able to understand the on-screen aggression viscerally, cued by what amounts to visual testosterone. (Think of the effect crowding has on male interactions at sporting events.) That these effects are achieved via a certain lens or camera technique are far less important than what they impart to the viewer.

That so few critics understand this about art in general, and cinema in particular, is typical of just why so much art and criticism is so bad, repetitive, and dependent upon the seeking out of artistic intent rather than artistic effect. Why? Because intent is rather a simplistic declaration, whereas effect is a multifarious cogitation.

There are also several jump-cuts in Ran that depict emotional fragility of characters and moments. These are employed so well that one often does not notice them, except subliminally or upon rewatch. The score by Toru Takemitsu has an otherworldly feel that really meshes beautifully with the images. It also is obviously influenced – at least emotionally – by Jerry Goldsmith’s landmark score for Planet of the Apes.

Ran is a great example of a work of art that is essentially cinematic. The totality of the work could simply not be represented in any other form of drama. Its visual elements are essential – something that no bit of epopee, painting, or even a novel could replicate.

It’s mainly the film’s lack of a higher meaning that dooms it from the greatness found in some of the earlier Kurosawa films. Also, Ran suffers from a bit of predictability; not only to anyone who knows King Lear, but in the same manner as The Godfather: Part III. When one understands that Hidetora is more of a Mob chieftain than a king, it becomes apparent that with each betrayal by his two oldest sons he, like Michael Corleone, senses that “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”

But as a motto for the works of Kurosawa, is such a pull a bad thing? I think not. Oftentimes, when an artist has been as consistently great as Kurosawa, his bar is set so high in expectation of great things that when one gets merely terrific stuff from him, well, it seems wanting. Ran is a film that falls just shy of Kurosawa’s greatest works, but stands leagues above the vast majority of films we all watch. If that praise seems faint, then catch it when it falls onto you.

© Dan Schneider

Ran (1985)

Director: Akira Kurosawa.

Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide, and Hideo Oguni.

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai. Akira Terao. Jinpachi Nezu. Daisuke Ryu. Mieko Harada. Yoshiko Miyazaki. Hisashi Igawa.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this Ran review was initially posted in January 2010.

Akira Kurosawa Ran images: Winstar Cinema.


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luacheia99 -

I think we really saw two different movies…

Even almost 30 years after, Ran, like Kagemusha, did a confront impression on me, that I still have that impression of greatness with me.

All his movies were piece of painting art, each scene was like a masterpiece paint that you normally just found in the greatest museums. Outside that, his movies had a profound link with esoteric subjects. The kind of movie that stays with you for days and you slowly gets what it was really about.

doug -

“It’s mainly the film’s lack of a higher meaning that dooms it from the greatness found in some of the earlier Kurosawa films”

I disagree with this strongly, The movie is about the danger of false loyalty, accepting truth that is harsh versus flattery, and the divisiveness of inheritance. To use an example that has occurred in my own life, in the end the farm was divided, the siblings could not get along and the neighboring farmers ended up buying everyone up by forging secret alliances.

jarwatchesfilms.com -

I’ve been intending to see “Ran” for forever, and this review pushes it up to the top of my queue!


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