Written by Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Ran” is an adaption of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” set during Japan’s medieval era in which an elder Japanese warlord seeks peace by dividing his kingdom among his three grown sons. Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) awakens from a vision after a hunt with his three sons and subordinate clan representatives, to which he decrees his own abdication from the throne. Stunned by the announcement, Hidetora’s three sons each react differently. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest garbed in yellow, is set to be given the first castle while Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) in red, and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) in blue, are to be given the second and third castles in order of age and support Taro as the head of the Ichimonji clan. Taro, doesn’t even want the throne, while Jiro seeks it, and Saburo rejects the whole plan as one destined for failure. For his subversive outburst, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo, and Tango (Masayuki Yui) the lord’s adviser, when he openly supports Saburo’s frankness.
I’ve been working through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography lately, and recently the Criterion Channel (The collection’s streaming service) added the legendary filmmaker’s late-in-career masterpiece to their ranks, and I figured I’d give it a shot. Knowing nothing about the film except that it was an adaption of “King Lear” proved to be a bountiful fortune going into the near three hour film. Of the seven, or so, films of Kurosawa’s that I have seen, this may be my favorite of the bunch so far- and that’s saying something with “Ikiru”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Yojimbo/Sanjuro” in that bunch! In doing some (very) light research before writing this review, I was surprised to find that Akira Kurosawa had trouble securing funding for this film for roughly a decade before it was finally released. Apparently Kurosawa had been going through a period akin to (but nowhere near as creatively apocalyptic) what Orson Welles went through after making “Citizen Kane”. After teaming with a French producer in Serge Silberman, the film found it’s foundation, and began winding towards one of the most engaging epics set within medieval Japan.
Having acquired most of his kingdom through brutal and ruthless tactics, this story is almost entirely about the consequences of Lord Hidetora’s actions and the ripple effect throughout his family as a result. After Saburo’s (and Tango’s) banishment things quickly go downhill for Lord Hidetora. As he moves into the smaller keep of the first castle he finds that Taro is being manipulated by his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), into usurping Lord Hidetora after the transition of power to control the whole Ichimonji clan. Considering this an affront and needlessly offensive, Lord Hidetora takes leave of the first castle and heads to Jiro at the second Castle. There he finds himself to be more of a pawn in Jiro’s scheming than anything else. Broken by the betrayal of his sons, Lord Hidetora wanders off with his mercenaries and his fool Kyoami (Pîtâ) with no clear direction. Eventually Tango reappears with provisions to help the wandering party, but when he tells them of Taro’s new decree ‘to kill anyone found helping his father‘, they make a last ditch effort to take Saburo’s castle and fortify themselves there. Saburo’s men happen to be leaving as the group arrives anyways, and it isn’t long before both elder sons come to siege the castle and usurp their father from power through death or submission.
The rest of the film plays out like a season of ‘Game of Thrones’. The siege of the third castle in particular is brutal and impeccably staged. Kurosawa’s use of extras as the armies of Taro and Jiro clash with their father’s skilled warriors is beautifully organized. The chaos and bloodshed feel epic all while Lord Hidetora’s mind is blended, madness ensuing from the shock of all that has come from his abdication of power. The layers of history and karma striking back at the Ichimonji clan from within are glorious and well designed. I won’t divulge all of the details of the plot here, but its just so damn good! The way the story keeps digging at Hidetora’s past and forcing guilt and shame upon him for all that he has done is exemplary- just when you think it can’t get worse, it does! I found everything about this film to be just magnificent. From the score to the pacing, to the scheming and manipulative power moves, and revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan were just perfect in execution!
Seriously, if you enjoy film- this is one of the all time greats and I highly encourage anyone and everyone to give this film a shot. I can’t give this film enough praise, and I honestly need another rewatch to fully indulge in all of the film’s nuances and complexities. It may be a long watch, but it’s more than worth the two hours and forty-two minute runtime.
Final Score: Three sons and countless regrets
*Below is a link to Roger Ebert’s review of “ran” and a video essay by the “Every frame a painting” YouTube channel discussing Akira Kurosawa’s use of movement in his films. Both are simply great and give more depth to the film at hand, enjoy!