Akira Kurosawa’s last big film did not see him fizzle out, or go gently into that good night. It is an absolutely remarkable epic, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and transferred to 16th century Japan, which remains one of the all-time great adaptations, one of the best cinematic spectacles and…well, I’ll say it, one of the BEST FILMS EVER. It is an epic of high drama, betrayal, revenge, family, madness, death, war and regret. The title means ‘chaos’, and although there is an inciting incident that bring about chaos, the world that these characters occupy was already mired in it – it was just simmering, waiting to explode. When the film is not mired in violence, silence and stillness are integral. While not exactly Ozu, Ran’s verbal dramatics are staged in a manner that whilst betraying their stage inspiration, nevertheless make full use of the beautiful Japanese countryside.
The Great Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) oversees the lands he has conquered, but he realises he’s getting older and older, so he decides to pass on his spoils to his three sons – Taro, Jiro and Saburo. The former two are falsely obsequious and garland their father with patronising compliments and promises, but Saburo knows all too well that the peace that he imagines will prevail under the rule of his sons is just a fantasy, and essentially shows up Hidetora for the old fool he is, which doesn’t go down at all well. Proud and refusing to accept Saburo’s cruel-to-be-kind hostility, he banishes his youngest and commences his retirement.
Almost instantly, the true nature of his other two sons are revealed, and the peace of the land is overthrown by civil war. Hidetora becomes haunted by the brutality of his past, be it through his own dreams or by his encounters with those whose lives he has ruined. Of chief interest in the chaos of the plot is Lady Kaeda, whose own family was butchered by Hidetora many years back – she is married to Hidetora’s eldest son and is using her position to further bring down her father in law’s kingdom.
Ran is a desperately sad film – despite Hidetora’s cruel past, we are asked to pity him as his past actions catch up, the cruelty of his past mirrored in the callousness of his two eldest sons. Yet the love between father and youngest son is still evident. The relationship between Hidetora and Saburo is the most heartbreaking, as obstinance and stupid pride from the former prevent them from happiness together.
The Great Lord Hidetora is a remarkable character – his face is a frieze of perpetual astonishment, anger, hurt, pride and eventually terror. The make-up effects exaggerate his performance to vivid extremes. Amazing beard, too. Because we only see him in these twilight years of his, the cruel monster he once was is only ever referred to. He has done dreadful things, killed many innocents, and his ludicrous attempt to impose order and peace (having been so brutal to get to this stage) by presuming that a split rule between his sons will actually work is a deluded one that is taken advantage by two of his offspring. There’s a jaw-dropping moment when his faithful servant Tango informs him that the local peasants have offered the wandering Great Lord charity, but in his insane pride, he sees the gesture as an insult and demands that their villages be destroyed! The presence of his Fool, who acts as a kind of running commentary on the Great Lord’s own foolishness, might try some viewers patience with his early theatricality (you might even end up siding with one of Taro’s henchmen who tries to run him through), bur his presence becomes more heartfelt as the film progresses.
Also, and this is important – the film is very funny in parts. I don’t know if this was intentional, mind you. Hidetora is such a larger-than-life character, and his pent-up, emotional, expressive rage borders on comic. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all, by the way. His face is the definition of theatrical drama. You can’t take your eyes off him. He says so much without speaking, especially during the raid on his castle where he silently falls into madness as his room is destroyed around him.
The Lady Kaeda character, who could have been a mere ‘evil woman’ type bad girl, is ruthless and chillingly focused, but her motives are undertandable, her revenge almost justified, if ultimately misguided and horribly loaded with collateral damage. Yes, her ‘womanness’ is criticised, but by who? A man whose maleness has contributed nothing but war. She could almost be the film’s hero if she wasn’t so bloody scary – her seduction/blackmail of Hidetora’s son is astonishingly visceral.
However, although sadness is the overwhelming emotion driving the film, Ran is justly lauded for the scope of its action. Maybe because battle scenes are ten-a-penny these days, but the sheer ambition and scope of Ran’s biggest set-pieces might not stand out for some viewers. Well, they should. This is real, non-CGI, proper large-scale stuff. The midway battle is a masterpiece of sound and vision. All diegetic sound is removed – instead there is the grand, but funereal, tragic music score to accompany all the chaos, destruction and bloodshed. Despite the ‘12’ certificate, the violence is bloody and shocking, although the vivid red pallete of the gore is far from realistic, closer to an impressionist’s brush strokes. The film’s most swift and ruthless act of violence, performed near the end, is delivered like a painter’s final, decisive touch – it’s as spectacular as it is horrific, expertly framed and – yes, executed. Additionally, the colour scheme, specifically in regards to the colour coded armies, is simple but effective, and frankly very helpful in a battle scene.
By the end, tragedy has conquered our characters’ worlds. The culmination of all this drama is heartbreaking, if inevitable. Played out against such a desolate landscape, with the only warmth emitting from the increasingly setting sun, it is overwhelming. The gods are questioned, but are ultimately seen to not be responsible, In fact, they are believed to be weeping. And like the gods, we can only act as helpless spectactors, knowing that this isn’t going to end well, but unable to stop the horrors from unfolding. Humanity is to blame here, not the gods, not nature, just us. The skies seem so empty – is God or the gods up there? It’s a barren, bleak and even nihilistic land our characters occupy.
Ran has been recently remastered and re-released in cinemas – anyone who already loves this film needs to see it on the big screen if it’s still around. If you haven’t already seen it, then prepare yourself. The Great Lord demands it.