Ran, the film of the month for our Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club, holds a special place in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. It is the last of his great epics, a film that is often considered the culmination of his later period, and one that the director himself at the time saw as rounding out his life’s work in cinema. And like any film with similarly high credentials, it is also known to divide both casual and dedicated audiences, with criticism primarily directed at the film’s pacing, its detachedness and the directness of its message, as well as its perceived pessimism and artificiality.
Ran was the result of a long creative process. Work on the 1985 film had started in the mid-1970s after Dersu Uzala, but Kurosawa’s continuing difficulties to procure financing for any film, let alone one of the scale of Ran, forced him to put the project aside for years. So strong was the director’s urge to make the film, however, that he, like in the case of the preceding Kagemusha, created the film on paper, drawing detailed and colourful illustrations of what was to be filmed, just so that something would remain of his vision in case funding would fail to materialise. In the end, French producer Serge Silberman, known for his work with Luis Buñuel, offered his help, and as with Kagemusha, the project moved forward with the help of overseas funding.
Similarities with Kagemusha do not in fact end there, and Ran is often considered together with its immediate predecessor. There are a number of good reasons for this, too, not least because of Kurosawa’s often repeated comments which, perhaps half-seriously, describe Kagemusha as a commercially appealing dress rehearsal for Ran, the film that he had wanted to make long before Kagemusha. The two films were also inspired by the same historical period of Japan’s Warring States period, with the historical Shingen Takeda, around who Kagemusha revolves, and Motonari Mori, the model for Ran’s protagonist Hidetora, dying only two years apart from one another (in 1573 and 1571, respectively). Furthermore, both films narrate the tragic destruction of a family.
Yet, in some respects Ran and Kagemusha are also almost polar opposites. What is perhaps most often discussed in this respect is the difference between the viewpoints offered by the two films. Whereas Kagemusha follows the chaos of Japan’s Warring States period from a human level, indeed primarily from a commoner’s perspective, Ran shifts the point-of-view high above to something that is often described a “heavenly” perspective. This is a conceptual difference that has intrigued many commentators, although Kurosawa considered that more had perhaps been read into the idea than he had intended:
“…some of the essential scenes of this film are based on my wondering how God and Buddha, if they actually exist, perceive this human life, this mankind stuck in the same absurd behavior patterns. … I wanted to suggest a larger viewpoint [than in Kagemusha] … I did not mean that I wanted to see through the eyes of a heavenly being.” (Cardullo 139-140)
We could also argue that the viewpoints of the central characters themselves are in stark contrast with one another. While the body double in Kagemusha constantly looks outside, trying to understand his surroundings so that he can become another person, the attention of Hidetora in Ran is turned for the most part uncompromisingly inwards. If the earlier film is then an exploration of a time period, the latter is that of human nature. Interestingly, then, the arguably less personal viewpoint of Ran is used to narrate a story and a world in many ways more intimate than had been the case with Kagemusha.
Yet, in distancing his viewpoint, both metaphorically and arguably also in terms of his camera, Kurosawa also physically distances us from his characters. While Kagemusha was deeply rooted in its historical period and among other things trying to understand the events leading to the destruction of an entire ruling family, Ran, while still concerned with historical accuracy when it comes to material aspects such as costumes and architecture, is far more abstracted with its narration, as if the film were taking place in an enclosed world of its own. Similarly, the film’s protagonist Hidetora is not intended to correspond with the historical Mori which inspired it, and similar abstraction is seen elsewhere, as for instance with the names of the warlord’s three sons Taro, Jiro and Saburo which literally stand for “first son”, “second son” and “third son” respectively (not an uncommon naming convention in Japan). As Richie argues, the film is also more artificially structured than its predecessors, is loaded with metaphor and symbolism, and despite its overall gloominess utilises “near expressionism” (Richie) in its visual presentation, which makes use of a vibrant colour palette that, as Sidney Lumet notes in his video notes on the Criterion DVD, is the exact opposite of what you might expect from a dark take on the King Lear story.
Ran’s relationship with Shakespeare’s King Lear is another aspect of the film that has drawn much interest. There is indeed very little to argue about the connections between the two works, although it must be noted that Ran was not originally intended to be an interpretation of the King Learstory. Instead, the film’s origins lie in a well-known fabled anecdote about Motonari Mori (see for instance Goodwin 196), who is said to have demonstrated to his sons the strength of unity by offering them three arrows: while each son could snap a single arrow, none of them could break a bundle of all three at once. While the legend is still taught today as a moral lesson and a perfect example of family loyalty, Kurosawa pondered what could have happened had the sons been more rebellious. It was only during the writing of the first draft that the director began to realise the parallels between the story that he was crafting and that of Shakespeare’s play, and decided to make further use of that similarity. Kurosawa has in fact noted that by the time the film was finished he was no longer always certain where Shakespeare ends and his own work begins (see for instance the episode on Ran in Toho’s “It’s wonderful to create” series). As a further departure from Shakespeare, Kurosawa was also interested in giving Hidetora a past, something that he noted Shakespeare’s protagonist lacked, making it difficult to understand the actions of Lear’s daughters.
In addition to its story, Ran in a sense also shares its world of theatre with King Lear. Although, just like with Kurosawa’s earlier Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood, Ran rather looks to the Japanese theatre tradition for cues (just like with the earlier film, Noh masks were used for character reference), resulting in uncommonly expressive acting that deliberately goes against any standard notion of cinematic realism and further emphases the abstract qualities of the film that distance it from our typical reality and take it towards the domain of a legend, a myth, or something to observe and learn from. Far more than with Kagemusha, the world of Ran is a stage, and all its characters merely players.
Ran is also often considered Kurosawa’s bleakest work. As Prince (287-290) points out, the film is something of a trap for its characters, a world filled with cycles of violence where everyone is both a villain and a victim and where, unlike in Shakespeare’s world, almost no one is innocent and therefore undeserving of the suffering imposed on them. The film’s final image is telling: the blind Tsurumaru wandering through the ruins and dropping his protective Buddhist scroll as he almost stumbles down a steep stone wall. At the time of Ran’s release Kurosawa was quoted saying: “All the technological progress of these last years has only taught human beings how to kill more of each other faster. It’s very difficult for me to retain a sanguine outlook on life under such circumstances.” (in Prince 284) One wrong step, then, and it could all be over?
Ran was Kurosawa’s second, and last, film of the 1980s – a stark contrast to the pace in which he had been able to work earlier in his career, at some point filming up to three films a year (Stray Dog, Scandal and Rashomon all came out within a period of 10 months) while at the same time providing screenplays for other directors (films called Escape at Dawn, Tetsu of Jilba and Fencing Master were all written or co-written by Kurosawa, and came out between Stray Dog and Rashomon (well, strictly speaking Fencing Master opened a day after Rashomon)). After Ran, it would be yet another five years until Kurosawa’s next movie, Dreams. Dreams would mark the beginning of the director’s last creative burst, which would see three final films released in four years – three films where the director would arguably move away from the grimness and hopelessness expressed in Ran and Kagemusha.