Ran (1985)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Hidetora), Akira Terao (Taro), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro), Daisuke Ryu (Saburo), Mieko Harada (Lady Kaede), Yoshiko Miyazaki (Lady Sué), Hisashi Igawa (Kurogane), Jun Tazaki (Ayabe), Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata (Kyoami)
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide
Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda
Music by Toru Takemitsu

Greenwich Film Productions, 160 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 widescreen
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion

You always remember your first time. Ran was my entry point into the world of jidai-geki and Kurosawa. I rented it on video after Siskel and Ebert gave it a rave review, and you better believe it blew me away. Thus Ran is the only one of the great "old" jidai-geki classics that I can claim to have seen around the time of its initial release, back when I was a mere lad of about 16.

Ran actually makes an excellent introduction to Japanese cinema for clueless Americans, young or old, for many reasons. First, because it's based on Shakespeare, and the basic familiarity of the King Lear tragedy helps Western audiences grasp the story. This was Kurosawa's third Shakespeare-based production, following 1957's Throne of Blood (adapting Macbeth to feudal Japan) and 1960's The Bad Sleep Well (more loosely translating Hamlet to modern times). In Ran, Kurosawa's primary deviation from King Lear is that Lord Hidetora has three sons in place of Lear's three daughters. When Hidetora chooses to turn over his kingdom to his sons, Saburo the youngest predicts it will be a disaster and refuses to offer empty flattery like his brothers Taro and Jiro. The insulted Hidetora banishes the noble Saburo, then the other two sons turn against their father and each other in a bloody struggle for power. Ran is pronounced "Ron," as in Reagan, and the word means "chaos." The title is entirely appropriate.

A second benefit for Western viewers is the brilliant use of color. A large proportion of the finest jidai-geki were shot in black and white, and your average American is prejudiced against old black and white movies, especially foreign ones. Ran is not only filmed in breathtaking color, it uses color as a major storytelling device. Instead of keeping track of the names Taro, Jiro and Saburo, the viewer can follow the son dressed in yellow, the son dressed in red, and the son dressed in blue. The armies of the three brothers carry color-coded banners, making it simple to identify the opponents in the sprawling combat scenes.

Which brings me to a third attraction of Ran: this movie features some of the most spectacular set pieces and epic battles ever captured on film, featuring the proverbial cast of thousands. Rampaging soldiers on horseback filling every inch of the frame. Arrows crisscrossing the air, spears clashing, muskets exploding. And what really sets off the battle scenes is the music. Ran features a deeply unconventional score, with virtually no music heard during the first act. The sounds of nature present the only accompaniment to the many outdoor scenes, with the chirps of cicadas rising to a deafening pitch as Hidetora commits and later realizes his foolish mistakes. When the pivotal siege at the third castle begins, the ambient soundtrack goes silent in favor of a lurching orchestral dirge. The shots of carnage and dead soldiers in bright red pools of blood seem all the more horrific with the intrusive music putting us at a distance from it.

Then, just at the moment a central character is killed by a gunshot, the soundtrack switches abruptly from quiet, contemplative music to the full-on din of pitched combat. For the first time we hear the natural sounds of the chaos we've witnessed for the past five minutes, and the transition is astoundingly powerful. Next we get the unforgettable imagery of a catatonic Hidetora staring blankly as flaming arrows zip left and right behind him, then his slow exit down the step of the burning castle as the red and yellow armies part deferentially before the man they've been trying to kill.

So yes, Ran is a great film for the uninitiated to start with, but what it doesn't do is give you an accurate idea of what Japanese movies are like. As a beginner, I found myself somewhat disappointed when I checked out other Kurosawa films and they weren't like Ran, and after all the many jidai-geki I've seen since, I can safely say there is nothing else like Ran. It's really like an artifact from another planet, with Kurosawa creating his own rules of cinema and a whole unique vocabulary of visual and auditory symbology to be used only by this one movie. Ran is the evidence to the contrary of the "common knowledge" that Kurosawa is the most Western of all Japanese filmmakers. It just ain't so. Sure, he borrowed some stylings from Hollywood, but directors like Hiroshi Inagaki and Hideo Gosha have far more in common with Western conventions. Although the only movie I've yet seen that even approaches the flavor of Ran would be Inagaki's Samurai Banners from 1969, if only for the superficial similarities of a tragic warlord protagonist and grand battle sequences, presented in a far more commercial manner.

Storywise, the element that really makes Ran click is Hidetora's dark past as a brutal conqueror. This is another alteration Kurosawa added to Shakespeare, whose Lear was basically a kindly old fool suffering at the cruel hands of fate. Hidetora gained his power by ruthless murder and domination, and he ends up being betrayed not so much by his sons as by own own bloody misdeeds coming back to haunt him. If Hidetora had been a peaceful ruler, his retirement plans to turn over the throne to his sons and live happily ever after might have worked out fine. But he forgot that since he seized his power by the sword, he needed to selfishly defend it tooth and nail as his own, lest it be taken from him by the sword. Hidetora had no foundation for the beneficent act of peacefully ceding his power without hell breaking loose. Ran amounts to a story of the chickens coming home to roost.

Taro and Jiro had each married women whose families and fiefdoms Hidetora had defeated in battle. While Jiro's wife Sue turned to Buddhism and forgave Hidetora, Taro's wife Kaede seethed with undying hatred for the father-in-law who subjugated her people. Upon Taro's unexpected rise to power, Kaede seizes the opportunity to drive a wedge between Hidetora and his sons as the catalyst for all the strife and bloodshed that ensues. Kaede is the embodiment of the lust for revenge rotting the human soul. In fact, for my money, Lady Kaede is an exceedingly superior Lady Macbeth than the one Kurosawa fashioned in his Throne of Blood, and one of the most memorable movie villains ever.

Ran is a work of epic hugeness that I relate to on a very personal level. When I watch it today, I'm transported back to my teenage self and my sense of wonder upon discovering the glory of Japanese cinema. It was a new world filled with promise and delights that have spent the ensuing decades revealing themselves to me.

The Jidai-Geki Knights