RAN (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Ran, which is Japanese for Chaos, is widely regarded as one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces and one of the most fiercely beautiful films ever made. It is based mainly on two works: William Shakespeare’s King Lear, apart from John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost probably the greatest literary work in the English language; and a medieval Japanese epic. I have seen the film twice at the movies and perhaps thrice on tape. To me, it seems mediocre and uninteresting, a far cry from Kurosawa’s artistic triumphs (among them, The Idiot, 1951, Ikiru, 1952, Seven Samurai, 1954, Throne of Blood, 1957, Dodesukadan, 1970, and Dreams, 1990), and an even farther cry from Shakespeare’s towering play. Its portrayal of war, granted, is among the most awesome in cinema, but the vehicle for this is primarily a set-piece to which the rest of the film hardly measures up. I keep wanting to appreciate it more, as Ran is one of only a very few films—Federico Fellini’s (1963) is another—where my opinion differs widely from the world’s. I might add that two friends who loved film and are now deceased, Kenneth Jozwiak and Alfred Watkins, held Ran in similarly low regard. It is perhaps for the sake of their memory, then, that I am braving hostile reaction by airing my concurring opinion now.

I have no intention of synopsizing perhaps the most famous plot in existence. Let me just say that on this occasion the king is a warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji instead of Lear, the kingdom he divides in his old age goes to three sons instead of three daughters, and the “good son” predicts holocaustic warfare between his two brothers, whom he plainly knows very well.

Perhaps in Japan the relationship between father and sons resonates as profoundly as does, in the West, the relationship between father and daughters. We must take a film on its own terms and on the terms of the culture from which it arises. However, let me note in passing that it doesn’t strike me as nearly as much a violation that sons should turn on their father, or on one another, for that matter, as does the betrayal of a man by daughters. Indeed, in our neck of the woods we expect sons to displace fathers in their life’s journey of becoming, in a profound sense, their own fathers. In our culture, they are scarcely seen as owing their father any allegiance whatsoever—which is why it hardly shocks us at all that the current U.S. president blithely refers to his father, behind his father’s back, as “the old man.” (It may disgust us, but it doesn’t shock us.) Daughter to father, though, represents the most sacred bond imaginable. But as I said: When in Ran we must “do” as the Japanese do and, as it were, feel along with them. Still, we are apt to feel little, if anything, over this Japanese Lear’s plight, and certainly nothing comparable to the emotional devastation we feel whenever we encounter Lear’s wrong sense of betrayal by Cordelia, his reprisals against her, and the real betrayals he suffers at the hands of his other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and their equally heartless spouses. The substitution of sons for daughters helps render Kurosawa’s Lear emotionally inert.

The centerpiece of any Lear must be, of course, Lear himself. But Kurosawa’s Hidetora is an oddly abstract figure, one lacking the massive though imperfect humanity that characterizes Shakespeare’s king, father, father-in-law, and master to his fool. (The Fool here is another washout—a whiny, pathetic figure lacking the wit, bravery and philosophical nature of Shakespeare’s version.) Anyone who has seen Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) knows how fine an actor Tatsuya Nakadai can be; but the part of Lear requires a grasp of human nature, and deep and massive emotions, of which he is incapable. For this role, Kurosawa is in sore need of Toshirô Mifune, the exuberant, turbulent star of so many of his films, but with whom by this time he had become estranged over the man’s lifestyle (for gosh sake!). Mifune would have made a powerful Lear, as indeed, in Kumonosu jo (Spiderweb Castle, known in the States as Throne of Blood), he had made for Kurosawa a powerful Macbeth. After his falling-out with Henry Fonda, John Ford found an effective substitute for his once favorite actor in James Stewart; Kurosawa, though, wasn’t so fortunate.

Apologists for Ran frequently point out that it wasn’t Kurosawa’s intention to fashion a transplanted, transmuted version of King Lear, at least not to the extent that Throne of Blood was intended to be a transplanted, transmuted version of Macbeth. Then why draw upon Lear at all? I appreciate that his primary aim is to achieve a scalding vision of war, which he believes to be the greatest human evil on earth—humans mass-murdering humans. But Shakespeare’s King Lear is a deeply philosophical play, too, about the nature of the universe, about humanity’s relationship with forces beyond itself, including God. It is too bad for Kurosawa that, in choosing the play as even one of his sources, the outcome he creates must be measured against what Shakespeare created. (Kurosawa had also made a modern, corporate version of HamletThe Bad Sleep Well, 1960). His Lear is puny alongside Shakespeare’s, for all the sweeping action in its brilliant set-piece, for all its pageantry and spirited colors. Its cosmos seems a cut-rate version of the one that Shakespeare evokes. In truth, though, Kurosawa had already achieved, stupendously, a facsimile of that daunting, crushing, mysterious universe in his Macbeth film, opening up Ran also to a charge of superfluousness.

And what about the use of color in this film? The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô and Masaharu Ueda is gorgeous beyond belief; but to what thematic purpose, to what avail? Color should be used only when there is some specific justification for it, especially since color inevitably, by its nature, reduces the expressive visual possibilities of any film. How are the horrors of war better conveyed by images rendered in such gorgeous colors? Instead, Ran’s color applies a luxuriant aesthetic to the grim, lethal vision Kurosawa is after.

Many of us know about Kurosawa’s financial struggles to put together this project and about his encroaching blindness, which made his crew reliant on his meticulous storyboards. An awful lot went into the production of the film. Sad to say, I don’t think the result profited from much of this.

Others, however, disagree. Ran won best film prizes and prizes for Kurosawa’s filmmaking galore. These include prizes from BAFTA and the London film critics, the David di Donatello Award, and prizes at Bodil and Mainichi. In the United States, the film or Kurosawa, or both, were honored by the critics’ groups in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, and by the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review.

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