Director: Akira Kurosawa
Major Players: Tatsuya Nakadai, Jinpachi Nezu, Mieko Harada
Out Of Five: Five
I first saw Kurosawa’s Ran when it was originally released 30 years ago. It was my first experience of his movies and was one that I neither regretted nor forgot. Some of the scenes lodged themselves permanently in my brain, so that when I was offered the chance to see the film again but in a newly restored version, I nearly fell over myself with excitement. Even better was the prospect of watching it again on the big screen, which is the one and only place to see it.
The title, incidentally, translates from the Japanese into chaos, turmoil, fury and they’re all in the film in equal measure. Because this is Kurosawa’s meditation on Shakespeare’s King Lear, one that he both wrote and directed. As far as the main storyline from the original is concerned, the only main change is from daughters to sons, although he does dispense with the Gloucester sub-plot almost in its entirety. The Great Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) has reached 70, decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom between his three sons, with the oldest having the most power. The youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) speaks out against the idea but the old man doesn’t like being challenged and banishes him, leaving the way clear for the other two to take over – and for the inevitably bloody struggle for ultimate power.
In Shakespeare’s version, you’re encouraged to feel a certain sympathy for Lear, “a man more sinned against than sinning” as he describes himself. Here that’s not so much the case: Hidetora has been a brutal warlord, mercilessly slaying his enemies, as well as being a distant father to his children, simply expecting them to do his bidding. There’s a sense that he’s getting his just desserts in the way that he’s treated by his sons.
This isn’t Kurosawa’s first foray into Shakespeare. Throne Of Blood, his version of Macbeth, came nearly 30 years before in 1957. And there’s a visual thread connecting them, in the malevolent shape of Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), wife to the eldest of his three sons. She looks almost identical to the central female character from Throne of Blood, the Lady McB equivalent, and the similarity isn’t just physical. Kurosawa has replaced the original Gloucester sub-plot with one involving the political ambition of the older daughter in law, coupled with a blinding desire for revenge on the Great Lord, who killed her entire family. She’s a gloriously cold blooded creation, who stops at absolutely nothing.
But the film’s full power is unleashed in its visuals. Kurosawa originally trained as a painter, so all his storyboards were full scale paintings and it’s never been more apparent than here. There’s the enormous sweeping battle scenes against epic backdrops, with brilliantly coloured banners rippling in the wind and the roaring colours of the fire in the castles. In themselves, they’re superb, but what makes them exceptional comes in the extended battle sequence half way through the film. It’s almost like watching a silent movie: the visuals are all there, but there’s no sound. Instead, there’s the soundtrack, which mixes Japanese sounds with music in the style of Mahler. It’s unique, fascinating and spellbinding, a sequence of cinematic genius – even more so when you realise that Kurosawa’s eye sight was fading at the time when it was filmed.
I hardly ever describe a film as a masterpiece: it’s a word I feel is way over used. But it does describe Ran so, if you’ve never seen it, you should. And if you have, then see it again. But make sure you watch it on the big screen. It’s a genuinely unforgettable film. End of.
Ran goes on limited release around the UK on Friday, 1 April and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 31 March.
The full list of cinemas showing Ran can be found here.