On a beautiful grassy plain in 16th-Century Japan a great lord, his sons, guests and retainers take respite from a boar hunt. The lord remarks that it took him 50 years to gain control of all the land that he can see.
But now he’s 70 years old, and, after nodding off, he abruptly awakens from a dream (in which he found himself alone and lost) to make the unexpected announcement that he wishes to transfer his power to the eldest of his three sons. His youngest son dares to beg his father to reconsider, insisting that since he and his brothers were “weaned on strife,” civil war is sure to follow. For his frankness the son, who truly loves his father, is immediately banished.
The picnic on the grass is the last serene moment in “Ran” (at the Royal Christmas Day), Akira Kurosawa’s superb re-working of “King Lear” that is a glorious culmination of all that has concerned the great director, now 75, for more than 40 years. “Ran,” which translates as “chaos” or “turmoil,” is at once brisk and vital, elegiac and contemplative, intimate and epic, tragic yet shot through with humor. It combines the energy of youth with the perspective of maturity. It encompasses all of human nature in its folly and grandeur, and it does so in images as beautiful and terrifying as any ever captured on film and in performances that are impeccable.
“Ran” is a heroic saga of human destiny, a war movie with some of the greatest battle scenes in the history of the cinema, a costume drama of the utmost magnificence--and a crackling good samurai movie chock full of swordplay and palace intrigue.
Triumph, after decades of bloody struggle, has lulled the Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) into thinking he can step down and spend his remaining days in the peaceful company of his concubines and retinue of 30 warriors. It never occurs to him that his word will no longer remain law once he’s relinquished his leadership. His eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) may be weak, but his wife, the icy, doll-faced Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) wastes no time in plotting revenge against her father-in-law, who slaughtered her family and seized her for his son and her family’s ancestral castle for himself. At the same time, Hidetora’s second son, the ambitious Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), is eager to seize power for himself. As a result, Hidetora needlessly witnesses the bloodshed that quite likely would have ensued anyway in the wake of his death.
Kurosawa’s battle charges are like bolts of lightning in which Taro’s “yellow” army and Hidetora’s “red” army streak the screen with the colors of their banners. The first battle unfolds as a stunning montage, and the only sound that accompanies it until nearly its finish is Toru Takemitsu’s mournful score. It’s a display of virtuoso economical film making, not for the sake of showing off, but a tactic that allows Kurosawa to get on with his complicated story and, in the absence of the sounds of battle, to invite us to consider the futility of warfare.
Kurosawa tops this bravura sequence in the long siege of Saburo’s abandoned castle, where Hidetora and his retainers have taken refuge only to walk into an ambush staged by his two elder sons. As his warriors fall and his women commit suicide, Hidetora, who can’t kill himself because his sword has broken at the hilt, starts going mad in the huge burning structure. At last he emerges slowly and alone, as ravaged as a figure in an El Greco painting, moving through the parting crowds of his sons’ warriors, to commence his long, numbed odyssey, eventually accompanied only by his loyal but impish court fool (Shinnosuke Ikehata, a popular transvestite performer and dancer known as Peter).
No less awe-inspiring are “Ran’s” intimate sequences. None is more electrifying than the now-widowed Lady Kaede’s confrontation with her brother-in-law, Jiro. In a setting of burnished gold she encircles Jiro, the swish of her rich kimono audible as she methodically closes one barred shoji panel after another, finally pouncing on him and placing a dagger at his throat. Stating her terms, she retreats only once again to advance upon the cowering man--this time to clutch him in an ardent embrace and fiery kiss.
If Lady Kaede represents revenge in its all-consuming fury, her sister-in-law, Jiro’s wife Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), represents forgiveness at its most sublime. She also has suffered the loss of her family at Hidetora’s hands but has embraced Buddhism as a result; ironically, Hidetora can’t stand her not looking at him with hatred. In contrast to the ambitiousness of Jiro there is the selflessness of Hidetora’s loyal retainer Tango (Masayuki Yui). The folly of Jiro, in turn, contrasts with the common sense of Kurogane (Hisashi Ikawa), his chief retainer, a man of exceptional outspokenness. If Lady Kaede recalls the Lady Macbeth of Kurosawa’s dazzling “Throne of Blood,” then Kurogane recalls Toshiro Mifune’s no-nonsense masterless samurai of “Sanjuro” and “Yojimbo.”
But the heart of the film lies with Tatsuya Nakadai, who in his naive, proud Hidetora, in effect, gives us a great Lear, a man who has held power so long and so brutally he’s become unaware of how people, including his own flesh and blood, truly regard him. He’s the wise man become a fool, whereas his Fool is now more clearly than ever the wise man.
“Ran” represents an immense collaborative effort on the part of Kurosawa and his colleagues, most of whom have been with him for years, even decades. He was inspired to turn Lear’s daughters into sons when he considered the legend of the 16th-Century feudal warlord Morikawa and started thinking what would have happened if his three sons had not been loyal to him. In drawing upon Shakespeare and Japanese legend, philosophy and religion, Kurosawa and his frequent co-writers Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide have created an epic tragedy resonant with all that has gone before in Kurosawa’s work: his concern for moral as well as physical courage, for loyalty, for the integrity of the family and the community; his compassion for human weakness and despair, and his subtle irony. “Ran” is Kurosawa’s plea to mankind to stop destroying itself.
It is said that Kurosawa has suggested that his previous film, the similarly themed “Kagemusha” (“The Shadow Warrior”), can be regarded as a depiction of human events as seen by one individual, but that in “Ran” the point of view is from heaven. In any event, “Ran” (rated R for considerable combat violence) is a much clearer and accessible film than “Kagemusha.” It belongs to that handful of great films that are also actually entertaining.