Director: Akira Kurosawa
By Roderick Heath
Akira Kurosawa’s plummet in the late ’60s from the pinnacle of Japanese cinema to a state of almost complete artistic annihilation was a near-fatal interlude in the great director’s life. His partnership with favourite actor Toshiro Mifune had collapsed, and after the painful flop of Dodes’ka-den (1970), he was forced to pass on directing duties for the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) to Kinji Fukusaku. Kurosawa eventually attempted suicide during this period of crisis. He made a slow, but heroic resurgence thanks to the seeds he had planted decades before in the fertile soil of the international film community, which eventually rallied to his aid as a variety of sources provided him with financing. This spurred a surprising rally of supreme creativity before fading with some lesser but fascinating grace-note works. As well as being the last grand spectacle of his career, Ran provided a closing chapter in his trilogy of loose Shakespeare adaptations—Throne of Blood (1959), spun from Macbeth, and The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a riff on Hamlet. Ran took the Bard’s King Lear and resituated it in the age of Japan’s brutal civil wars of the 1500s. The subject immediately evokes not only Kurosawa’s career-long fascination with attempting to meld Eastern and Western cultural styles, themes, and epic traditions, but also the man’s own travails in the previous 20 years, as the dazed and crushed former Lord wanders about a cruel landscape owned by the young upstarts. The result was possibly the greatest film of the 1980s.
Tatsuya Nakadai, long second-fiddle to Mifune in Kurosawa’s films, including losing fights to him in both Yojimbo (1960) and Sanjuro (1963), had emerged in Kagemusha as his new actor-star. Nakadai, insolently handsome and lethally cool as a young actor, evolved into a fine tragedian as middle age loaned him a worn and uneasy countenance. Here Nakadai took on the Lear role, redubbed Lord Hidetora Ichimonji. The former ruthless conqueror, still physically robust at 70 as proven in the opening as he kills a boar in a mounted hunt, is now succumbing to age’s predations—falling asleep in the middle of chatting with guests and prone to bouts of almost senile disorientation. Sensing, if not quite admitting, his waning powers, he decides to hand over the reins to his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao), whilst giving control of other portions of his fiefdom to second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and young Saburo (Daisuke Ryû).
The mood of the opening scenes is deceptive in their summery tranquillity, proving rather hypnotically tense. Kurosawa, the ever-great utiliser of ambient noise and weather harbingers, bathes the scene with the droning of insects and watches the seething clouds sweep in, perceiving something malevolent in nature and its barometric relationship with human behaviour. The insects are gnawing their way through this seemingly peaceful handover of power, as ritualised scenes of the two elder sons making their obsequious pronouncements of admiration and loyalty to their father proceed. The moment in which Hidetora hands an arrow to each of the brothers and has them snap them, and then gives them three, which two of them can’t break, has the precise flavour of something out of folk wisdom, as does Saburo’s lesson-altering decision to break the three on his knee. The devoted but unsentimental Saburo mocks and shows up the rhetoric of both father and brothers, and gets exiled for his pains, along with clan warrior Tango Hirayama (Masayuki Yui), who sticks up for him. Saburo’s behaviour, at least, impresses Hidetora’s guest Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) sufficiently to offer him marriage to his daughter and a place in his clan, with generosity and also perhaps with an eye to the possibilities the course of events could offer him.
The evil mood lurking within the sun stupor of this opening is soon given tangibility. What Hidetora takes for peace and stability is merely a pause for breath, with all the old forces he only managed to cage after riding them without a pause or hesitation, ready to bust loose again and lay his world to waste. His sons, except for Saburo, have learnt well from the school of predatory behaviour Hidetora specialised in, but they’re not of the same calibre in character. Saburo’s disappearance from the scene clears the ground for an inevitable process whereby the elder brothers, the moment they have control of infrastructure and manpower of the clan, use it in a programme of conquest and back-stabbing. Hidetora is humiliated when Taro makes him sign an official renunciation of his power, and his sons use the pretext of the satirical boisterousness of Hidetora’s bodyguard and his Fool, Kyoami (Peter), to eject their father and Lord from their castles. Hidetora and his retinue, including his concubines, take shelter in a third castle that was to be Saburo’s, which Saburo’s own loyalists readily abandon so that they can go join their hero.
I’ve always had the greatest fondness for King Lear amongst Shakespeare’s tragedies: if Hamlet is the great myth of perplexed youthful conscience, Lear is the same for outraged elderly spite, fuelled by a folk-myth’s direct metaphorical force. I’ve seen, and I’m sure you have, too, real people hit their Lear phase in life, when everything they built, their accomplishments and labours crumble down around their ears: it’s not a pretty sight, and few have even the solace of such epic spectacle. Kurosawa’s screenplay, written with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, adapts and respects the Shakespearean original, but also adds a layer of relentless, more specific cynicism that subverts the usual, if often nominal, respect for hierarchical benevolence found in Shakespeare’s plays. By changing the wicked offspring to men—presumably the three daughters of the original would have been impossible to transpose convincingly to highly patriarchal, period Japan—Ran makes fierce and relentless sport of the values of the culture it portrays: the fetishising of war and respect only for power on all levels.
The film’s title means “chaos,” and chaos is not merely physical disaster here, but also the threat of existential disintegration of all standards and morals. Saburo’s and Tango’s urgent warnings to Hidetora of the way words mask violence falls on the deaf ears of the self-deluding old man whose one-time strength seems to have been his lack of self-delusion. Ghosts lurk behind the facades of family and fortress. In his family relationships, Hidetora is most fond and reverent of Jiro’s wife Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who is the daughter of a rival lord he annihilated. Sue is a dedicated Buddhist who believes in forgiveness, an attitude that causes Hidetora more pain than abuse would. But Hidetora has instilled more than enough familiar emotion in Sue’s evil alter ego Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), Taro’s wife, also a survivor of an annihilated clan, but one who has no interest at all in forgiveness: she’s looking for ways to cause the Ichimonjis to collapse from within.
Kurosawa finally lets the film’s mask of concerted, grimacing reticence slip, and erupts into one of the most astoundingly staged, apocalyptic sequences ever committed to film, as Taro and Jiro’s forces combine and are let into the castle walls by two of Hidetora’s treacherous lieutenants. The castle is high on a volcanic mountainside, reminiscent of the setting of Throne of Blood, and as the enemy armies flow across the landscape, the wind assails them and matches their motions with ribbons of billowing ash. Primitive rifles bash great bloody holes in flesh, pummelled and curtailed humans loll about in pools of their own blood and crawl about whilst stuck with arrows until they look like porcupines. Hidetora descends a high staircase from the keep to do battle like a classical Kurosawa hero, only for his sword to break with the first soldier he strikes. Hidetora’s loyal concubines, the subject of a subtle but enormously meaningful clash of protocol forced early in the film by Kaede, now knife each other rather than be taken or hurl themselves in front of Hidetora to absorb the bullets being fired his way. Finally, as the castle goes up in flames about the lord, Taro dies from a bullet in the back fired by Jiro’s chief retainer Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa). Hidetora, unable to find a blade with which to commit seppuku, is suddenly engulfed in a dissociative daze and wanders out amongst the enemy soldiers who watch him pass by in bemusement; Jiro won’t actually kill the completely isolated patriarch, who wanders out into the wind-thrashed hills to go pick flowers.
This entire sequence is as disorientating and terrible as anything in the same year’s Come and See, Ran’s chief rival for the crown of the ’80s, as well as obviously a powerful influence on the famous Normandy opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998). The wonder of it is that it seems both brutally realistic and also highly stylised: Toru Takemitsu’s score here rises up from his familiar, near-ambient clicks and drones to infernal swarms of brass and strings. All other sound is blanked out, whilst blood and flame and the flags worn by the armies’ soldiers to differentiate them are rendered like swirls of calligraphic colour upon bleak, grey earth. In the first scenes of the film, the three sons are each designated by the coloured kimonos they wear—Taro yellow, Jiro red, and Saburo blue—and thereafter, each side is designated the same way, a simple device that makes the delirious rampages of the armies coherent.
Hidetora, once hurled out of the world of men, wanders in nature only be found by Tango, who has attempted to return to his Lord’s favour and is initially rebuffed, and Kyoami, who, seeing the state of Hidetora, erupts in a tragic-rhapsodic song and dance, instantly transmuting hard fact into artistic paean. Here, Kurosawa takes Kyoami, analogue of Shakespeare’s Fool, a character allowed to step outside the boundaries of medieval protocol to comment on both character and action with an almost meta-textual lenience, and combines him with the figure of the benshi, drawn from the traditions of kabuki and utilised to narrate and explain silent films. Fascination with the didactic art of the benshi, at odds with the ambiguity of narrative image-making, stayed with Kurosawa right through his career. Cinema owners in Japan had actually hired retired benshis to explain the complex cinematic layering of Rashomon (1951), and the benshi tradition flickers up throughout Kurosawa’s career, for example, in Princess Uehara’s prayer-rant in The Hidden Fortress (1958). The result is an outlandish, yet gripping moment, as Kyoami seems to occupy a nexus of art, life, death, nature, and humanity, wildly exultant at the spectacle of the disintegration of his Lord’s power and the certainties of the world he represented: for a moment there is only art, his art, standing between mankind and annihilation. Similar motifs would pepper Kurosawa’s impressive, if inevitably diffuse follow-up Dreams (1989).
Hidetora and his two hapless helpmates look for shelter in the storm and find instead only further icons of Hidetora’s own past mercilessness returning to mock him and drive him deeper into hysteria: the trio find shelter in a small shack, which proves to be the home of an ambisexual figure who first recalls Kurosawa’s figuration of the witch in Throne of Blood, but proves to be Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), Sue’s reclusive brother, blinded by Hidetora as a child to ensure he would never pose a threat. Later, Hidetora stumbles around the ruins of the clan’s ruined castle in a helmet of reeds and flowers given to him by a playfully satiric Kyoami, who shrinks in shame under Tango’s gaze when he sees Hidetora. The hypnotically intense early sequences give way to an equally composed, yet increasingly frantic and existentially despairing Beckett-esque sense of directionless grief in the latter stages. A second storm looms as Saburo, hearing word of Hidetora’s isolation in the wilderness, brings his small party of soldiers onto Ichimonji territory, while Fujimaki and fellow warlord Ayabe (Jun Tazaki) hover on the hills behind: to watch Saburo, or take a chance to swoop down on Jiro’s forces?
Kurosawa and Nakadai invest Hidetora with the arrogant pride of a man used to ordering the world how he wants it, but which also suggests an unconscious desire to test the structure of the world he built. He takes as much part in the destruction of it as his sons do, through not only his pugnacious blindness to the likely results of his own acts, but also in his declarative refusals to bend driving situations until there can be no turning back. Hidetora’s waning physical mastery is still communicated in the opening boar hunt, and again in a mordant moment in which he saves Kyoami from one of Taro’s samurai, infuriated by the satiric song the Fool was singing about Taro: Hidetora plants an arrow in the back of the samurai from high on the keep with brilliant warrior art and startling, cold-blooded judgment. Such is the kind of authority he’s used to wielding and his signal to all and sundry that he’s still the Lord, master of life and death, but it’s a power he has given up, and this act proves catalyst for Kaede’s goading of Taro into removing the old man from the political equation.
Increasingly infuriated by his sons, Hidetora finally walks out on Jiro, keeping his back to him as his men close the castle door between them—a showy act of rejection even though he’s only dooming himself. Hidetora wants to leave behind a more just world, in truth, one in which bonds of fidelity, oaths, and family are powerful enough overcome the Ran; instead he courts the oncoming dissolution like a toreador taunting the bull, in an all-or-nothing bout with nihilism. The irony of the story is at least partly that not everything gives way to the Ran. The bond of Saburo’s respect for his father, like Sue’s pacific forgiveness, is unbearably painful to the old man, and Hidetora regains his lucidity sufficiently to have a genuine, if brief, reconciliation with Saburo; Kurogane, loyal to his master enough to become an assassin, nonetheless refuses to exterminate the innocent. But by story’s end, the vulnerability of these good things in the face of rampant chaos is chillingly recapitulated.
Amongst Kurosawa’s female characters, it tends to be his most desperate victims and his spidery femme fatales that hook most firmly into one’s memory. Isuzu Yamada’s transposed, kabuki-garbed Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood was the most memorable and original aspect of Kurosawa’s cultural translations. Having turned Lear’s daughters into men here, Kurosawa fittingly alters the insidious bastard Edmund into the breathtaking Kaede, and slowly, but surely, Ran turns from the tragedy of Hidetora to the Jacobean saga of Kaede. Having manipulated her first husband into squeezing out Hidetora, she plays Jiro like a violin when he comes to her to take over the house of Ichimonji after arranging Taro’s assassination: having gotten him alone, Kaede slides in close, her dress scuffling in insidious motion, until she’s close enough to pounce on Jiro, steal his dagger, and cut slices in his neck until he begs her forgiveness. Laughing in gleeful mockery of the easily cowered warlord, she shuts all the doors to the room, straddles him, and licks the blood from his neck in an erotic frenzy. It’s a riveting scene that Harada pulls off incredibly well.
Kaede, working from the inside out rather than with armies, moves far beyond victim or even avenger to become a force of total destruction, pushing Jiro into a fatal final battle that sees the Ichimonji realm totally destroyed. Her seduction of Jiro is prelude to this total nihilism, which she seeks to make good by having Sue assassinated: she commissions Kurogane to do it, but in spite of having helped Jiro take over, he balks at such a pointless killing. He instead plays a practical joke on her, presenting the head of a fox sculpture from a shrine in place of Sue’s head, and making an obvious allusion to Kaede being the secret fox devil eating away at the body politic from within. Kurogane instead gives Sue a chance to escape and take Tsurumaru away with her.
The interesting thing about Kaede is that she could easily be considered a tragic heroine, except that she’s given herself so completely to the violent world that she’s become rather a perfect incarnation of the monstrous spirit of the age. Her determination to kill Sue is just as wilful a courting of moral chaos as Hidetora’s and all the more conscious of its meaning: she determines that absolutely nothing will be left behind. In the whirl of slaughter and dissolution with which the film concludes, with Saburo shot dead accidentally, Hidetora so contorted by grief that he flops dead upon him right at the brink of rescue, Kurogane’s being handed Sue’s head by an assassin who got the job done, the film becomes like the ninth circle of hell. Kurosawa cuts violently from the midst of war to the sight of Sue and her handmaiden lying beheaded outside Tsurumaru’s hut, the pastoral beauty of the scene making the juxtaposition all the more grotesque. It’s impossible not to relish Kurogane’s swift retaliation, confronting Kaede, who stonily declares the success of her efforts, and hacking off her head with a single stroke of his sword. It’s as well-deserved and dizzying as movie deaths come, and yet it’s a hopeless gesture in another fashion, simply finishing off Kaede without doing a thing to save the world from what she accomplished.
Kurosawa’s brilliance as an artist of the plastic space of the cinema screen is in constant evidence throughout Ran, including, of course, the symphonic way he shoots the battle scenes, but also in the jarring simplicity of Kaede’s assault on Jiro. Her death is even more startling: Kurosawa’s camera quick-reframes away from where Harada sits at centre frame, craning up slightly, so that she’s sitting just beneath the edge of the frame: when Kurogane swings his weapon, he abruptly paints the wall behind with a geyser of blood like some abstract expressionist hurling paint about. So firm is the impression of this moment you’d swear afterwards, as I did for a long time, that you actually see her head cleft from her shoulders. But there are subtler moments of such cinematic concision, too, including in the eerie scene in which Hidetora, Tango, and Kyoami realise Tsurumaru’s identity, all three men framed around the younger man, their eyes glowing in fearful recognition from out of the shadows, as if they’ve all fused together into some hydra of guilt and fear. The final moments of the film depict Hidetora’s and Saburo’s bodies being marched across the bleak volcanic plain, whilst Tsurumaru, left alone in the universe, stumbles close to the edge of his family castle’s ruin, dropping over the precipice the Buddha icon Sue gave him for safe-keeping. A blind sexless figure teetering without a god on the edge of space—it’s one of those rare closing images that leave you with teeth clenched so hard you wonder if you’ll get them unstuck again.