Stillness and Spectacle
While discussing the art of filmmaking, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once said, “There is something that might be called cinematic beauty. It can only be expressed in a film, and it must be present in a film for that film to be a moving work. When it is very well expressed, one experiences a particularly deep emotion while watching that film.” An overview of Kurosawa’s body of work shows that he clearly knew what he was talking about. From his classic films of the fifties, such as Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai 1954), to the experimental works of his later years, including 1990’s Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Yume), this master director has presented us with some of cinema’s most moving tales and stunning images. In 1985’s Ran (Chaos), now in theatrical re-release, Kurosawa achieves an almost perfect fusion of storyteller and painter.
Ran is Kurosawa’s version of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. He resets this oft-told tale of sibling rivalry and thirst for power in 16th century Japan, focused on the Ichimonji clan. Under the guidance of Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the Great Lord, the Ichimonjis have gained control of a great deal of territory. Now, over a half century after his first conquest, Lord Hidetora has decided to step down and cede control of his dominion to his oldest son, Taro (Akira Terao); he also grants regional control of two smaller castles to his other two sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisake Ryu). Upon objecting to the plan as being foolish, Saburo is banished by his father, who takes up residence with Taro. Taro, craftily manipulated by his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), begins to resent his father’s presence, so Hidetora leaves to live with Jito.
After a falling out with Jito, Hidetora takes his small army and sets up residence in the third castle, unoccupied since Sabura’s departure. Still under Kaede’s guidance, Taro declares his father mad, and, along with Jito, destroys his army and castle. Left to wander the hills, accompanied only by his court jester, Hidetora does indeed slip into madness, betrayed by his family and haunted by the souls of those he has slain. Taro is also slain in the battle, leaving Jito as sole ruler. News of the family’s trouble quickly reaches Saburo, who comes to rescue his father. This sets up a climatic battle between the two sons, with two of the former ruler’s adversaries waiting at the border in hopes that the family will completely destroy itself.
As the above synopsis indicates, Kurosawa follows the structure of Shakespeare’s play with great care. This would seem to guarantee a director success as a storyteller, but there are numerous examples of Shakespearean adaptations that have been failures (Jocelyn Moorhouse’s film of A Thousand Acres, also a reworking of Lear, is a prime example). It is Kurosawa’s ability to stick with the original story while infusing it with his respect for Japanese culture, history, and themes, for instance, respect for the elderly and honoring one’s commitments, that makes this version so gripping.
We come to know these characters as individuals, and while they share personality traits with their Shakespearean counterparts, they also represent various and particular aspects of the Japanese hierarchy. For instance, Lady Kaede is considered by many to be controlling and calculating, but the viewer learns that her motivations are based in the fact that Hidetora killed her parents when she was a child and it is her need to honor her parents’ memory that makes her drive a wedge in the Ichimonji house. While she’s never likable, we can’t help but feel empathy for her, and, as played by Harada, she emerges as one of the most complex women in Kurosawa’s films.
The director, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, pays further homage to Shakespeare by presenting much of the film in a theatrical format. In most of the non-action scenes, the camera moves very little (reflecting traditional Japanese filmmaking) and there are few close-ups of the actors as they deliver their lines. With the camera serving as the “fourth wall,” viewers feel as though they are watching a staged play, even when the setting is the side of a hill or the ruins of an ancient castle. Although the settings are often immense, the scenes’ stillness often gives the impression of a three-dimensional presentation.
Kurosawa’s storyboard for the Third Castle upon Hidetora’s arrival.
Many of the sets and settings resemble the stark stages of classic Greek and Japanese theater, reinforcing the idea that we are watching a great tragedy unfold. There are no random props or movements here. Pay attention as Kaede reveals the story of her parents’ death to Taro. The slightest change in expression reveals the complexity of emotions that both Kaede and Taro feel. Many directors would have played this scene grandly, but Kurosawa trusts his actors to reveal the drama while they remain virtually motionless.
Interspersed with these scenes are sweeping scenes of battle. Each of Hidetora’s sons marches under a different color banner, with matching uniforms worn by their respective troops, so that the fight scenes are awash in a sea of color. These images are visual masterpieces, exploring both the immensity of war and its individual tragedies. One moment we see masses of troops emerging from a haze of smoke; in the next, a lone soldier sitting beside his dead comrades, staring at his own severed arm. Such a juxtaposition creates poignancy as well as spectacle, at the same time that it crosses cultural boundaries. The film blends old and new, East and West. While the sets and costumes are 16th-century Japanese, the brilliant photographic techniques bring us back into the twentieth century, as does the soundtrack, which combines traditional Japanese music and modern Western orchestration.
Fifteen years after it was first released, Ran still plays out as an moral lesson on family honor. Those who have not seen it owe it to themselves to see a masterwork of cinema; those who have seen it only on video should treat themselves to the grandeur that only the big screen can display. I first saw the film when it was released in 1981. I recall sitting in the theater, amazed at the completeness of this film. My second viewing of the film has only confirmed what I knew then: that I have seen “cinematic beauty.”