Kagemusha was an unqualified success for Kurosawa and although there were always complications in getting funds, it was a foregone conclusion that Kurosawa would get the funding he required for his next project. Ran was something of a dream project for Kurosawa, an epic retelling of “King Lear” in the style of Japanese Noh. Despite failing eyesight, Kurosawa painted out the entire movie so there was no mistaking his intent for every shot.
Ran was one of the largest productions ever mounted in Japan when it was shot and would have been a challenge for any director, not to mention a director in his 70s with failing eyesight. But, despite people wanting to give credit to associate director Ishiro Honda, grandmaster of the kaiju film which he created with Godzilla and Kurosawa’s close friend, who undoubtedly was invaluable on set, it’s clear that it’s Kurosawa’s vision driving the film from the first to last frame.
Like Kagemusha, Ran opens with a prologue. In this case it’s a boar hunt with Lord Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), still in possession of his warrior faculties, remorselessly hunting down a boar. After the hunt, we see Ichimonji at the height of his power, enjoying the after hunt success, and jokingly comparing himself to the tough old boar that he hunted down. Considering what the future holds for Ichimonji, it’s an apt comparison as fate will hunt Ichimonji down.
Like The Godfather, Kurosawa reimagines “King Lear” so that Lord Ichimonji has three sons, the eldest Taro (Akira Terao), the middle Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and the youngest Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). There are promises of a wedding to join houses with Lord Ayabe (Jun Tazaki) and Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) both offering up daughters for Saburo. Although perhaps the loser will be better off in that offer as it’s quickly established that Lord Ichimonji has used the gambit of marrying off his sons before not to bring peace, but to lull the other Lords into a sense of security and unwariness so that Lord Ichimonji can conquer them. Lord Ichimonji’s fool Kyoami (the cross-dressing performer known as Peter) makes fun of this gambit provoking condemnation from Taro and Jiro for his provocation. But, nothing from Lord Ichimonji who has fallen asleep in his old age.
Throughout the opening we see Kurosawa’s visual strategy for the film take place. Kurosawa’s camera keeps its distance throughout not going for the extreme close-up. The typical camera angle is slightly above the characters, although Kurosawa breaks that rule as storytelling demands, giving something of a God’s eye view of the characters.
That distancing is maintained when Lord Ichimonji bursts out of his private sanctuary in the grips of a nightmare. It would have been very easy to focus on the nightmare to give insight into Lord Ichimonji- Kagemusha featured a dream sequence and Kurosawa’s next film would focus exclusively on the idea of dreams- but instead Kurosawa chooses to have Lord Ichimonji describe a dream of his isolation. Or perhaps Kurosawa viewed the display of the nightmare as redundant as the rest of the film is something of a fulfillment of that dream.
Like Lear, Lord Ichimonji proposes to divide his kingdom in thirds, with his eldest son Taro having the most power, and Lord Ichimonji being the figurehead. Lord Ichimonji illustrates how he wants his sons to hold together through a visual parable. First he hands out individual arrows which are easily snapped. But a bundle of three arrows is strong. Saburo isn’t buying simple parables and snaps his bundle of three arrows in defiance of the parable and calls the plan foolish and openly wondering if his father has given leave of his senses. Saburo believes that one strong leader is better than even three brothers who can be divided. Saburo adds that perhaps Lord Ichimonji doesn’t deserve to live his final days in peace considering all the enemies he’s made. He’s lived his life without mercy, leaving chaos and bloodshed in his wake, and now he thinks he can walk away from all of that without consequence? Saburo characterizes that idea as madness and senility.
For his frank honesty, Saburo finds himself disinherited and exiled from the kingdom. He’s followed shortly by Lord Ichimonji’s adviser Tango (Masayuki Yui) who requests that Lord Ichimonji reconsider that rash decision. Saburo and Tango soon find themselves on the run, both fearing that Lord Ichimonji had set troops on them. There’s a brief chase ending at a steep dead end, but to their relief they find that they’ve been pursued by Lord Fujimaki. And, to Saburo’s surprise he finds that Lord Fujimaki still wants him for his son-in-law as Fujimaki was impressed by his honesty and strength of character. Tango declines the offer of sanctuary though and insists on staying behind to help Lord Ichimonji, even if he must adopt some lowly disguise.
Lord Ichimonji soon finds reason to regret his decisions. Etiquette demands that his women kneel and let the retinue of Taro’s wife, the Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) pass before them. Lord Ichimonji who’s never known subservience finds it not to his liking. His retirement was to satisfy his pride, but he finds that he already has to compromise on that score.
Lady Kaede isn’t just satisfied with a small victory in etiquette. She pushes her advantage and demands that Taro claim the Ichimonji banner as his own. Lord Ichimonji demanded all the honor of being the Great Lord, but what’s Taro without the ceremonial honors except a shadow of a great lord? Kaede goads Taro into claiming all the honors of a Great Lord. Kurosawa even borrows some of his tricks from Throne of Blood as the swish of Kaede’s kimono is prominent on the soundtrack as she glides through the room.
And with a simple play on Taro’s ego, the seeds of Lord Ichimonji’s downfall are planted. Taro immediately sends a guard out to retrieve the standard. The result is an immediate confrontation between Taro’s guards and Lord Ichimonji’s retainers. It’s not helped by the Fool making fun of Taro via song, comparing Taro to a gourd blowing in the wind.
The result is a near riot as one of Taro’s guard breaks through and attempts to kill the Fool for the insult. An arrow unleashed from Lord Ichimonji saves the Fool, but also creates an irreconcilable breach. The insult turns into an anthem for Lord Ichimonji’s retainers, overlooked by Lord Ichimonji in his bitterness but clearly beyond the breach of etiquette. It’s not long before a “family dinner” is called which turns into a humiliation for Lord Ichimonji as he’s called to formally sign off on the agreement turning over the lands and power to Taro. Lord Ichimonji signs off, but also immediately cuts ties and leaves to spend his days with Jiro.
We get our first glimpse in Lady Kaede’s true nature. The main castle of the Ichimonji clan used to be the home of Kaede’s family. She was sent to marry Taro in hopes of bringing peace to the clan. Instead, they fell to Ichimonji after the ploy caused them to let down their guard. What seemed mere egotism now takes on the form of a revenge scheme fulfilled.
Jiro turns out to be just as ambitious as Kaede. At the urging of his advisers, Jiro’s eyeing how to usurp Taro. Tellingly, everyone in the room regards Kaede as the more dangerous threat. But, they’re confident that they can handle her. Jiro’s chief adviser Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa) even jokes that Jiro should seduce and steal her away. It turns out in his old age, Kurosawa developed a taste for irony.
But, first Jiro has to deal with his father when he arrives at Jiro’s gates. But, it’s perhaps telling that Lord Ichimonji seeks out Jiro’s wife, the Lady Sue(Yoshiko Miyazaki), first. In a couple of brief moments, it’s established that Lady Sue is the opposite of Lady Kaede. Where Lady Kaede nurtured thoughts and plots of revenge for the wrongs done to her family by Lord Ichimonji, Lady Sue has turned to her Buddhist faith. Set against a pink/purple sky, Lord Ichimonji tries to understand her and fails to find comfort in her belief in Karma. Perhaps because he knows to accept Karma would be to admit that he’s damned himself to countless suffering.
Lord Ichimonji isn’t able to deal with Lady Sue as it exposes his past sins. And he’s unprepared for Jiro’s own ruses, still under the assumption that the shallow flattery of his sons can be taken at face value. Jiro claims that Taro has ordered him to turn back Lord Ichimonji’s rude and unruly retainers at the gate by Taro. Lord Ichimonji isn’t having any part of the abandonment of his guards, particularly when Kurogane takes it upon himself to use Lord Ichimonji’s name is shutting out the guards. It’s the use of Lord Ichimonji’s own name that tips him off that Jiro is backing Taro, at least for the moment, and Lord Ichimonji storms out, turning his back on his son.
But, despite the dramatic exit Lord Ichimonji has nowhere to go. He and his retainers soon find themselves wandering the wilderness without food and with every village they approach deserted. Their only choice appears to be to turn to the third castle and see if they can find shelter there. A task that is unappealing considering that Saburo’s men man the fortress.
At least that’s what Lord Ichimonji believes. Taro’s men arrive at the fortress only for Kurosawa to indulge in flourish as Saburo’s men leave to rejoin the man they swore loyalty too. Kurosawa also calls back to the design of the squat castle in Throne of Blood to provide an effective dramatic backdrop for the soldiers.
In the wilderness, Tango arrives with supplies for Lord Ichimonji and his retainers, but through Lord Ichimonji’s pride and a push from Ichimonji’s new adviser Ikoma (Kazuo Kato), who also is playing a double game with Taro. Tango offers sanctuary with Saburo to Lord Ichimonji, but he’s unable to accept that offer through pride and suspicion that it would instigate civil war. At this, the Fool has even had enough and tells Lord Ichimonji how foolish he’s been, which results in the Fool’s banishment as well. All for telling the truth.
Instead Lord Ichimonji rides into the trap of the third castle. Kurosawa emphasizes the closing of the trap through the closing of the gates of the castle. In short order, Kurosawa brings forth one of his greatest spectacles of war as Taro’s and Jiro’s forces attack the third castle in what turns out to be a slaughter. Kurosawa plays much of the sequence as an operatic sequence full of music on the soundtrack while the action itself is given no sound. It’s masses of movement, shown in pans and static shots of warriors and the toll of war, dismemberment and bright blood, colored flashes of muskets, and total chaos given form via Kurosawa’s vision.
The soundless sequence is broken with a gunshot killing Taro via the machinations of Jiro and Kurogane, perhaps signifying the depth of betrayal present in the scene. Lord Ichimonji’s forces are slaughtered and his servants commit ritual suicide leaving him all alone amidst the destruction. He’s not able to follow his servants as he’s not able to find a weapon and instead goes mad amidst the destruction, fire, and flying arrows.
Kurosawa is playing the acting as Noh and, with one exception, there’s no screen between the audience and what the characters are feeling. It’s the opposite of many modern films where dialogue and facial expressions are often concealing of the true emotions, but instead we see the true emotions boil up in each of these characters and then subside. It’s a different way to create characters of depth, but it’s a consistent vision of Kurosawa that shapes the film. This is perhaps the culmination of Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as we see him shattered.
What follows is one of the most striking images of any Kurosawa film as a mad, shattered Lord Ichimonji descends the steps of the burning castle and an army parts before this shattered man. Even the mightiest can be brought low and it’s a reminder of the fleeting illusion of security for anyone.
And with that, Lord Ichimonji wanders out into the desolate windswept wilderness alone, giving vision to his earlier dream.
It’s not long before Lord Ichimonji is found by Tango and the Fool who still haven’t abandoned him. Lord Ichimonji seems to have gone mad, he’s reduced to picking wild flowers in a field, but even in his madness he can’t seem to escape the realization of his past sins. He’s brought to a shelter from the elements tended to by a blind man. Even here he can’t escape his past as the blind man turns out to be Lady Sue’s brother, Tsurumaru (Takeshi Nomura) who Lord Ichimonji blinded in exchange for his life. And the ruins they seek shelter in are the ruins of the castle of Tsumaru’s family, burned to the ground by Lord Ichimonji himself.
As Lord Ichimonji is confronted by his sins, Jiro soon finds himself confronted by his own sins as he reports the death of Taro to Lady Kaede. Lady Kaede is clearly not fooled by Jiro’s lies that Taro died by accident in the battle. The Noh tradition which the Ichimonji clan is characterized by makes them an open book to Kaede who is very much a modern antagonist, keeping her true thoughts to herself.
Jiro takes it upon himself to banish the advisers that betrayed Lord Ichimonji, convinced that he’ll be secure in his position now. At least until Lady Kaede comes to visit him in person. She’s immediately shows who’s in charge by pulling a knife on Jiro, making him admit his sins, and then seducing him. It’s a standout sequence for Mieko Harada who immediately reveals herself as the most formidable character in the movie. She has no conscience, no remorse, and a clear sense of purpose. Of all the characters in the movie, she’s the most modern acutely aware of what type of world they live in.
Kaede is a true predator using feigned female weakness to flatter and manipulate Jiro. Post-coital, she uses crocodile tears, she pauses to kill a moth in the midst of her sobs, to further win over Jiro. With her hooks set in, she demands that Jiro not just divorce Sue but have her murdered so that she can be the only living woman that knows Jiro intimately. In a perverse bit, she demands Lady Sue’s head, packed in salt.
Meanwhile, the advisers that betrayed Lord Ichimonji have the misfortune to pass Tango, the Fool, and Lord Ichimonji in the wilderness. And in a glorious deep focus, long take we see Tango run down the fleeing traitors. For the first time in the film, Kurosawa gives Lord Ichimonji hope that order can be restored and justice doled out to his betrayers. Before they die, the traitors reveal that Jiro killed Taro alerting Tango to the depths that the Ichimonji clan has descended to.
With that information, Tango decides that they must go to Saburo. Since Lord Ichimonji won’t go to Saburo, Tango decides that he’ll have to bring Saburo to Lord Ichimonji to convice the Lord that there is a place for him and that there’s at least one son that still loves him. So Tango sets out leaving Lord Ichimonji in the care of the Fool. That duty proves to be much to the Fool’s chagrin that given the chance, he can’t just abandon his Lord who he’s served since youth. Perhaps that action confirms that he is a fool, still fulfilling his childhood duties and never quite becoming a man in his own right, no matter the truths he speaks.
Kurogane, who had earlier warned Jiro to beware of Kaede’s machinations, goes further to illustrate his point by bringing back a stone fox head in place of the head of Sue. With the head, Kurogane brings along a parable about bewaring foxes and the destruction they can bring and to consider that foxes are reputed to be able to change shapes. This infuriates Kaede, especially since Kurogane seems to be the one person she can’t manipulate. But, Kaede doesn’t need Kurogane since she controls Jiro and she merely orders him to send a different assassin after Sue.
Kurogane has sent Sue and Tsurumaru fleeing and they stop at their family castle, which begins the process of bringing the principals of the cast into their final configuration. Within those castle walls, Lord Ichimonji and the Fool have taken shelter. Lord Ichimonjibreaks down again releasing the evil he’s unleashed and how small and inconsequential he is in the world. A view that Kurosawa underlines with the choice of extreme overhead angles, the God’s eye view, emphasizing how small these characters are in the world.
The final movements are well in place as Saburo and his men cross back into Ichimonji territory to retrieve Lord Ichimonji.
Lord Fujimaki mobilizes his own troops, at the border, to support Saburo which also ups the tensions. Jiro must confront that show of force by mobilizing his own troops, but the kingdom is on the brink of war, only lacking a spark.
Enter Lady Kaede.
Kaede advises Jiro that it’s the leaders skill in battle that will determine the day. She advises that Jiro agree to let Saburo retrieve Lord Ichimonji, with the provision that Jiro send a squad of snipers to kill Lord Ichimonji. Jiro’s army can deal with the fellow Lords afterwards. It’s advice that Jiro accepts.
Fate is something that Kurosawa doesn’t address specifically, but seems to have plans for Lord Ichimonji. A flippant remark from the Fool causes Lord Ichimonji to jump from the walls of the ruined castle. But instead of finding death, he lands, via luck or fate, unhurt in a soft pile of sand. At least until Lord Ichimonji sees Lady Sue and Tsurumaru on the walls of the castle, which brings him back to reality and sends him fleeing from his own guilt again as he’s convinced he’s in hell.
The final moves of the chess game of the film come with a messenger from Jiro. Kurosawa apparently waited the whole day for the right opportunity and the messenger rides between two armies in the shadow of a cloud. It’s a subtle but ominous visual symbol of where the story is going and the nature of the message as a trap.
It’s a trap that Saburo foresees, but also one that he can’t readily avoid as Lord Ayabe decides to mass his forces on a far ridge forcing the issue. There’s enormous pageantry with the four brightly colored forces on the field of battle. Ran is one of the great spectacles of the analog era showing what a director of vision and persistence can achieve.
Saburo and Jiro aren’t the only one facing pressures. Tsurumaru has forgotten his flute, his only comfort, as he as Sue have fled. Sue sent a servant for the flute but when the servant hasn’t returned, she takes it upon herself to investigate, leaving Tsurumaru with the protective image of the Buddha.
Saburo also abandons his plans of waiting as Lord Ichimonji’s flight into madness results in the Fool losing him. The Fool is brought to Saburo with news that the Lord is missing and decides that he can’t wait. Not with Jiro’s forces in the area. So, fatefully, Saburo sets out with Jiro’s assassins in pursuit.
The final confrontations are all that’s left.
Saburo finds Lord Ichimonji and they reconcile. What’s more, Saburo’s forces successfully repel Jiro’s forces when they attack. For the first time there’s hope that the story won’t end in disaster.
But that’s only a prelude for Kurosawa to dash all hopes. A sniper kills Saburo shattering Lord Ichimonji’s hope of spending his remaining days surrounded by love. There’s nothing but heartache left for him and, perhaps mercifully, he dies.
Jiro fares no better. Not only are his forces defeated on the field of battle, but Lord Ayabe has pulled off a ruse using the high ridge to disguise that what appears to be a main army is only a token force. Kurosawa uses filmmaking tricks of how to make a smaller group look bigger in and must have been quite pleased with himself to incorporate it in a major film. Instead, Lord Ayabe is marching on the unprotected main castle and Jiro and his forces must scramble back even though they know there’s no time to mount a proper defense. Kurogane recognizes it as the destruction of the clan.
Kaede has one final moment as Kurogane arrives just in time to receive the head of Sue prior to their ultimate destruction. It’s a final, pointless piece of cruelty by Kaede. A point she happily concedes as she confesses that her ultimate goal wasn’t power but the total destruction of the Ichimonji clan in revenge for her own family’s destruction. If there is a villain of Ran it is Lady Kaede, who practically rejoices in the chaos and destruction she’s unleashed. It’s short lived as Kurogane deals with her in a spectacular stroke of his sword, splattering the walls with blood, as nobody gets to celebrate the death and destruction unleashed. It’s perhaps as meaningless ultimately as any other death in the film, it doesn’t prevent the destruction of the clan, but it’s spectacular and the only real bone that Kurosawa throws the audience.
Forgotten in all the chaos is Tsurumaru. But, Kurosawa focuses the final moments on him in a series of axial cuts from the funeral procession of Saburo and Lord Ichimonji. Tsurumaru wanders on the castle walls and comes to an edge unexpectedly dropping his protective scroll of the Buddha. In the end, Tsurumaru is alone, in a precarious spot, and unprotected. It’s the final image of the film and sums up much of what Kurosawa has been striving for in his bleak vision.
At the end of “King Lear”, there’s a promise that order will be restored. There is no such promise at the end of Ran. The bad have been punished, but so have the good. Sue is dead as Lady Kaede’s evil carries on. The blind Tsurumaru stands at the edge of a cliff, perhaps as a statement on the plight of mankind, where any step could be disaster with no promise of salvation. It’s the bleakest ending of all of Kurosawa’s films and one of the most powerful. It shows a bitterness of a man who had known triumphs and disappointments in his life and unleashed his darkest thoughts in his art. It’s not hard to link Kurosawa, with his failing eyesight, to Tsumaru and find Kurosawa considering his imminent mortality.
Despite its bleakness, Ran is a joy to sit through. It’s both beautiful and savage. It’s full of grand imagery and little moments of character. Kurosawa even manages to sneak some humor into the film, often through Peter’s memorable performance as the Fool but also in little gestures such as Jiro’s reaction to Kurogane’s gun holding in the aftermath of Taro’s assassination.
Ran opened to immediate acclaim as a masterpiece and the years have not diminished that assessment. Due to multi-country financing and the Academy’s convoluted eligibility requirements, Ran wasn’t nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but received nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design (which it deservedly won), and Best Director, Kurosawa’s one and only nomination in that category. The fact that Kurosawa didn’t win is among the Academy’s many sins, but the nomination alone was proof of Kurosawa’s triumph.
Ran is also directly responsible for the very existence of this column. I first crossed paths with Kurosawa in December 1985 watching clips of Ran on Siskel and Ebert’s program. Immediately, I was in love with the vivid colors and unforgettable imagery. It took a while for me to see Ran, but it was the first Kurosawa film I saw and I made sure to see it projected on the big screen for maximum impact. The effect of Ran on my life has been immeasurable and it will stick with me for the rest of my days.
Ran would prove to be Kurosawa’s last epic. Age would prevent Kurosawa from ever tackling as challenging an undertaking again and after Ran. And, frankly, I don’t think Kurosawa wanted to. Prior to Ran, Kurosawa usually answered the question of what did he consider his greatest film with “My next one.” Afterwards, he simply answered the question with “Ran”. Kurosawa wasn’t done making movies, but the final direction of his career would be small and personal, with his very next movie plumbing the very depths of his own subconscious.
Next Time: DREAMS (1990)