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Akira Kurosawa, a famous Japanese film director, released his historical epic Ran in 1985. I decided to watch this movie because I was interested to see a good Japanese historical film, because I had long intended to see something directed by Kurosawa, and because I had read that it was based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. I must say, it was a curious experience to see a European play in the medieval Japanese setting. While I have mixed impressions, I agree that Ran is a great work.
Ran is based on King Lear and on the Japanese medieval legends. Although the plot follows the collisions of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Kurosawa has made different accents. As in King Lear, it is a story about an aging king who was so naïve to believe the flattering of his elder sons and so crazy to reject his youngest son for straightforwardness. Similarly, it is a story of pride, betrayal, madness, loyalty, and filial piety.
However, it is in the first turn a story about war and the consequences of one’s actions. The very name of the movie, Ran, means “chaos”. Kurosawa’s Lear, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, has waged war on his neighbors all his life. At the age of 70, he finally wants peace and does not find it. His youngest son Saburo warns him that he should not expect loyalty and friendship from his children because he raised them in war. Saburo’s prophecy comes true, and his elder sons humiliate the father and plot against each other. Wherever Hidetora goes, he reaps the fruits of his mercilessness. His elder daughter-in-law hates him and his family; he remembers plundering the castle of his elder daughter-in-law; his middle son Jiro orders a murder of the elder brother Taro; the only man who helped him had earlier been blinded according to his order; finally, Hidetora finds his last refuge in the castle he ruined. Roger Ebert notices, “In "Ran" we sometimes get the impression that life is hurtling past Hidetoro, who wanders from one tragedy to another, pushing in from the margins, bewildered”. Instead of rest and peace, he feels pain and remorse. Moreover, the whole land plunges into a civil war. Curiously, Ebert considered that the film was an allusion to Kurosawa’s own life in the jealous and merciless world of film industry.
The film is very picturesque. It shows bright green hills and stone castles of medieval Japan. In the peaceful time, multicolored bright garments stand out against the green background. During the war, single color prevails. It is scary to see how the yellow-clad Taro’s warriors flood the valley; the same feeling, only still bloodier, arises from red-clad Jiro’s army. The colors of war are the red of blood and the black of ashes.
Kurosawa managed to convey the impression of a real medieval battle. For me, the battles looked more real and impressive than anything else, perhaps because they were so realistic. Ebert explains, “He uses several static cameras to film the action, cutting between them; because his cameras don't dart and whirl, we are not encouraged to think of ourselves as participants but as gods, observing, taking the long view here and then a closeup look”. Kurosawa did not spare dramatic details, such as the mutual suicide of Hidetora’s concubines or a soldier sitting in shock at the gate amidst the battle and holding his own dismembered arm. I think, these war scenes shift the accent in the movie to a more universal and fatalistic vision.
The camerawork is remarkable. I enjoyed the contrast of rest and motion, such as motionless human figures against the slightly moving background. For example, in the opening shots, the horsemen were standing still against the hills, but the grass was fluttering from the wind. In the same way, the clouds moved while the company talks after the hunt. On the other hand, the ancient green hills in the background are still and silent while Jiro’s army marches by. The only place that is absolutely dead is the ruined castle where Hidetora hides at the end. The siege scenes are particularly impressive: they are brutal and strangely silent, as if in a shock or a dream; only orchestral music adds the dramatic effect.
It was difficult for me to understand the acting. The mimic and movements of the actors were different from American or European. Unless it is heavy motion, the postures are almost immovable, the gestures are scarce, and the faces expressionless. It is probably the difference between the Japanese and Western style of acting. At some moments, acting seemed theatrical. However, the actors expressed the feelings of the characters clearly. I was particularly impressed by Tatsuya Nakadai who acted Hidetora; he managed to show the depth of his hurt pride and despair with his unbending posture, only by his eyes. Another strong impression was Mieko Harada, who played Lady Kaede, the eldest daughter-in-law. Her face with pinched and painted high eyebrows was emotionless, she almost never showed her hate and strength until she got to power. However, in the end, she could not keep her malice and impatience when she hurriedly stretched for her rival’s head. Ledi Kaede’s character reminds of another Shakespearean villain, Lady Macbeth.
It was interesting to observe the difference between Shakespeare’s plot and Kurosawa’s screenplay. As I mentioned above, the film follows the original play closely but is not identical with it. There are an old king and three children, a fool, a loyal servant, a blind man, and everybody dies at the end. For instance, the tragic end upset me greatly. I hoped that Kurosawa would deviate from King Lear’s plot and leave the loyal Saburo alive. Moreover, the change of daughters for male counterparts also contributes to the shift of accents. Peter Bradshaw in his review says, “What the gender-shift does is foreground the violence, machismo and paranoia, which feed into staggering battle scenes”. Despite its European roots, Kurosawa’s movie is unmistakably Japanese due to its ethnic flavor and spirit.
It is a great movie, and I decided to see more Kurosawa’s works. For me, it left a disturbing feeling that I had failed to grasp something essential. Probably, this feeling roots in cultural differences. Due to Ran, I became genuinely interested in the Japanese cinematography.
My Criteria for Quality in Film
- For a good movie, good humor is important. It is not necessary to make the viewer laugh, however. Though Ran is an epic tragedy, it was funny when Lady Kaede received a ceramic head of a fox instead of Lady Sue’s head, and Kurogane seriously tried to convince her of the werefox.
- A quality movie owes much to the work of the cameraman. Masterly camerawork helps to create the charm of the movie and the right impression.
- After Ran, I realized that I prefer movies with a happy or at least an open end. There are enough sad endings in real life, and happy ends give hope that an alternative is possible.
- A good movie should have a message. I do not believe in “art for art’s sake.” I consider that a movie should demonstrate ideas and educate without being boring. Cinema is such a powerful art that it has no right to teach bad.
- Good movies create a special atmosphere. For example, in Ran, many scenes capture and keep still transient moments. It is similar to the Japanese poetry.