[Originally published in The Weekly, December 25, 1985]
Somewhere in the 16th-century Japan of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, four horsemen—a warlord and his three sons—sit atop a hill, each facing a different point of the compass. The world spreads below them and, in Kurosawa’s high-angled, space-collapsing telephoto compositions, above them, too. The surrounding vastness of hill and vale is like a great green wave, at once the measure of the horsemen’s noble sway and a trembling surge, perhaps only momentarily arrested, that might break over them at any time.
When the poet-hero of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, his creativity straitjacketed by easy popularity, approached an old mentor for advice, the sage’s response was brutally succinct: “Astonish us!” Cocteau’s poet was a man in his prime; Akira Kurosawa is 75 years of age. Yet with his new film Ran, this magisterial motion picture director, universally and rather complacently accorded the status of old master for more years than most of us can remember, has usurped the prerogative of young geniuses in the arts: He astonishes us, and then astonishes again, and again.
Kurosawa didn’t plan to resume astonishing us so late in the day. Ran has been on his mind for at least ten years, but the unhappy fact is that, for at least twice that period of time, the man who put Japan on the international film map has been regarded as unbankable in his native land. His last independent production, the 1965 Red Beard, managed to recover its considerable production costs, but it also consolidated Kurosawa’s reputation as a perfectionist whose obsession with quality at every level, from the most incidental detail of physical production to the most rarified of aesthetic ambitions, might spell ruin for his financial backers. After his first color film, the stylized Dodes’ka–den (1970), lost money, and a commitment to direct the Japanese sequences of Twentieth Century Fox’s Tora! Tora! Tora! fell through, Kurosawa had to make Dersu Uzala (1975) as a Russian-French co-production. (It won the Soviets an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.) Kagemusha (1980), his Dostoevskyan tale of impersonation and redemption in feudal Japan, earned international honors (a grand prize at Cannes and another Oscar nomination); but it got made only after George Lucas and Francis Coppola lent their names as executive producers and tacit voices of pecuniary realism.
At a cost of $8.5 million, Kagemusha was the most expensive film ever produced in Japan. Ran ups that ante by $3 million. Such figures are, of course, chickenfeed by Hollywood standards (even a comparative chamber drama such as Kramer vs. Kramer cost $11 million, and that in 1979 dollars). More crucial to the point, every dollar of Ran‘s budget is thrillingly visible onscreen, and not only in several awesome action sequences whose power and kineticism make Star Wars look like fingerpainting. Above all, one is struck by the concentration of Kurosawa’s images. Those millions went into visualizing a world which the director had imagined first in his mind’s eye and then in a decade’s worth of paintings and storyboards—every tower, every gate, every screened chamber and sweep of withered plain essential to the meaning and majesty of Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear.
Kurosawa’s Lear is the Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, who has come to that first emblematic hilltop in the film to hunt boar. The day seems altogether fine. His sons are by his side, and so, too, are his two oldest rivals, now aged and honored companions of the hunt. It is the 70-year-old Hidetora himself who, standing straight and tall in the stirrups during a thundering ride along the horizon, fires the fatal arrow home. But a man is allotted only so many good days. From the high ground Hidetora can see the castle where he was born, the fields of his many battles. The landscape of his life is now peaceful. Impulsively, the lord announces his decision to hand over this dominion forthwith to his eldest son, whom he enjoins his other sons to support.
Taro, the eldest, makes a fulsome declaration of filial respect. Saburo, the youngest, and most loved and loving, snorts at his brother’s fatuous rhetoric. Enraged, Hidetora banishes Saburo from his sight, and with him the faithful retainer, Tango, who attempts to reason with the lord on Saburo’s behalf. In one impassioned moment, the solidarity of the Ichimonji clan is shattered. Hidetora, though he cannot begin to guess it at the time, has taken the first step toward becoming a homeless ghost in his own land.
Substitute three daughters for three sons, Kent for Tango, an English heath for the Japanese plain, and you’re well embarked on describing the terms in which Kurosawa has transposed Shakespeare’s most terrible tragedy. But Ran isn’t filmed Shakespeare—of which there are many, mostly cinematically feeble examples—but rather, Shakespearean film. Like Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ great distillation of Falstaff, and Kurosawa’s own phantasmagoric Throne of Blood (after Macbeth), Ran is a full-fledged re-imagining of Shakespeare in cinematic language intrinsic to the filmmaker’s vision of the world and its ways. “Ran” translates as “chaos,” but the aesthetic order that defines that chaos and makes it so hurtfully knowable is Kurosawa’s own.
Peter Hogue once observed that Kurosawa’s films are remarkable foremost for their physicality. Hence, although the political and emotional shockwaves that spread from that first divisive set-piece on the hilltop are faithful to Shakespeare’s drama, what strikes one most vividly are the look and the sounds of the scene. Hidetora and his companions sit decorously against a screen that displays the Ichimonji heraldry while protecting the party from an excess of breeze. Yet the very forces of nature which these appointments seek to tame assert themselves throughout. When Hidetora speaks of his heroic past, Kurosawa cuts to an amazing shot of a great boiling white cloud—the tallest cloud you’ve ever seen, so tall that the screen strains to contain it. The lord nods off in the middle of a toast, and the others withdraw discreetly to the other side of the cloth barrier. As the sons discuss their father’s evident decline, one of them grows embarrassed for the sake of the other lords present and dispatches Kyoami, the Fool, to waken the old man. Before Kyoami can part the screens, Hidetora plunges through them, the cloth flapping as in a sudden gust of wind; he has had a terrible dream, and is now resolved to announce his abdication. Overhead, the sun has moved and the cloud is now slate-gray, riven by rays of light that seem to have burst from within it and now slant their separate ways toward earth.
And the wind. Sometimes in this movie it seems as if that indifferent, desiccating breath of the gods were what all other sounds aspired to, up to and including the Great Lord’s last heartbreaking moan. On the first leg of his pilgrimage after being expelled from the eldest son’s, formerly his own, castle, Hidetora rants and storms and orders his small band of warriors to expend his wrath on a deserted peasant village; at the moment he is told that the peasants have fled rather than obey the new lord’s order—that Hidetora has been banished and should be denied aid and shelter—he collapses, stricken, and the scream of locusts, hitherto a dull, undefined background noise, rises in an intolerable suggestion of sympathy and mockery. Shortly thereafter, at the onset of a horrific battle in which Hidetora’s small band of retainers will be decimated, the soundtrack falls eerily hushed: We see the clamor of battle, see the wind as figured in the streaming rush of soldiers and arrows and smoke, but one of our senses seems momentarily deadened, in shock like Hidetora himself. That he should emerge from this roiling hell a madman is something we feel in our bones.
Lear country is, after all, nothing new to Kurosawa. His tragic instinct has always been strongly tempered by a bleak absurdism, and his characters are no strangers to folly. The now-mad, now-lucid Hidetora’s endlessly renewed confrontation with the shades of his old guilts and monuments to murder transpires in a landscape similar to the lunar desert of The Hidden Fortress, the muddy killing ground of The Seven Samurai, the poisonous town in Yojimbo to which the wandering samurai is introduced by the sight of a prancing dog with a severed human hand in its teeth. The difference here is, perhaps, a matter of tone more than anything else. Ran feels the way a summum masterwork is supposed to feel—at once profoundly reflective and uncompromisingly direct; definitive with the weight of the author’s experience, as an artist and as a man, yet as thrilling in its vitality as the breakthrough work of a major new talent.
Not for a moment do we forget that Ran is first and foremost a great director’s film, but he’s served by an excellent cast. Tatsuya Nakadai, Mifune’s redoubtable adversary in Yojimbo and Sanjuro and the Dostoevskyan pawn of Kagemusha, lends himself body and soul to Kurosawa’s design. His Hidetora is both hieratic and fullblooded, a gaunt scarecrow of a heath lord and a soul harrowed by the relentless evidence of his own culpability in the debt his whole bloodline and land must pay. He’s larger, more exaggerated than life, and the dynamics of the scenario require him, especially in the latter half of the film, to be something of a lunatic maypole round which other characters dance. But just when we’ve begun to forget his humanity, he startles us with a lightning-stroke of invention. After signing a blood oath of fealty to his son, he balls up the wad of paper with which he has blotted his finger and casts it away, simultaneously standing straight up off his mat; the sudden, small gesture is as explosive as a cannon shot, more eloquent than a tear. And when, on the heath, the Fool wearies of his constant remorse and asks why he doesn’t just throw himself off a cliff, he instantly obliges, lifting spindle-shanked as a heron and dropping out of frame.
The other extraordinary performance in the film is given by Mieko Harada as this Lear‘s sex-changed Edmund, a Lady Macbeth type who goads first one Ichimonji son and then another into doing her ruinous will. It’s a ferocious portrait of sexual politics with, and for, a vengeance—though Lady Kaede’s definitive signature is, again, a directorial coup. Every time she comes into view, she is preceded by the rustle of her silken robe. It’s a chilling sound, full of death and old bones and smothered screams. She’s a shroud that purrs.
Copyright © 1985 by Richard T. Jameson