Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 42 min.
Release Date: December 20th, 1985 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Akira Kurosawa Actors: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Hisashi Igawa, Masayuki Yui, Kazuo Kato
elebrating a successful wild boar hunt, three noble elders discuss marriages between their children to strengthen their friendships. Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) son Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) is an eligible bachelor, but has much to learn in the ways of diplomacy with revered guests. His other sons, Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), aren’t as discourteous and hotheaded (all three are visually color-coded with blue, yellow, and red, respectively, through costumes and flags and adornments). When 70 year-old Ichimonji seemingly falls ill on the grassy field, he’s inspired to step down as lord of his domain and bestow his empire and command to his oldest son, Taro, who will reside in the mighty First Castle. He also decrees that Jiro and Saburo shall control the remaining two towers. But when Saburo insults his father with claims of senility or madness, and jealously warns of eventual familial betrayal and unrest in these times of war, Ichimonji banishes Saburo from his house, along with faithful royal adviser, Tango (Masayuki Yui).
Lord Ayabe (Jun Tazaki), having witnessed the events, withdraws the offer of his daughter, but Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) is impressed with the bold display. He invites Saburo to stay with him and proposes his own daughter as Saburo’s bride. Back at the Ichimonji castle, further problems arise when Hidetora questions his own decisions and Taro becomes concerned with how much power he truly possesses. In short time, Taro, guided by his conniving wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), demands that his father sign a covenant, ceding all authority to the new lord. Meanwhile, Jiro plots to overthrow Taro, determining that he won’t bow to his sibling for the rest of his life all because of something as trivial as being born a single year later. Jiro, too, alienates Ichimonji, leaving the once-great king isolated in the wilderness, too proud to apologize or make amends with his greedy, power-hungry children. When Taro and Jiro coordinate an ultimate strike, the entire domain is left open to war by observing territories.
From the first few moments, Saburo is painted as an impudent fool, speaking out against his father and abandoning loyalty and honor. But as the film progresses, it becomes a masterful trick to have illustrated the deceptiveness of unsteady allegiances and avaricious motivations, while simultaneously restoring all three sons to a point of relatable perspectives. Saburo’s prophecy comes true, marking him as the wisest – but no less ill-fated – foreseer of destined tragedy.
Charged with the cinematic qualities of epical samurai films, “Ran” is brimming with shifting fealties and shady advisors, vengeful intentions, decades-long brewing hatred, inevitable backstabbing, tortured ghosts from the past, insanity, corruption, remorse, fate, warriors, assassins, and the manipulative puppetmaster woman behind the scenes who wields the very real power of persuasion. Although both Lady Kaede and Jiro’s wife Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki) are remnants of conquered clans (understandably filled with animosity), only Kaede foments turmoil to vanquish her enemies and retain high status. Electrifyingly, her twisted wrath is more ominous than the brutality of the surrounding warlords.
Famously, “Ran” is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (and daimyo legends), but writer/director Akira Kurosawa brilliantly changes the setting to feudal Japan to tell a tale completely in his realm of filmmaking expertise. Crisp, vivid cinematography ((it’s almost all outdoor shots, basked alternately in sunlight and fog), blood-spattered mise en scènes, splendid costuming, carefully poised players, and gloriously large-scale battle choreography (the onslaught of the Third Castle mirrors the terrifying elegance of “The Godfather’s” stirring baptism sequence) decorate the happenings. Additionally, awe-inspiring editing of momentous orchestral music (by Tôru Takemitsu) is utilized to drown out sound effects, creating a nearly dreamlike wonder to the violent action. “Ran” is an arresting amalgamation of unforgettable imagery, of which particularly striking moments include the careful unwrapping of a severed head; Ayabe’s considerable forces amassing on the hillside as a backdrop to Saburo’s silhouette; Ichimonji’s tormented, ghastly, pale visage as he descends the castle steps, petrified and awaiting death; and immense stone towers billowing orange flames as arrows streak across the screen. It’s breathtaking as only Kurosawa can realize, and smartly stuffed with details and complexities for an appropriately weighty exercise in power and corruption.
– Mike Massie