Propelled by airy woodwind dirges and a palpable queasiness, Ran illustrates its foreboding narrative through pronounced use of color, personifying fear and betrayal through custard yellow and fiery red. The expressiveness of the makeup, which mirrors the theatrical nature of the performances, stresses a blackness around the eyes and shadowing on the brow, drawing grief to the surface on the visage of our tragic protagonist. The photography is just as expressive, sparking transitions in the storyline through shots of drifting clouds, blossoming like lilies atop the azure sky in placid moments and pouring out like black ink over the heavens as glory fades and conceit overshadows familial allegiance.
Set in Feudal Japan, Ran opens in a state of harmonious silence, speaking volumes about its characters through studied observance, spying them as they rest in a lush meadow and the mild winds rustle through long blades of grass. Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the aged, but virile, patriarch of the Ichimonji Clan, celebrates a boar hunt with his sons and political leadership from neighboring territories, savoring the performance of his hōkan against the backdrop of a forested mountain range. In an uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability, the great warrior falls asleep, allowing the bowl of sake to slide from his grasp and onto the moist ground. He awakens in a state of panic, recalling a dream that placed him in an open field, out of reach of his children and most trusted advisors.
Accepting the “ravages of age,” the warlord surrenders his empire to his eldest boy, Taro (Akira Terao), secure that the peace fostered during his tenure will continue throughout his son’s reign. Demonstrating the bond of family, Hidetora teaches a lesson to his offspring, having each snap a single arrow and then allowing them to struggle to crack a bundle of three. Made uneasy by Hidetora’s bewildered and ebullient state, Saburo (Daisuke Ryû), his youngest and most outspoken son, attempts to muzzle his father’s soul-bearing monologue, only to be chastised by his groveling elder siblings. Emphasizing the lack of “fidelity” between the brothers, Saburo defiantly breaks the sheaf over his knee, provoking an extreme reaction from his bemused patriarch. In a state of unbridled rage, the monarch banishes his insolent successor, unaware that the discourteous display was intended to safeguard the clan from insidious interlopers.
The diegetic sound employed during the opening sequence, incorporating crickets, birds and the aforementioned wind, demonstrates the contrast between the natural order and the belligerent men that inhabit the Earth, their dominion over the environment tarnishing the terrain. Thematically, this lust for supremacy and the suffering that follows parallel the source of Ran’s inspiration, William Shakespeare’s King Lear, both works placing emphasis on the impermanence of power and the futility of man’s resistance to death. Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation, however, openly embraces irony, revealed through Hidetora’s swift transition from nobleman to transient and the tragic funeral procession that transpires in the final reel.
Within hours of the hunt, Hidetora is pressured into signing a “covenant” with the self-serving Taro, emasculating the once formidable master before his court. Ashamed and ailing, Hidetora seeks asylum with Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), his middle child, but discovers that the burgeoning political alliances between his kith and kin can only function through his submission. As he progressively detaches from reality and wanders the plains seeking shelter, the lord is forced to seek clemency from his exiled son, realizing that the consequences of his misgivings have come home to roost. The glare of the blistering sun and screeching of birds overhead befit the distress that overwhelms Hidetora’s face, his mouth agape in horror as he fathoms his utter folly.
Unfortunately, the dejected Saburo has taken up residency with Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), leaving his vacant castle open for siege, a scheme hastily orchestrated by his conniving siblings. As they storm the fortress, natural sound fades, lending an operatic, ceremonial tone to the choreographed brutality. Photographed at dusk, the battlefield bears a striking resemblance to the abattoir, as dirt rustled by charging horse hooves and pools of cherry red blood blanket the strewn corpses like an afghan. Arrows and bullets careen through the air, arcing into windows of the stronghold as Hidetora attempts to thwart the charging soldiers, breaking the blade of his sword on the first swing.
The clash for Saburo’s castle is the film’s centerpiece, both as an uncompromising vision of war and final stage of Hidetora’s psychological collapse. Scrambling in a last ditch effort to protect himself, the feeble royal is stranded without a weapon in a burning tower, the profound metaphor of his impotence dancing beside him as flickering orange flames. He stumbles out of the citadel in a daze, the armor clad foot soldiers parting “like the sea for Israel,”* flanking him in malevolent shades of red and yellow, symbols of the bloodshed and fire that swept over the palace walls. From that moment forward, Hidetora is a ghost, roaming through the mist without a domicile, existing only as a pawn in the wargames conducted by his rapacious progeny.
Ran is an astounding display of directorial confidence, capturing the fury of imperfect men and immensity of battle with a delicate hand and unfathomable depth of vision, identical in its accentuation of character development and production design. Akira Kurosawa’s aptitude for merging interpersonal morality play with rousing combat setpiece has never been more evident, utilizing his visual grandeur as a vehicle for symbols that render man insignificant against the magnitude of the landscape.
*Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. New York, NY: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Ran (StudioCanal, 1985)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by William Shakespeare (play - “King Lear”), Akira Kurosawa (screenplay), Hideo Oguni (screenplay) and Masato Ide (screenplay)
Photographed by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô and Shôji Ueda