The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is one of the few non-English-language directors of his era who remain well-known. His reputation no doubt endures because of the admiration for his work by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but Kurosawa was as much influenced by western culture as those filmmakers have been by his films.
Ran’s debt to western origins is not at issue. Based loosely on “King Lear,” it shows the dissolution of the domain of Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) when he makes the mistake of entrusting its future to two of his three sons. The third, Saburo (Daisuke Ryû), in effectively the Cordelia role, is banished for speaking honestly to his father. Anyone even remotely familiar with Shakespeare can anticipate the rest.
But not Kurosawa’s treatment of the material. Like his “Macbeth”-themed Throne of Blood, Ran makes no pretense of being an adaptation or translation of Shakespeare into Japanese. Rather, it uses “Lear” as a defining myth and starting point which keeps its resonance when transferred to an alien culture. This is Shakespeare refracted through a prism that fragments the story into an horrifically beautiful vision of hell on earth through tragically grandiloquent images and sounds.
The two major set-pieces of the film, the siege and destruction of the Third Castle, abandoned by Saburo’s men, and the final battle, provide an almost hallucinatory vision of chaos through haze, fire, smoke and most emphatically blood, running in rivulets, dripping between the planks in the wooden floors, gathering in puddles by piles of the dead and dying. Flaming arrows streak through the air. Primitive rifles pop and sputter in loud, deadly volleys. Men on horseback charge through the frames and flames, cutting a swathe of death and destruction. The nightmare-like cascade of brutal images in the Third Castle sequence is made even more haunting and dream-like by the lack of diegetic sound, as only lush orchestral accompaniment builds to the sound of a murderous, single shot that kills the eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao), thereby initiating even greater mayhem.
Through all of this, Hidetora is stunned into immobility, driven mad by despair and incomprehension, unable even to commit seppuku because his sword has been broken in combat. His madness is his just punishment as he confronts the inevitable consequences of his past. For while we eventually learn that the devastation was part of vengeance planned by Hidetora’s daughter-in-law, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) in retribution for his annihilation of her family, her prowling, slithering, silky malevolence is merely the agent of the destruction that has been his way of life.
Ran is not flawless. There are stretches, particularly during Hidetora’s madness, that are repetitive and tiresome. The battlefield action is so complex and elaborately choreographed that it sometimes can be difficult to determine what is happening. The confusion is intoxicating, breathless, exhilarating, however, for Ran soars above niggling concern to achieve sublime, ecstatic tragedy.