In repertory at Film Forum through February 18.
If you were introduced to director Akira Kurosawa through his acclaimed films from the 1950s (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, among others)—all of which are feature shadowy, evocative black-and-white cinematography—the bold color of Ran, released in 1985, is disconcerting at first. Seeing the familiar figures of feudal Japan in vivid reds and blues and greens rather than the familiar dreamy grays is a jolt—but a welcome one. Kurosawa makes great use of his color palette, showcasing intricate costumes and breathtaking locations and even color-coding the three warring sons and their armies. The color, along with Kurosawa’s familiar panoramic direction, helps make Ran a gorgeous film to behold.
It’s also an affecting one—which I don’t take for granted, considering that the story is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play that has always eluded me, to some extent. But besides relocating the familiar tale of an aging, misguided warlord from ancient Britain to feudal Japan, Kurosawa and his fellow screenwriters have tweaked the details, alluding to backstory and character motivations that don’t exist in the play. The result is exceedingly bleak—perhaps even more so than the tragic Lear. With Lear, one could argue that the king steps wrong in choosing who to trust; Cordelia might have been a fine heir. But Ran seems to argue that conflict and betrayal are all but inescapable. The youngest child is still the most affectionate and loyal, but he, too, is caught up in the heirs’ power-plays, which arrive early because of the warlord’s abdication but which were inevitable. (The movie’s title means chaos.) Frankly, if Kurosawa weren’t such a great director, Ran might have been unbearably grim.
The most obvious narrative difference between Lear and Ran is that Ran’s aging ruler divides his dominion between sons, not daughters. After a lifetime spent conquering his neighbors and shoring up his power, Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the Great Lord, patriarch of the Ichimonji clan, wants to see his sons rule together in peace. His youngest son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryû), protests that this power-sharing plan is unrealistic and foolish. He is exiled for his troubles, but he is, of course, correct. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest son, and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), the middle son, distrust each other, and neither wants their father and his disruptive entourage, notably the court fool Kyoami (Pîtâ), undermining their authority in their new castles. Meanwhile, Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), pushes Taro to act against his father and brothers for her own savage reasons.
The situation comes to a head at Third Castle, what would have been Saburo’s stronghold. Hidetora and his underlings and concubines have holed up there after finding themselves unwelcome at Taro’s First Castle and Jiro’s Second, and while Hidetora is trying to decide what to do next, Taro and Jiro attack. It is a bloodbath: Hidetora’s outnumbered men are slaughtered, and his concubines commit suicide. Kurosawa lingers over the massacre to devastating effect. The bright colors are choked with dust and smoke, and the ambient sound drains away in favor of Tôru Takemitsu’s gorgeous, evocative score. The sequence is haunting—one of the greatest film depictions of war I’ve ever seen. It alone likely would have been enough to ensure the longevity of Ran, and yet it is only one of the movie’s many memorable elements.
Lady Kaede, for example, is a brilliant creation with no real analog in Lear. I’ve heard her compared to Lady Macbeth, but that does Kaede’s scheming an injustice. Macbeth’s wife, for all her faults, believes she is pressing her husband to act in his best interests. She wants him to succeed, if only because their fates are entwined. Kaede, by contrast, presses her husband (and later Jiro, after Taro is killed) to act against his own interest. Consumed with hatred for Hidetora, who betrayed and killed her family, she works not for the elevation of her husband but for the destruction of the Ichimonji clan. She is vicious and treacherous and possibly crazy, but in a way, her motives are purer than those of anyone else. She isn’t greedy or power-hungry or vain; she is a dark avenging angel, and Harada gives her an eerily composed, implacable demeanor—a mesmerizing performance. The scene in which she seduces a bewildered Jiro is masterful, with Harada moving fluidly from demure obeisance to murderous rage to a bizarre, sexually charged bloodthirst.
In another scene, while she is throwing a tantrum to manipulate her latest pawn, Kaede spots a small bug on the ground and absently crushes it without interrupting her wails. It’s a blackly funny, telling little grace note—one of many precise details that texture the epic story. Early on, for example, when Hidetora falls asleep after leading a boar hunt, before he announces the dissolution of his power, his party decides to let him rest but Saburo hangs back to construct a makeshift canopy to shield his father from the sun. During the assault on Third Castle, we spend an indelible moment with a nameless soldier holding his own severed arm. Kyoami’s songs and stories, in his role as jester, invariably have a symbolic weight and sense of poetry that would make Shakespeare proud.
Details like those ground Kurosawa’s storytelling, and his glorious filmmaking elevates it. Along with his collaborators, Kurosawa makes Shakespeare’s King Lear wholly his own (which is only appropriate, considering that that is what Shakespeare did with his own source material, the legend of Leir, king of the Britons). The movie is available on DVD, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see in a theater, as part of Film Forum’s Kurosawa festival. It’s a magnificent, visually stunning, emotionally riveting film that deserves to be seen on a big screen, the colors beaming boldly in the darkness.