Akira Kurosawa’s Ran

Shakespeare’s stories, character and language might be what reel us in, but it’s the mysteries that can engender an obsession. From Sigmund Freud, who famously pored over a psychiatric diagnosis of Prince Hamlet, to John Sutherland and Cedric Watts, who published an entire book (Henry V, War Criminal?) on the ambiguities in the Bard’s plays, the loose ends and oddities of Shakespeare’s writing can exert even more of a fascination than the great set-pieces and speeches we learn about in school. You could see these elements as failures in the writing – presumably, if Shakespeare was alive today, Cinema Sins would be hard at work on “Everything Wrong With Titus Andronicus in 12 Minutes” – but the attention they’ve received is actually a compliment. Every fictional world has corners that are imperfectly imagined, simply because they’re not real. Not every background character can have a full and interesting inner life. But the fact that we actually want Shakespeare’s background characters to be real and complex (just ask Tom Stoppard) is proof of how easy it is to become absorbed by them. We don’t want his universe to end, even when he’s drawing up the boundaries.

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, reissued for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by Studio Canal, asks one of the most profound questions about one of the most profound plays, so it’s no surprise that it results in one of the most profound films. The initial impetus for the film was actually the life of a real Japanese historical figure, Mōri Motonari. Famous in Japan for a story where he teaches the value of family using a bundle of arrows (a scene recreated in the film), Kurosawa wondered how his legend would be changed if his sons were evil. At some point, Kurosawa realised that this was hewing close to the plot of King Lear, and he merged the two stories in his final script.

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The result of this intermingling of stories is a film that keeps asking the question Shakespeare doesn’t focus on, namely, is Lear a good leader? Certainly by the time the play opens he is becoming erratic and angry, but this is most commonly interpreted as an early symptom of the dementia that would destroy him, rather than any indicator of his usual character. By contrast, Hidetora, Kurosawa’s Lear substitute, is presented to us as a cruel and vengeful man. Shakespeare’s Cordelia angers her father by refusing to participate in a sycophantic game of flattery he forces his daughters to perform, but Kurosawa’s Saburo has some seriously harsh medicine to administer, asking how Hidetora can expect his sons to respect him when his violent and corrupt rise to power is public knowledge. Saburo therefore retains Cordelia’s position as the moral voice of the story, but the strength of the allegations he’s delivering mean it’s also a lot easier to feel for Hidetora than Lear at this point in the story.

Then we see what Hidetora did. In Kurosawa’s most brilliant and incisive change to Shakespeare’s text, he removes the Duke of Gloucester from his usual subplot and makes him a victim of one of Hidetora’s massacres. The event that makes this character notorious – the gouging out of his eyes – has already happened, and when Hidetora meets Tsurumaru (Gloucester), he fully expects him to exact his revenge. But Tsurumaru instead forgives him, and Hidetora finds this almost impossible to cope with. Ran’s historical period is deliberately imprecise, but the weapons used indicate it must be close to the end of the samurai era, and Tsurumaru is one of the many challenges to its morality. The whole plot of King Lear is more shocking in the context of Japan’s culture of respect towards elders, for instance, and Hidetora’s refusal to accept a death with honour when he is deposed makes his banishment to the wilderness even more of an indignity. It’s not just that he shouldn’t be homeless – it’s that he shouldn’t be alive.

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Releasing a film that contains not a line of Shakespearian dialogue to celebrate his life might seem like a perverse move, but Ran has few serious challengers for the title of greatest film Shakespeare adaptation. Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight is one of the few that spars in the same ring, as well as Kurosawa’s earlier Throne of Blood. That film’s Noh-influenced acting style reappears in Ran, particularly in Mieko Harada’s unforgettable portrayal of the warped, sadistic Lady Kaede. As Hidetora’s mind slips away, Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance and appearance becomes more stylised as well, as though responding to Charles Lamb’s famous complaint that Shakespeare’s Lear “cannot be acted” by breaking the boundaries of realism altogether.

In the aftermath of Kenneth Branagh’s breakthrough hit Much Ado About Nothing, several lesser directors wrestled with the problem of making Shakespeare’s plays “cinematic”, generally concluding that it had something to do with pretty costumes, prettier scenery and as much action as the plot could handle. It would be tempting to say Ran is the antithesis of that simplistic view, except it has a surfeit of all three; stunning, expressive costumes, phenomenal views of landscapes and nature, and one of cinema’s all-time greatest battle scenes as Hidetora’s palace collapses into a traumatic premonition of the First World War. In Kurosawa’s hands, though, these are more than just set dressing. Kurosawa is well aware that Shakespeare’s art is not political – Shelley claimed it was never performed in England during the reign of George III, lest it influence the population to draw comparisons with their own mad ruler – and he threads his narrative together with thoughts on war, society and the chaos – ran – that follows even the end of an era that deserves to die.


 

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Extras

  • AK
  • Interview with the director of photography – Mr Ueda
  • Interview with Ms Mieko Harada
  • Interview with Michael Brooke
  • Stage Appearance at Tokyo International Film Festival 2015
  • Ran: The Restoration

Include set of 4 art cards and booklet

Ran (Digitally Restored) is out now on Studiocanal Blu-Ray

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