Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) and Chris Marker's A.K. (1985) are showing April and May, 2020 on MUBI in the United Kingdom in the series In Front and Behind the Scenes: Kurosawa & Marker.
“It is King Lear, yet it is not King Lear.” This statement, made by Chris Marker during the course of his 1985 documentary, A.K., which records the making of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, is a noteworthy point when discussing the venerated Japanese master’s 1985 epic, as preliminary conversation concerning the film often centers on the seeds of influence found in the Bard’s 17th century drama. But while that story only entered Kurosawa’s mind after he had already conceived of Ran in the mid-1970s (making it the director’s second foray into Shakespearian territory, having directed in 1957 Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth), he also drew inspiration, arguably more significant, from a parable about Mōri Motonari. In that account, the Sengoku-period warlord also had three children—three sons—who were admirably loyal to their father. Kurosawa took the basic premise and reversed it to consider how events may transpire if the sons were treacherous instead. More than these two culturally distinct narratives, however, Ran is first and foremost an Akira Kurosawa film, a visual and thematic refinement of much that had come before it, as well as, though perhaps tangentially, an autobiographical summation of the director’s state of being. As recounted by Donald Richie, Kurosawa stated it would round out his life’s work in film: “I will put all my remaining energy into it.’”
In place of Lear’s daughters and the sons of the Motonari tale, Ran advances the opposing siblings of patriarch Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) as Taro, Hidetora’s eldest son and heir, played by Akira Terao, Jiro, Hidetora’s second son, played by Jinpachi Nezu, and Saburo, Hidetora’s youngest son, played by Daisuke Ryû. When Hidetora makes the fateful decision to cede to Taro the head of the Ichimonji house, proclaiming him lord of the domain, with the pronouncement come the film’s fundamental refrains of responsibility and authority, along with the early establishment of brotherly contention. The men are respectively overwhelmed, slighted, and skeptical, and while they each express a degree of kindness and consideration regarding their elderly father, they are also disturbed by the implications of not only his decree but, in a perceived related fashion, his faltering mental and physical constitution.
Saburo is especially troubled and suspicious. When Hidetora passes around a symbolic arrow, which each son easily breaks, the succeeding distribution of a bundle of arrows is meant to show the strength of solidity. Indeed, Taro and Jiro struggle to crack the bundle. But Saburo manages, rupturing the entire collection over his knee. This gesture, combined with his declaration that Hidetora must be senile or mad, is viewed as sheer impetuousness, but Saburo, like Kyōami (Pîtâ), the domestic Fool, is simply seeing past the pretense of the formal dispersal of influence and speaks unpleasant truth to power. His stunning insolence touches a nerve, even if his heated conduct is well-founded in the evident potential within the family for betrayal, infighting, and resentment. And sure enough, what emerges in the wake of this resolution are in fact disputes over standing and property (castles of sequential prominence), ceaseless conspiring, and violence between the disparate factions and divided clans. Starting with this foundational preamble, Ran cultivates an incrementally explosive tension, often best realized in the reactions of those aware of the multifaceted transgressions but left primarily as bystanders, witnessing the familial power play while those directly involved are swept away into the furor.
What none of the men count on, though, least of all Taro, is the manipulative maliciousness of Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada). As the land falls into a state of general upheaval, her vengeful conniving flourishes (Hidetora’s army had previously killed her family and took their land). She urges Taro’s usurping ruthlessness, and after he is killed, she swiftly maneuvers into the bed of Jiro, now in the place of prominence, and demands he kill his own wife, Lady Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Not unlike Saburo and his brutal honesty when confronting Hidetora, only Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa), Jiro’s military commander, comprehends Lady Kaede’s true intentions. When he is given the task of dispatching Lady Sué he instead delivers (quite literally) Ran’s most humorous instance of defiance. Harada gives one of Ran’s most searing exhibitions, embodying, as she hones in on Jiro’s succession with a voracious fervency, the film’s rampant duplicity and manipulation. Hers is also an exemplary model of how Kurosawa integrates aspects of traditional Noh theater into the film, distinguished by stylized gestures, expressive makeup, and a static physicality broken by jarring movements of rage and emotional response.
Such mannered, highly animated behavior is likewise evinced, to a far greater extent, in Nakadai’s performance as Hidetora. Having nodded off at the start of the film, Hidetora abruptly awakens from a dream, stumbling out of his slumbering seclusion in a dazed panic. While clearly agitated by his unsettling fantasy, which portends the dissolution of his power, it scarcely prepares him for the nightmare that will in reality unfold. When it does, Hidetora is profoundly wounded by the aftershocks of his withdrawal; he is cast aside, adrift among the winds, and is reduced to tragic, desolate wanderings, an empty vessel of displacement and unfathomable despair. Nakadai’s bearing of this physiological breakdown is one of dramatic outrage and confusion. He takes shelter in the ruins of a castle he burnt down, as noted by the Fool, who often makes an essentially good-natured mockery of the old man’s humiliation, and seeks refuge in the home of Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), Lady Sué’s brother, who had been blinded following one of Hidetora early massacres. Delirious and depleted, he is not only tortured by what has recently taken place within his family, but is besieged by a litany of past sins now haunting his present condition.
It is through the portrayal of its beleaguered former lord that many have ascribed the biographical connotations of Ran. Commencing as Hidetora falls asleep at the start of the film, fatigued by the day’s hunt (“Alas,” states Saburo, “the ravages of age”), the underlying emphasis on debilitating maturity runs throughout the picture. Kurosawa, who himself was in his mid-seventies at the time of the film’s making, had carved out a nearly unrivaled niche in international cinema, making more than twenty films from 1943 to 1970. That productivity faced a sharp decline in his later years, however, with Kurosawa directing just two features in the decade preceding Ran. This period of relative inaction led to the speculation that the great director’s films were possibly fading from style, an uncertainty only exacerbated by his poor health, failing eyesight, and even a suicide attempt. Yet Kurosawa remained creatively engaged, writing Ran after completing Dersu Uzala in 1975 and thereafter, in his words, letting “it sleep” for seven years. Following an extensive pre-production process (including Kurosawa painting storyboards conveying every conceivable shot of the film), Ran’s nine-month shoot encompassed elaborate, full-scale sets, an abundant allotment of extras, dozens of imported horses, painstaking costumes, practical effects, action sequences, and an oftentimes erratic on-location schedule. As made clear in Marker’s documentary, Kurosawa, despite any apparent ailments, was engrossed in an exhaustive and exhausting process. Even after, although he anticipated Ran would be his last film, he made three additional features—Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993)—all of which embrace aspects of aging, recollection, and mortality.
Written by Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide, Ran is also characterized by a pervasive foreboding and a broad nihilism regarding human nature. Its title variously translated as meaning “chaos,” “rebellion,” or “confusion,” Ran probes the depths of a world destined for destruction, as sure as the looming clouds, inserted throughout the picture, foretell the approaching storm. Accordingly, while the film’s passages of stillness and contemplation are treated with great sensitivity, they are nevertheless laden with the gravity of impending doom. The film’s thematic core is encapsulated in several passages of dialogue, as when Kyōami tells Hidetora, “Human beings are always lost. Human beings have walked the same way again and again from earliest times”; when Kyōami screams to the heavens, “Is there no God or Buddha in this world? … God and the Buddha are nothing but mischievous urchins! Are they so bored in heaven that they enjoy watching men die like worms? … Is it so amusing to see and hear human beings cry and scream?”; and when Kyōami is himself chided by another of Hidetora’s remaining faithful, “Human beings seek sorrow, not happiness, and prefer suffering to peace.” Hidetora’s reckoning with a lifetime of death and devastation engenders a sublime, heartbreaking tragedy, and while Kurosawa provides a glimmer of prospective reconciliation, a chance for atonement and redemption, it is not to be—the fates are irrevocably in place.
What occurs in Ran is often reflective of its mode of production, as documented in A.K., which was similarly marked by moments of calm and peace contrasted with brief, sporadic bits of commotion. The film, like its creation, reveals a masterful balance of speed and simplicity, a stately dynamism born from experience and executed in a lyrical pace of progression. Set along the volcanic slopes of Mount Fuji and encased by a vast terrain of fields and forests, the film’s deceptive scenic serenity, accompanied by Tôru Takemitsu’s redolent score and an orchestra of insects and birds, stimulates an environment that is fitful and, in some cases, fabricated (for a nighttime sequence ultimately cut from the final film, Kurosawa mounted an artificial moon and spray painted the grass gold). Its budget of $11 million made Ran the most expensive Japanese film produced to that point, and the money spent is manifest in spectacular set pieces and action tableaux, a highlight being the seizure of a castle enacted by the dual forces of Taro and Jiro. As the sound drops out and only Takemitsu’s music tremors over the soundtrack, the dreadful scene is one of fire and blood, of operatic carnage from which Hidetora staggers in rightful bewilderment. Kurosawa, who said he hated bloodshed, creates a nightmarish arena of unrelenting violence: “The enemy is everywhere, inside and out,” one of Hidetora’s dying men calls out, “hell is upon us!”
Working with three cinematographers—Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai—and habitually shooting with three cameras for “important” scenes, according to the Marker documentary, a practice he adopted since 1954’s Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s compositions dwarf his characters under towering structures and within the infinite landscape. Ornate yet simplistic, his use of color serves both the function of vivid illustration and individual coordination, linking and distinguishing the characters, and Kurosawa’s staging of conflict is both impassive and abrupt, holding a given shot as the violence suddenly enters the frame. As noted in A.K., Ran was a “collective endeavor,” with Kurosawa harnessing the talents of a cast and crew of regular collaborators, all of whom are seen in Marker’s documentary to be devoted to the order, detail, and careful precision required by Kurosawa, operating with good humor, respectful patience, and harmonious creativity. Due credit is regularly given to costume designer Emi Wada especially, who won an Academy Award for her extraordinarily intricate work (the film also received nominations for its art direction, cinematography, and Kurosawa’s direction). Hours of rehearsal often resulted in but a single take to capture the director’s grandiose vision, a vision that is poetic and profound.
In A.K., Marker submits the word “sensei,” or “master,” to evoke the reigning presence of Kurosawa and his venerable legacy. “In all disciplines,” Marker states, “from flower arrangements to karate, the sensei is he who, by achieving technical perfection, has got a sort of spiritual bonus out of it.” It seems such was certainly the case for Ran, one of the most remarkable achievements from one of cinema’s preeminent artists, for when asked what his best movie was, according to Richie, “instead of answering ‘the next,’ as he usually did, Kurosawa simply said, ‘Ran.’”