#2 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
The one movie that this reminds me most of isn’t Kagemusha or Throne of Blood or any other film by Akira Kurosawa. No, the movie Ran most reminds me of is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. Both films feel like culminations of careers, two master filmmakers putting everything they’d learned about the craft of filmmaking into a single, epic film. Sure, Bergman’s film didn’t involve massive battles between armies, but it was epic in its own, smaller way, a saga. Kurosawa, perhaps playfully, called his previous film a dress rehearsal for Ran, and it’s hard not to see Kagemusha in that light. The cast is largely the same. It uses similar sets, costumes, and story, but that feels dismissive of Kagemusha, which is a tremendous exercise in its own right. That being said, though, Ran is on another level. Comfortable again in control of the production (despite his near blindness), Kurosawa put together one of his most visually beautiful and emotionally fulfilling films, told on an epic scale, and adapting a complex work like Shakespeare’s King Lear with skill and deftness.
Ichimonji Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is 70 years old and has led a life of blood and death to achieve peace in his region of Japan. On a hunting trip with his three sons and two neighbors, he announces his plan to split the administration of the land in three to enjoy a retirement. Head of the clan will become his eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao), with the rule of the two lower castles being passed to his middle son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Saburo is instantly against the plan, insisting that the time of peace they are in is ephemeral and could fall apart much faster than Hidetora seems to realize. For this bit of honest, he is banished from his father’s lands, quickly gaining the favor of Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) who invites Saburo to come and live with him to potentially marry his daughter.
Things begin to disintegrate quickly at home. Hidetora leaves the main house of his castle, moving to the tower with a retinue of thirty men and his mistresses, but Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) feels that she has greater station than Hidetora’s mistresses, causing a public scene where the women must kneel to her retinue. When Taro, at the suggestion of Kaede, decides to reclaim his father’s banner as his own being the new leader of the clan, Hidetora’s jester Kyoami (Peter) gets nearly killed before Hidetora shoots one of Taro’s men. This is not how Hidetora dreamed up the situation. His diminished station, his son’s wife holding herself up higher than his own mistresses, and the taking of the banner make him so angry that he leaves the castle to stay with Jiro. Jiro, though, sees an opportunity for claiming what he sees as his rightful place as leader of the clan, only denied him by being born a year after Taro. One of the impediments to that is his father.
By denying his men entry into the castle, supposedly at Taro’s orders, he angers Hidetora enough to force him to leave, but Hidetora has nowhere to go anymore. The men of the third castle would never take him in for banishing their master, but when they abandon it to join their master in Fujimaki’s lands, Hidetora heads there, into a trap, where Jiro and Taro have conspired to murder their father, with the added twist of Jiro conspiring to murder Taro. In one of the most impressive physical production moments of Kurosawa’s career, the castle is burned to the ground while Hidetora becomes like a ghost, the lone survivor of his retinue along with Kyoami, and allowed to wander the wilds a broken man.
This central sequence is amazing. It’s one of the most bombastic and, alternatively, intimately focused pieces of filmmaking Kurosawa ever put on film. It’s heartbreaking as we watch Hidetora finally break, realizing the depth of his mistake in trusting too much in the goodness of man and not listening to Saburo, going so far as to cast him out for telling him the truth. He becomes a hollow man.
One of the interesting things about the film is how well balanced the epic and intimate portions of the film are. We never get lost in the movement of armies. They are merely extensions of the characters themselves in intimately scaled conflicts. So, when Taro and Jiro’s armies show up at the third castle, they are really just a larger manifestation of the two characters in their fights with each other and in rebellion of their father. When they are on the battlefield or in a chamber, the intention of what we see never shifts. Kurosawa just moves the same action from chambers to the burning of a castle, so when we quiet down in terms of the bombast of battlefield action and return to the chambers of the castle where Lady Kaede, now a widow, seduces Jiro, twists him around her finger, and convinces him to murder his wife, the daughter of a conquered warlord named Sué, he relents.
Saburo, hearing all of the death happening in his father’s lands, returns with a small force to try and find his father. Jiro takes this as an opportunity to kill Saburo and discover the location of his father in order to kill him, and the final act is a delicate interplay of motives, characters, and movements that brings everything to the appropriately tragic conclusion. There is death everywhere, and it’s made all the worse by Hidetora realizing how it’s entirely his own fault. How he had completely misjudged his children and human nature, unleashing the chaos and death that swept over his lands and destroyed his legacy along with it.
This really is a pinnacle of Kurosawa’s career. He had made so many great films, but this is very near the top. As a distillation of King Lear into a Japanese idiom, it’s wonderfully adept. As a family drama, it’s involving. As a tale of madness, it’s crushing. As a grand entertainment with armies clashing against each other, it’s thrilling. This is literally every cinematic lesson Kurosawa ever learned and put up on screen in one concentrated dose. This is the work of an old master in full control over the production, made all the more impressive considering he was essentially blind by this point.