Provost's Film Series

October 9, 2002


Akira Kurosawa

Released when the director was 75 years old, Ran was quickly heralded as the crowning achievement in Akira Kurosawa's long career.  Over ten years in the making, the film was an extravagant undertaking, and Kurosawa had difficulty securing the funding to complete the project.  Although widely admired by American directors such as Martin Scorcese and Stephen Spielberg, Kurosawa did not always enjoy full acclaim in his native Japan, in part because his work was colored by Western techniques.  Born in 1910, Kurosawa began making films just prior to the defeat of Japan in World War II, and his methods fused traditional Japanese performing arts—such as Noh and kabuki—into what Japanese critics called his "occidental style"—a mix of European and Hollywood motifs.  He was strongly influenced by the American Western, and his samurai films, especially the groundbreaking movie The Seven Samurai (1954), in turn inspired Hollywood films.  The blend of East and West has made Ran one of  the most captivating of modern films.


Kurosawa and Shakespeare

Kurosawa often drew inspiration from Western classics.  One of his greatest films, Ikiru (1952), adapted Goethe's Faust, while Throne of Blood (1957) retold Shakespeare's Macbeth.  Ran is Kurosawa's version of King Lear.  In Shakespeare's tragedy, an aged Lear, the mythical king of early Britain, proposes to divide his realm between his three daughters.  He puts his daughters to a "love test," requiring them to express their devotion to him in extravagant terms.  The two oldest daughters indulge in lavish hyperbole, winning their father's favor even as they scheme to strip him of his power.  The youngest daughter, Cordelia, angers her father by refusing to exaggerate her love for him, and Lear banishes her.  Yet it is Cordelia who remains loyal to her father after her sisters undermine and abandon him.  Old, rejected, and on the edge of insanity, Lear leaves his castle and walks out into the storm, a mirror of his moral and psychological confusion.  The tormented king is accompanied by the court fool, who, while hiding behind the mask of humor, is the one person who can tell Lear the truth without penalty.  Out amidst the fierce tempest, the unsheltered and humiliated king meets other characters who have faced the bitter consequences of his impulsive decisions, most notably Gloucester, a former member of the court who has been blinded by Lear's oldest daughters.



Many of these elements—the love test, the wise fool, the storm, and the blind man—are incorporated into Ran.  Like Shakespeare, Kurosawa uses the family's crisis as a spark for poetic reflections full of moral confusion and fear; the symbol "Ran," in Japanese, literally means "chaos."  Kurosawa also blends Shakespeare's play with an old Japanese folktale about three arrows.  The Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, who has three sons (rather than daughters), proposes to divide his kingdom between them.  To encourage unity, he demonstrates that one arrow is easily snapped but three arrows, as a group, can not be broken.  Yet jealousy, greed and paranoia soon send the brothers sprawling into civil war and chaos.


Japanese History and Buddhism

Despite the clear and pervasive influence of Shakespeare and Western cinema on Kurosawa, Ran also remains distinctly Japanese. It is one of Kurosawa's jidaigeki, or "period," films.  The story is set in 16th-century Japan, an era marked by constant civil strife.  Kurosawa adds to Shakespeare's tale a subplot of Japanese ancestral loyalty and revenge by emphasizing the two daughters-in-law whose families have suffered violence and deprivation from the hands of Lord Hidetora.  One woman, Lady Sue, has been described as the "Buddhist conscience of the film" as she shows compassion and the capacity to forgive a man who destroyed her family and blinded her brother.  Her belief in atonement contrasts starkly with the bitter manipulations of Lady Kaede, who reinforces the cycle of samsara or revenge.  For all of its beauty and occasional glimpses of heroism, Ran is filled with doubts about the intervention of the divine in the human affairs.  The loss of a boddhisattva scroll in the film has been interpreted as an indication that Buddha and the gods cannot spare humanity from suffering and self-destruction.


War and Violence

Ran offers mixed perspectives on violence.  Many of the battle scenes are highly choreographed, often considered a "cinematic ballet" with colorful uniforms and visual grandeur.  Yet there are also scenes of repellent bloodshed and devastation.  As in many of Kurosawa's samurai films, the motions of the troops display a high degree of artistry and pageantry, and the director is clearly capable of finding a strange beauty or elegance in violence and death.  At the same time, this film displays more anguish about the inevitability and cruelty of violence than Kurosawa usually does.  Some critics see Ran as an expression of old age, the testimonial of a man facing his own mortality and enduring his own grief (Kurosawa's wife died during the years when the film was being made).  Others have seen the war scenes as an expression of the filmmaker's fears over the escalation of international violence and the Cold War.


Japanese Film Techniques

Some of the Japanese film techniques will also be less familiar to Western viewers.  Kurosawa generally avoids the close-ups and the swelling musical scores that are commonplace in American films.  As in many Japanese films, the camera moves very little.  The effect is theatrical:  viewers feel as if they are watching a staged play. The acting styles draw from the performing arts traditions of Noh—with its use of mime, its slow, deliberate and highly structured movements, and its restrained verbal expression—as well as kabuki—with its high-pitched operatic style.  

Kurosawa devotes considerable attention to visual imagery of the scene—the extraordinary detail of the clothing and the physical surroundings—but he trusts the actors to convey the emotions.   According to critic Arthur Lazere, Kurosawa "decentered the characters in favor of the lavishly picturesque landscape . . . The obscuring of the characters into the landscape added the effect of rendering their lives insignificant in the face of time and place."  Although Ran occasionally uses Western orchestration, the musical score by Toru Takemitsu is often minimalist, mostly light percussion or woodwind.  When he recreates the famous storm scene, Kurosawa often uses only the sound of insects and the wind as his musical backdrop.  The film's final scene is justly famous for its single haunting flute.