Akira Kurosawa’s Ran opens with four soldiers on horseback atop a hill. They’re all looking in different directions, and presumably represent the four disparate factions that will later develop after powerful warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) relinquishes power to Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest of his three sons. The society depicted – built on a series of violent and unforgiving acts in the first place – descends into chaos, with the three brothers and their father at loggerheads, and by the end castles are burned to the ground, bodies are strewn everywhere and pretty much every character of note (save for one or two) lies dead. Famously this is Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear, though it’s even bleaker than the English playwright’s tragedy, firmly putting forward the idea that its characters are being punished for past actions and laced with a pessimistic, nihilistic streak that many believe to be a by-product of the illness and death of Kurosawa’s wife Yōko Yaguchi during production. It’s also a film that subscribes to Nietzsche’s maxim that God is dead, and humans are responsible, an idea that is hinted at via the dialogue throughout and overtly reinforced through the closing shots of blind Tsurumaru (Takeshi Nomura), who accidentally drops a Buddha scroll from a cliff edge.

Ran is late-period Kurosawa, filmed in 1985, and widely considered to be the director’s last great work. Set during the turbulent Japanese Sengoku period of the 16th century and shot in colour, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever at the time, a factor that meant Kurosawa had to wait just under a decade before he could raise the necessary finance to make it. You can see where the money has gone, with countless glorious costumes evident (designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award) and huge castle sets, built especially for the film before being torched during the epic battle sequences (for which thousands of horses were imported from the USA). Despite their colour-coded costumes and armies the three warring brothers at the heart of the story seem a little grey and interchangeable, though it doesn’t help that the most interesting of all, straight-talking and hot-headed Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) is absent for most of the film. Still, those influencing proceedings around the three brothers are interesting, such as Mieko Harada’s scheming Lady Kaede (the only character who manages to get what they want, despite her grisly end), Shinnosuke ‘Peter’ Ikehata’s foolish Kyoami (whose meta-textual commentaries on characters and the action are as astute as they are honest) and Nakadai’s Hidetora, whose descent into madness is enjoyably overplayed, the colour gradually draining from the character’s costume as his face turns a ghostly, pallid white. There are numerous excellent scenes that contribute to Ran‘s greatness, from the initial hunt and its peaceful-then-fractious aftermath to the battle at the film’s mid-point, for which Kurosawa cut the diegetic sound to foreground Toru Takemitsu’s Mahler-esque score. That turns into a quite spectacular montage of death, filled with arrow-strewn soldiers spurting blood, samurai committing seppuku and their wives and concubines committing jigai before flames engulf them all. Rather brilliantly, the ambient sound comes back in at the point one of the major characters dies, shot accidentally from distance. The acting is uniformly very good, and though there’s plenty of stagey histrionics going on, much of it feels necessary (e.g. to illustrate Hidetora’s insanity, to reveal Kaede’s duplicity, etc.) and it works well within the film while also furthering the link between Ran and Shakespeare’s original work. The cinematography, jointly by Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai, is excellent, whether they’re tracking the armies as they fight, setting the scene with their mid- and long shots, or picking out the gathering storm clouds in the sky.

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa.
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide. Based on King Lear by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Mieko Harada, Daisuke Ryu, Masayuki Yui, Shinnosuke ‘Peter’ Ikehata, Takeshi Nomura, Hisashi Igawa.
Cinematography: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai.
Editing: Akira Kurosawa.
Music: Toru Takemitsu.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 156 minutes.
Year: 1985.