Did I leave the stove on?
"In a mad world only the mad are sane."

Akira Kurosawa was first inspired to make Ran after reading about the Sengoku-era warlord Mōri Motonari, who was famous for having three loyal sons. Kurosawa wondering what would've happened if Motonari's sons had been bad. This eventually lead him west, to that other famous story about a ruler with three children, King Lear. After ten years in development, the success of Kagemusha in 1980 enabled Kurosawa to secure the funding needed to finally produce the film.

Hidetora (Lear), an aging warlord, decides to divide up his kingdom amongst his three sons - Taro (Goneril), Jiro (Regan), and Saburo (Cordelia). Saburo disagrees with his father's decision, which results in his father banishing him. But Hidetora has overestimated the loyalty of his eldest sons, and underestimated their ambition. Before long, Taro's pride and Jiro's ambition cause them both to reject their father before turning on each other.

Ran was Kurosawa's final masterpiece, a breathtaking, David Lean-level epic that never lets the spectacle overwhelm the human tragedy. This is a story of how basic human weakness can bring down even the most powerful of empires. Hidetora's weakness is vanity, causing him to be blinded by the flattery of his eldest sons, and ignore the sensible, if hot headed, advice of his youngest, who proves that even bound together, three arrows can still break.

Taro and Jiro are not nearly as conniving as their Shakespearian counterparts. They are weak men, easily swayed by the advice of others, notably Lady Kaede, the daughter of another lord Hidetora overthrew, and possibly the most dangerous character in the film. A ruthless spirit of vengeance, Kaede easily manipulates both brothers and brings about the complete destruction of the Ichimonji clan.

Like the very best epics, Ran is a visually scrumptious feast for the senses. What makes this film is Kurosawa's use of colour. His previous stab at Shakespeare, Throne of Blood, was shot in moody black and white. Ran, like Kagemusha, was shot in vibrant primary colours. Each son (and their respective army) is given their own colour - yellow for Taro, red for Jiro, blue for Saburo. When the various armies fill the battlefields they are like raging swans of colour, bringing moments of beauty to scenes of butchery.

Never is this more evident than in the centrepiece of the film - the attack on Hidetora's castle by Taro and Jiro's forces. During this sequence, Kurosawa mutes the film's ambient sound, and turns the dials up on Toru Takemitsu's score, which was inspired by the works of Gustav Mahler at the director's request. It's a scene of total carnage as Hidetora's heavily outnumbered bodyguards, along with his concubines, are slaughtered without mercy. When the fighting is over, one son lies dead, assassinated by the other, and the former lord walks away from the burning castle a lonely and ghostly figure, his descent into madness all but complete.

Notes and Quotes

--The film's title translates as "chaos" or "revolt".

--The scene where Hidetora tests his sons by challenging them to break three arrows comes from the Motonari legend.

--Kurosawa spent ten years storyboarding every shot in the film as a painting.

--The castle destroyed in the middle of the movie was specially constructed on the slopes of Mount Fuji for the film and then burned down.

Tango: "Men prefer sorrow over joy... suffering over peace!"

Kurogane: "Saburo is not our only enemy."
Jiro: "So what? If they attack, we retaliate. We grab their land and enlarge our own."
Kurogane: "Fine words, but words don't win wars."

Kyoami: "Why stay with this mad old man? If the rock you stay on starts to roll, jump clean. Or you'll go with it and be squashed. Only a fool stays aboard."

Kyoami: "Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies."
Hidetora: "The Great Lord goes nowhere alone."
Jiro: "You renounced your power. You have no need of an escort."
Hidetora: "Only the birds and the beasts live in solitude."

Four out of four broken arrows.


Billie Doux said...

Kurosawa spent ten years storyboarding every shot in the film as a painting. Wow. I mean, wow. That's impressive.

Again, I've never seen this movie, but you make me want to try it, Mark. Impressive review.

Kathy said...

I've been on the lookout for this movie for some time. I've never seen it, but I like Kurosawa's movies. And Throne of Blood (along with Rashomon) are my two favorites of his. Since Throne of Blood is an adaptation of MacBeth and I love it, I started looking out for this one as soon as I heard about it.

Sadly, I haven't yet seen it. So, I appreciate the review!