Ran (乱) by Akira Kurosawa

Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies. – Kyoami the Fool

Jiro, in front of his army.

I once asked an old guy at work if he had seen Kurosawa’s Ran and was a bit disappointed to learn that he hasn’t even heard of the movie. Totally anecdotal, of course, but maybe there is a certain truth in the assertion that Kurosawa is not entirely popular in his own country:

Today we include Kurosawa (1910-1998) among the greatest directors, but for years he was without honor and funds in his own country…

Condemned as “too Western” and old-fashioned in Japan, he begged for his budgets. His “Dodes’ka-den” (1970), a Dickensian view of life among the poor in Tokyo, was rejected by Japanese audiences. Another five years passed before he found Russian financing for “Dersu Uzala,” the story of a Mongolian woodsman who guides a Russian explorer; it won the Oscar for best foreign film, but was a failure at the box office.

Made when he was already 75, Ran (乱, literally chaos) is Kurosawa’s crowning achievement, an epic tragedy of Shakesperean proportions. Of course to say that this is Kurosawa’s greatest film is saying a lot, when his filmography includes such classics as Rashomon, Ikiru and Seven Samurai.

The first time I watched this masterpiece more than ten years ago I sat stunned at the end, overcome by its sheer beauty and violence. I watched it again today and it hasn’t lost its power after repeated viewings throughout the years.

An adaptation of Shakespear’s King Lear (we are told; I haven’t read the play), it is the story of Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging warlord in 16th century Japan who has spent half a century waging war to expand his territory. Now 70 and about to retire, he then foolishly divides his land among his three sons (Taro, Jiro and Saburo) in the hopes spending his remaining days in peace.

The daughters-in-law

Although the action revolves around the three brothers, it is the contrasting personalities of the two daughters-in-law that set the moral conflict of the story.

For me the most interesting character is Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (楓, literally maple tree), who is almost always described as the “villain.”

Lady Kaede, sitting above her father-in-law, finally reclaiming her family’s castle.

She adroitly secures in writing her father-in-law’s submission to Taro, the new leader of Ichimonji house. Then, finally alone with her husband she reveals to us why Hidetora’s hope of peaceful retirement is but a delusion:

I was born and raised in this my father’s castle… I left it to marry you… After the marriage, my father and brothers let down their guard and were murdered by your father… How I have waited for this day to return to my father’s castle…

And then turning towards her husband, her words seething with vengeance:

In this very room, my mother took her own life!

Despite what others believe, I don’t think Lady Kaede is evil. Having lost everything dear to her, she demands justice, and she will get it through the only way that a woman of her situation can–by deceit and betrayal.

You can almost bet your kingdom that a river of blood will flow before her revenge is fulfilled.

Lady Sue, gazing up to her father-in-law with reverence.

Lady Kaede’s contrast with Lady Sue (末, literally end), Jiro’s wife, is all the more striking.

When Hidetora goes to visit Jiro at the second castle, he seeks out Lady Sue first before even meeting his son. He finds her facing the setting sun and praying, “Hail the Western Paradise, to the Amitabha in thirty-six trillion identical manifestations.”

Their conversation is heart-breaking yet ominous.

Hidetora: It has been a long time… Let me see your face… You always have a sad face… Every time I see you it pains me…

Lady Sue: (tries to smile)

Hidetora: It was I, Hidetora, who burned your castle with your father and mother and your family in it. Why do you look at me like that? Rather glare at me with hatred. It would make me feel easier.

Lady Sue: I do not hate you… Everything has been preordained in our previous lives… All things are the heart of the Buddha…

Hidetora: The Buddha again? There are no Buddhas in today’s world. This is a degraded age, when the Buddha’s guardians, Bonten and Taishaku, have been routed by raging Asuras. It is not a world where we can rely on the Buddha’s compassion.

The contrast of personalities between these two women begs the question: Will compassion and good prevail in the end? Or will bloodshed and chaos reign?

Is God watching us?

There are many shots of the sky in this film, not only foreshadowing the coming events, but suggesting that our actions are being watched by the Deities above.

Near the end of the movie, Kyoami, the fool wails:

Is there no God or Buddha in this world? Damnation! God and the Buddha are nothing but mischievous urchins! Are they so bored in Heaven that they enjoy watching men die like worms? Damn God! Is it so amusing to see and hear human beings cry and scream?"

If man is naturally cruel, obsessed with power and through his actions create the injustice and chaos in this world, can we be comforted somewhat by the idea that there is a benevolent God above the watches over him, however indifferent or powerless to stop his excesses?

The final scene suggests an answer: If God exists, he is all but invisible and inaccessible to us mere mortals–which is to say he practically doesn’t exist at all.

Watch on Youtube

Apparently, you can watch this on Youtube:

Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
Based on King Lear by William Shakespeare
Produced by Katsumi Furukawa, Masato Hara, Serge Silberman
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada, Peter, Hisashi Igawa, Yoshiko Miyazaki
Cinematography Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, Asakazu Nakai
Edited by Akira Kurosawa
Music by Toru Takemitsu
Production companies Herald Ace, Nippon Herald Films, Greenwich Film Productions
Distributed by Toho (Japan), Acteurs Auteurs Associés (France)
Release dates May 31, 1985 (Tokyo), June 1, 1985 (Japan), September 18, 1985 (France)
Running time 162 minutes
Countries Japan, France
Language Japanese
Budget ¥2.4 billion ($11 million)
Box office $19 million (est.)