During his illustrious career, when asked what he considered to be his best film, Akira Kurosawa would commonly respond “my next one”. After 1985, however, his answer changed to Ran. At once gloriously epic and deeply personal, there are clear parallels to be found between the ageing director – who was 73 when filming started – and his crumbling protagonist, Hidetora (an incredible Tatsuya Nakadai). By the time the production began, Kurosawa was almost blind, with his long-time collaborators such as cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and production designer Yoshirô Muraki crafting his vision from descriptions and canvases that the he painted in preparation.
During the shoot, Yōko Yaguchi, Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, sadly passed away. The resulting is a glorious hurricane of colour, emotion and madness, which re-tools Shakespeare’s King Lear for feudal Japan. The Bard’s play is used loosely here, Kurosawa picking out thematic waypoints and certain narrative elements. As Lear proposed his kingdom be split between his three daughters, so the elderly warlord Hidetora deigns to divide his ruthlessly conquered lands between three sons; Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû). As is typical of Kurosawa’s interest in cycles of violence, this decisions leads to infighting and eventually war driving Hidetora into madness amidst the chaos and forcing him to confront the ghosts of his own bloody history. The performance that Nakadai gives in doing this is extraordinary. In a similar way to how Kurosawa transformed Toshirô Mifune’s Washizu from a naturalistic western-style character to a traditional Noh theatre archetype in his Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood, so he adopts a similar approach here.
Nakadai’s turn is one that becomes increasingly more theatrical and physical as the narrative develops. His thickening make-up takes on a blue tinge that typically symbolises madness while his face contorts into an expression resembling the Noh mask of shiwajo – sometimes described as an old man whose sins mean his is spirit condemned to eternally roam the Earth. That literally appears to occur onscreen as a senile Hidetora staggers into a storm and disappears into the sweeping landscapes of Mount Aso and its surrounding environs. The tumult in his mind, and of his soul, is echoed in the clash of swords as his sons vie for leadership of the Ichimonji clan and other nearby warlords plan to usurp Hidetora’s kingdom.
Mieko Harada is positively poisonous as the Machiavellian Lady Kaede, a Lady Macbeth-like figure in her means, but whose ends tie in once more the blood-stained past of the region and the cataclysmic destruction of Hidetora. His tragic fate is at its most striking when he fleas the safety of one of his sons castles for the last time in a siege sequence of imperious visual grandeur. Various armies mount an assault on Castle Three, filmed on the smoking slopes of Mount Fuji. It is epic warfare on a spectacular level that can condescendingly ruffle the hair of the CGI battles that litter today’s blockbuster cinema. However, it is the intimacy of even the most gargantuan conflicts that hit home in Kurosawa’s masterful hands. He strikes with a warrior’s precision, and paints with an artist’s expression, but it’s the poetry of Ran that delivers its unforgettable force.