Ran is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre from 10 – 12 May 2016
Ran is the last and greatest major work from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who had bossed this kind of grand, historical production on the world stage for nearly a half-century before. It was originally released in 1985 to a combination of audience indifference and petty politicking within the Japanese film industry, which hindered any international breakthrough. Now on rerelease in a stunning 4K restoration, it should finally get the recognition it has deserved for so long.
The word “ran” roughly translates as “chaos”, though other possible translations are “confused” or “rebellion” – these are all fitting descriptors for what takes place here. Set in feudal Japan, like so many other of Kurosawa’s stories, it follows approximately the story of King Lear, with a few local folk tales and traditions thrown in for good measure. As with Lear, a seemingly whimsical decision at the beginning by the aging, senile warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) has terrible repercussions far beyond what he could have grasped. After ceding control of the kingdom to his three sons (not daughters, as in Lear), they immediately become ruptured by infighting and plotting of each other’s demise.
Eventually cast out into the wilderness by the antics of his unruly sons, Hidetora initially has only his “fool” Kyoami for company. Kyoami the fool is played by androgynous Japanese cabaret actor “Peter”, in a performance that is somehow hysterical and gravely serious all at once, epitomising the tone of acute unease. Together they must confront Hidetora’s past misdeeds in order to comprehend the present catastrophe.
What ensues is a tale of poisonous revenge and deceit, typified by the interior scenes of treachery and sexual jealousy between the brothers and their wives. This includes a terrific – and terrifying – performance of cold frenzy by Mieko Harada as Lady Kaeda. These hostilities eventually culminate in the most ferocious scenes of battle ever committed to film.
Sustaining the interest throughout is Kurosawa’s extraordinary, apparently maniacal, attention to detail. Each scene is arresting for its own reasons, whether we are focussed on an epic clash involving thousands of bannered horsemen, or the simple image of a blade coursing through a nightgown. Every shot is aflame with colours, with the rich greens of the grassy plains contrasting with fiery reds, yellows and muddy browns of the pitched warfare.
Kurosawa’s vision is ultimately apocalyptic, involving piled bodies and tumultuous storm-clouds, with not even the meagre crumbs of comfort left at the end of Lear for consolation. The gods, we are told, are weeping for humanity’s sustained and unchecked barbarism against itself. (Kurosawa, amongst other things, supposedly intended Ran to be a parable about nuclear destruction.) Yet for all the nihilism on display at its moral centre, Ran is real fire and brimstone cinema that has never been brought more alive.