Akira Kurosawa is rapidly becoming one of my favorite directors. Almost every movie of his that I’ve seen is fantastic, with a few exceptions since there’s no director with a perfect filmography. But when your filmography does have Seven Samurai (1954), Ikiru (1952), Throne of Blood (1957), High and Low (1963), and The Bad Sleep Well (1960), you might as well have an almost perfect track record. This man was even directing into his 70’s, which is how we got his last great work Ran. I don’t want to say it’s his best samurai film, since he made so many and most of them are considered classics. But… no I’m totally saying it’s his best samurai film. It’s a film of epic proportions in both its filmmaking and story telling. Kurosawa kind of hit a ruff patch in the late 1960s and 1970s. But with this movie he pulled out all the stops and created a visually stunning and bleak experience. And I am all in on bleak but beautiful films.
Ran, which roughly translates to “chaos”, follows the story of an elderly warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai). In his old age he decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons. The eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao) is chosen to rule over the land, while the second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and third son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) are told to support their older brother. Saburo is not pleased with this and tells his father he’s wrong. But Hidetaro won’t hear of it and banishes him. But that was a mistake as once Taro is given the title of Great Lord, he kicks his father out. Hidetora tries to appeal to Jiro, but he has his own plans of starting a war with his older brother for the throne. Eventually Hidetaro has nowhere to go and starts to go insane.
The plot is pretty similar to that of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which is the story about a king who divides his land among his children who turn against him. Kurosawa has adapted Shakespeare before for a Japanese audience. Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth and The Bad Sleep Well is based on Hamlet. But the difference with these stories is that King Lear is about a king who is punished for no reason, and by the end a good king is put on the throne. Ran is about bad people being punished in a world with seemingly no God to help them. Hidetaro is a cruel warlord who has no problems banishing his family, killing people, and we even learn that the castles he has he stole from other families and killed them all too. One of the victims is married to Taro named Kaede (Mieko Harada), and all she wants is revenge and schemes her way to getting that vengeance. The other victims are Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki) and her brother Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), whose eyes were gouged out by Hidetora’s army. And because of the many sins Hidetaro has committed, he pays for them in the cruelest way as it’s his own sons that try to take advantage of him and eventually try to kill him.
Probably the best sequence in the whole movie is when both Taro and Jiro team up their armies to kill their father in one of the castles he hides in. Since Taro doesn’t want his father’s personal army to rebel against him, he decides to kill all of them in a bloody battle. When the battle starts the sound cuts out and only the beautiful music can be heard. We don’t need any sound in this moment as we can see the destruction of this battle. Both armies have bright red and yellow banners and armor so that we can see the chaos better. We see people getting chopped up, shot by arrows, women being mowed down by guns, flaming arrows being shot at the castle, and so much blood that it pours down into Hidetora’s room. All the while Hidetora sits in horror as his sons try to kill him. He suffers for his past sins and for that he walks out of the flaming castle, in a depressed state, and just walks into the wilderness. This whole sequence is so fantastic that I would recommend the film just because of this scene.
But there is more to the film as this is a very dark story. Hidetora suffers a lot as everyone and everything in his life is taken from him. But he’s not the only one to suffer. I’ve mentioned how Hidetora’s victims have suffered and, except for Sue who is devoted to God, takes their suffering out on his family. But the ones who really suffer are the sons themselves. Taro, when he becomes the Great Lord, immediately gets too cocky and tries to kill his dad. But he gets punished as during the big battle, one of Jiro’s men shoots him in the back and he becomes the next leader. Jiro is then immediately smitten by Kaede and she takes advantage of this by telling him to start another war with Saburo, which she knows will destroy his kingdom. Like in most Shakespearian tragedies, almost all the main characters die horribly and here it’s no exception. I won’t spoil more than that as the death scenes for each character are so cruel and violent that you need to see them for yourself. This is a very unforgiving movie as the story punishes everyone.
Honestly, Ran is such a beautifully made film that it’s hard to highlight what’s so great about it. I could go on about the Noh inspired acting, the costume design, the music, the cinematography, the big set pieces, the themes of vengeance and how it creates monsters out of men, and even the debate over whether God has given up on humanity as we see bloody battles being waged for no good reason. There’s a lot to unpack in this film and I think that’s a good thing as it keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve seen it. Kurosawa made a few more films after this, but none of them match the same scale and scope that this film does. It’s everything I love about Kurosawa’s directing and I think it’s his last great work.