Andrew Osmond revisits a restored classic.
In 1985, Akira Kurosawa released his last epic film, Ran (meaning “Chaos”). The Japanese-French co-production was inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear but it transposed the tragedy to the lost Japan of many Kurosawa classics, of violent swordplay, doomed heroes and harsh morality. Such films – Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and more – had made Kurosawa one of the highest-regarded directors on the planet.
Yet these films were all twenty or thirty years old. Since the mid-1960s, Kurosawa had spent long years in the wilderness, leading many critics to draw parallels with the aimlessly wandering protagonist of Ran. At least one reason was the changing state of Japanese cinema. In America, auteur directors – many of them worshippers of Kurosawa – were lionised with the “New Hollywood” movement from the late 1960s. It was different in Japan.
As the critic Donald Richie wrote in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, “By the mid-sixties, the Japanese companies were in search of blockbusters and increasingly unwilling to treat great artists any differently than the journeyman-directors who could be trusted to turn out several formula films a year within limited budgets.” Red Beard (1965) was Kurosawa’s last film made wholly in the Japanese studio system until 1991’s Rhapsody in August. Red Beard was also Kurosawa’s last film in black and white, and his final collaboration with his most famous leading man, Toshiro Mifune.
“Kurosawa sought American budgets because film-making in Japan was closed to him,” Richie writes. That led to the farce of Tora! Tora! Tora! Kurosawa was invited to co-direct this Fox epic film about the Pearl Harbor attack, but the shoot culminated in the director seemingly losing his mind and acting as an unhinged tyrant over his crew. In one infamous incident, Kurosawa suddenly demanded the entire set he was using be repainted a different colour, when the production was already wildly behind schedule. Kurosawa was sacked.
Kurosawa then made a low-budget independent film, Dodesukaden (1970), about slum dwellers including a boy who thinks he’s a tram driver. Even made so cheaply, the film flopped, though anime director Sunao Katabuchi cites Dodesukaden as an influence on his film about imaginative children, Mai Mai Miracle. In 1971, Kurosawa attempted suicide.
After such a grim low, his fortunes improved, though slowly. Kurosawa received Soviet funding to make the 1975 film Dersu Uzala, about a hardy Siberian hunter, sometimes compared to Nanook of the North. After that, he worked on two Japanese period epics, Kagemusha and Ran. The former film was made in 1980, thanks to the intervention of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who scrabbled up foreign funding despite the debacle of Tora! Tora! Tora!
Hugely budgeted by Kurosawa’s standards ($6 million), Kagemusha was a hit. It was a “doppelganger” story, about a criminal who resembles a Japanese warlord and is absorbed into the impersonation. The dual role was played by the actor Tetsuya Nakadai, who would also play the lead role in Ran.
Nakadai is a distinguished stage and film actor, who’s still working as of writing. Earlier in his career, he had appeared in Kurosawa samurai films, though he had a bigger role as Hideko Takamine’s manager in the Mikio Narusa drama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Nakadai also has anime credits, sensually voicing a phallus-shaped Satan in the extraordinary Belladonna of Sadness (1973). More recently, Nakadai had a part in Isao Takahata’s Princess Kaguya and voiced the old man in the prologue and epilogue to Giovanni’s Island.
In Ran, Nakadai plays another warlord character, Hidetora, the film’s equivalent of King Lear. Hidetora has led a cruel and bloody life, waging war for fifty years, but hopes for a peaceful twilight as he bequeaths power to his sons. However, he is betrayed, banished and repeatedly destroyed as the violence he has lived by cycles round again. Although Nakadai was in his early fifties, the film presents Hidetora as a wizened seventy-year-old who becomes ever more ravaged, stumbling blindly into mist or trying to bury himself in the earth as his kingdom burns.
Ran was made with the help of a Polish-born French producer Serge Silberman, who had financed the last films of surrealist Luis Bunuel. On the Japanese side, Ran was funded by Herald Ace, the production arm of the foreign film distributor Nippon Herald. It was Kurosawa’s most expensive film, involving 250 horses and 1,400 extras. Although Silberman officially had final cut, Ran was still an auteur epic, unremittingly downbeat. While Kurosawa’s decline in the 1960s had coincided with the rise of “New Hollywood,” Ran was the kind of film that was dead in Hollywood after the disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.
In Ran, huge armies flow across fields under bright-coloured waves of banners; then soldiers tumble in ungainly arcs to the earth, shot down by enemy hordes huddled under trees. Kurosawa’s films are often compared to Westerns, but Ran put critics in mind of War and Peace. Another battle, full of terrible images, is silent save for a mournful score by composer Toru Takemitsu, until a pivotal character is killed and the diegetic world returns. Later, Hidetora’s wordless, strangled screams are magnified and echoed as Kurosawa interprets one of Lear’s most famous “speeches” – “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” You can see Ran echoed in everything from Saving Private Ryan (the use of sound in battle) to The Two Towers (a fantastically aged king).
Some of Ran’s location filming was done around Mount Aso in Kyushu, but a central sequence – the sacking and burning of Hidetora’s third castle – was filmed on the black sands of Mount Fuji. The film-makers themselves battled a capricious winter fog that could reduce visibility to nil. The castle was specially built, then drenched with 400 litres of kerosene and burned – one of the last grand examples of Hollywood-style excess before CG replaced reality on screen. The Fuji shoot was commemorated in an impressionistic “making-of” film called AK, by Chris Marker (La Jetee), also included on the Blu-ray.
Kurosawa’s film has elements of Japan’s Noh theatre, especially in the early scenes with rigidly unmoving actors; the style recalls a past Shakespeare adaptation by Kurosawa, Throne of Blood. In one overhead shot, a character runs through castle grounds while dozens of extras stand frozen around him. Ran also feels like an unbowdlerised fairy tale, with gushing blood and no happy ending. The opening – very close to King Lear – has a feeling of narrative inevitability as Hidetora gives up his power to his sons. One shockingly insults his father, and is banished; too late will Hidetora realise this rogue son was telling him truths that might have saved him.
The three sons replace the three daughters in Shakespeare’s play. However, Ran is largely dominated by a woman, Hidetori’s terrible daughter-in-law Kaede. On the one hand, she’s given a clear motive for her actions; Hidetora butchered her family during his past conquests. However, Kaede is also made folkloric. She demands the head of a female rival like Snow White’s evil queen, and is compared in the script to a Japanese fox spirit. One of Kaede’s most famous scenes, where she transforms from submissive to murderous in a blink, enshrines her among the great femme fatales, with a blood-licking perversity that would go down a storm on Game of Thrones.
Kaede is played by Mieko Harada, who like Nakadai is still working today. Kurosawa biographer Stuart Galbraith (author of The Emperor and the Wolf) notes, “After Ran, Harada went on to win virtually every acting honour in Japan.” One of her more recent roles was a support part in the 2012 film The Cowards Who Looked To The Sky, shown in the recent Japanese Foundation touring film programme.
Another memorable, though perhaps more divisive, presence is the performer Peter, the professional name of Shinnosuke Ikehata. Before Ran, the androgynous-looking Peter had played male and female characters on stage, and was a drag star on TV. Kurosawa cast him as Hidetora’s jester Kyoami, who has much more screen time than characters who are ostensibly more important to the story. Peter’s clowning is not to all tastes, while his pink-and-striped costume in the first scene may remind many viewers of a modern tracksuit rather than a Fool’s garb from the middle ages. But Peter ably carries the far darker later scenes, becoming a mouthpiece for Ran’s despairing moral.
Akira Terao, who plays Hidetora’s oldest son Taro, was a pop-star, best known for a 1981 hit song called “Ruby no Yubiwa.” Another actor to look out for is Hitoshi Ueki, who plays Fujimaki, a treacherous lord. Ueki had been a comedy legend in the 1960s, often appearing in salaryman roles, and brought the same style to Ran (Kurosawa, on Ueki’s account, approved). However, as Galbraith notes, “his character’s humour was lost on Western audiences unfamiliar with (Ueki’s) screen and television persona.” Indeed, it’s quite possible to miss Ueki completely, amid the anguished Nakadai, terrifying Harada and rabbit-impersonating Peter.
The big omission from the cast, of course, was Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa never worked with his greatest star after Red Beard, though the reasons for their estrangement have never been clear. Mifune died more than once as a young man in Kurosawa’s samurai films; it would have been fascinating to have seen him as an aged warlord, stumbling through the smoke and carnage of the director’s own final razing of history. Kurosawa said that Ran “would round out my life’s work in film.”
Donald Richie claimed that, when he suggested to Kurosawa that Mifune would have been perfect for Ran, the director retorted he would never work with an actor who had appeared in Shogun, the American TV miniseries. If true, it’s an astoundingly bitter rejection of the man who was the on-screen soul of Kurosawa’s cinema.
Kurosawa, in fact, stressed that Ran was meant to be bigger than any of its characters, a story told as if from the vantage of gods looking down from heaven, never intervening. In fact, this is an alienating quality of the film. Many of Ran’s characters (for example, the saintly, tragic Lady Sue and her mutilated brother Tsurumaru) feel more like abstract plot functions than living people. Yet there’s still a dreadful greatness to Hidetora, and also Kaede, however hollowed out they are of meaning, compassion or hope.
If Kurosawa had rid himself of his most famous collaborator, he still had friends behind the camera. Ran’s woman production manager was Teruyo Nogami, who had worked with Kurosawa since the days of Rashomon and Throne of Blood (In 2015, Nogami would attend Ran’s thirtieth anniversary screening at the Tokyo Film Festival.) Ishiro Honda worked on Ran as Chief Assistant Director; he had filmed the rubble of post-war Tokyo for Kurosawa’s Stray Dog in 1949, and then directed the first Godzilla and many of the monster films it spawned.
Honda would reteam for Kurosawa for his last films (see below), but for others on the crew this was the end. Ryu Kuze, who had handled the swordplay for 1961’s Yojimbo, died during Ran’s production. So did Fumio Yanoguchi, Kurosawa’s sound man, whose death is commemorated in the AK making-of, with images of his last days on the shoot. For Kurosawa, the greatest loss was the death of his wife, Yoko, towards the end of Ran’s production.
Despite his bereavement, and Kurosawa’s suggestions that Ran would be his last film, he did not stop working. In the decade after Ran, he made three more films: Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991, featuring Richard Gere) and Madadayo (1993). All, though, were career codas, much smaller works than Ran and with far more divided critical receptions. Ran was the last grand statement by the Emperor of Japanese cinema. Indeed, Ran’s final desolate shots even suggest a phrase from another Shakespeare tragedy: the rest is silence.