30 years after its original release, Akira Kurosawa’s epic Ran receives a welcome return to cinemas in the UK. Beautifully restored from the original negatives this is sumptuous cinema at its finest.
Kurosawa returns to Shakespearean tragedy as the inspiration for his jidaigeki story, following the Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood (1957) with Ran, a colourful reworking of King Lear which combines luscious visual artistry with a torrid family and political drama as well as detailed scenes of bloody battles between clans and families. Swords and (as with Throne of Blood) arrows reign among the death and subterfuge in this Japanese adaptation, re-released to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
Lord Hidetora Ichimonji’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) clan is at the height of its power, ruling a large portion of feudal Japan, even to the extent that he needs to discuss matters and extend courtesies to rival houses in order to maintain control and determine a future for the house of Ichimonji. His means of implementing this succession is to rescind his role as head of the household and ruler of his lands and secede to one of his heirs. His three sons Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) have different outlooks on life, and the youngest, Saburo, appears to be a little vociferous expressing his concerns for a plan he believes to be foolhardy, especially when his father declares that the kingdom and castle number one should go to the eldest, Taro; the other brothers to be given their own family castles to rule under the auspices of their brother. Hidetora also declares that he should remain the Grand Lord in name if not in rule. But the past comes to have a very great influence on the present as the Ichimonji clan’s brutality and dominance have led to not only inter-clan desires for vengeance but also inter-family rivalries with the brothers devising their own plans in a struggle for power. Among the many people with a need for for spiritual resolution or bloody vengeance is Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), whose family castle was incinerated by the clan and she found herself married to Taro (Akira Terao); this has implications for Jiro’s wife Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Bloody battle, internal intrigue and family disintegration are an inevitable consequence.
Recalling many of Kurosawa’s previous works, notably his famed samurai films with their political intrigue set in Japanese historical times, right up to his previous film Kagemusha (1980), Ran is an epic of subterfuge and sinister plans that similarly utilises colour to great effect in its scale and scope. Also collaborating on Ran was Kurosawa’s long time friend and associate from his earlier film career, Ishirō Honda (best known for directing the original Godzilla films), whose co-directing role here helps enhance the scale of the astonishingly complex battle sequences. This is a film of profound contrasts as the cinematography takes in the lush mountain landscapes, the striking colour of clan dress, the shots of the castles creating a genuine sense of time and location as well as the environmental aspects of the weather in the manifestation of the clouds and sun all set within the context of a plot with such intrigue surrounding the events as they play out, with often shocking consequences. This extends not only to the distinctive artistic photography but also the fascinating characterisation with its twists and revelations that form part of the emergent plot. This is a film where even apparently minor characters, or events that have taken place well in advance of the film’s opening declarations of Hidetora Ichimonji, have significant implications for the family and the region. Particularly interesting is the minstrel character/servant Tango Hirayama (Masayuki Yui) who reflects aspects of both Shakespeare and Noh in his humour and political stance – ‘Comic songs can go too far,’ he notes, as the relevance of past events comes to fruition. Also important is the role of women of the film, not just as victims but with varying purposes throughout the narrative, from the calculating Lady Kaede, who recalls aspects of Lady Asaji Washizu’s character in Throne of Blood, to the complex background, struggles and purposes of Lady Sue.
Ran makes for essential viewing on so many levels. The 4K restoration shows the film in crisp and accurate form that restores it to how originally it was intended. Taken from the original, edited negatives this is clearly a lengthy labour of love. Ran is released in cinemas on the 1st April and will be available on EST from the 25th April and a gorgeous blu-ray edition on the 2nd May.