Ranking: #53/111

Director: Akira Kurosawa (Japan)

Genre: Shakespearean Period Drama/Tragedy

In Ran, Akira Kurosawa has engineered a highly imaginative merging of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy King Lear with a Japanese parable about a 16th Century warlord called Mōri Motonari. He has transferred the setting for the tragedy to medieval Japan during a time of almost constant civil conflicts. King Lear becomes a feudal lord, Hidetora Ichimonji (based loosely on Mōri Motonari), and Lear’s three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia are swapped for three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. But the core idea of the great tragedy remains, which is to trace a fall from absolute power to destitution, following a naive attempt to divide up a kingdom between competing successors, some of whom have dubious characters.

Hidetora decrees that Taro, the eldest son, will be leader of the Ichimonji clan and that he will stay in the imposing First Castle, while Jiro and Saburo are given the Second and Third Castles, respectively. Due to competing interests and ambitions, this plan soon unravels and Hidetora, like King Lear, is ostracised. The old lord is left with next to nothing.

I found this placement of this well-known Shakespearean tragedy into an authentic Japanese period drama to be mesmerising.

As befits an epic, Kurosawa does everything on a grand scale. There are some spectacular far shots and long shots around Japan’s largest active volcano, Mount Aso. This cinematography is exquisite. In the opening sequence, it is as if the very mountains and valleys have been imbued with a tension, the tension of a troubled world of civil strife.

As a past master at capturing action, such as we saw in Seven Samurai and Rashomon, Kurosawa spares no expense, or effort, in producing extraordinary battle scenes. He often shot scenes with three cameras simultaneously, using different lens. In the editing process he sometimes used jump cuts to increase the pace of these action shots, creating visually dynamic sequences. As with the battles filmed in Seven Samurai, the action sequences in Ran are compelling.

It took master tailors over two years to complete by hand the 1,400 uniforms and suits of armour used for by extras in the film. In addition, about 200 horses were needed.  So, from the initial concept of creating an authentic Japanese version of Shakespeare’s King Lear to the logistics involved in filming an epic drama, filled with emotion and action, everything about Ran speaks of a vast artistic ambition, to which this veteran master filmmaker was equal.

And, yet, in the end, it is a bleak and bloodthirsty epic, with a desolation that borders on nihilism. The arid, volcanic ash on the hills contrasts with the fertile valley and symbolises this mood of total loss and hopelessness.

Kurosawa’s work is known for the humanity of his story-telling, but in Ran, one of his final films, the focus is on tragedy and on a dark, philosophical fatalism. All in all, though, this is an imaginative and richly realised adaptation of a major Shakespearean tragedy.