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Film Review: ‘Ran’

Kurosawa’s Adaptation of ‘King Lear’ Returns to Big Screen

Order and ceremony dominate the beginning of Kurosawa's

Credit: Orion Classics

Above: Order and ceremony dominate the beginning of Kurosawa's "Ran," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear"

Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran," originally made in 1985, returns to the big screen where it belongs with a week-long engagement at Landmark’s Ken Cinema.

Shakespeare wrote, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.” This sums up the bleak view of man’s existence that the Bard presented in “King Lear.” The late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa created the perfect cinematic visualization of this view in his free adaptation of “King Lear,” which he called “Ran.” “Ran,” which is the Japanese word for chaos, transfers the pre-dawn British drama to feudal Japan and with spectacular results.

The language of Shakespeare may be gone but his themes remain. Kurosawa had been contemplating an adaptation of “Lear” for ten years before finally bringing “Ran” to the screen. His idea was to set “Lear” against the backdrop of Japan’s 16th century civil wars and cross the story with the legend of Mori, a feudal warlord who had three good sons. Lear’s story prompted Kurosawa to think what would have happened if Mori’s sons had not been loyal. So Lear’s daughters are transformed into sons but the basic plot remains the same. In this case, Lord Hidetora wants to relieve himself of the burden of power but not the honor and ceremony that attends it. So he divides his lands amongst his sons. The two eldest flatter their father and then betray him whereas the youngest calls his father a fool and is cast aside. But soon Hidetora is humiliated and abused by his two false sons and this drives him to madness.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Orion Classics

After order falls away there is chaos in "Ran"

Kurosawa begins the film with a beautiful sense of symmetry and order -- the visual equivalent of what Shakespeare did with language and verse. In Kurosawa's early images, he centers people in the frame and composes well-balanced shots in which characters often move with great formality. But order soon gives way to chaos. The formality of the betrayers is quickly revealed as a facade: they may observe surface ceremony but they ignore the moral beliefs that should underlie it. They disregard the “giri,” the complex system of interpersonal obligations that form the basis of their culture.

The descent into chaos is marked by the cruel acts of these ungrateful children that do not fulfill their filial obligations. But unlike Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” where nature took offense at the unnaturalness of Macbeth’s crime, “Ran” shows us a world in which nature remains unmoved by human suffering and evil doing. Kurosawa repeatedly shows us impressive skies and immense landscapes that remain serenely unchanged in the face of the heartless crimes committed. He also makes humans look pitifully small and insignificant against the immense backdrop of nature.

Kurosawa presents a god’s eye as his camera records this epic drama with a serene sense of detachment. Yet as viewers we never feel detached but rather find ourselves deeply moved by the human suffering and by Kurosawa’s plea that humankind cease its senseless self-destruction. In his “Seven Samurai,” Kurosawa placed the camera in the middle of the action but in “Ran” the camera seems physically and emotionally above the action. Bodies fall from horses and soldiers die but the camera gives the action no more notice than it does to the breeze rustling the grass. This casual recording of brutality jolts us and prompts us to react even more strongly to the anguish of these all too human characters.

Hidetora’s loyal retainer suggests that the gods are not really indifferent but rather they are simply unable to change man’s foolish nature and therefore resigned to just observe from a distance. Kurosawa leaves us with the hauntingly simple image of a blind man standing on the edge of a precipice as the image of his god stares dispassionately at him. The image sums up the precarious nature of man’s existence and implies how alone humans are.

Yet “Ran” is not relentlessly bleak. There are rays of light in this dark world -- most notably from the characters of the loyal retainer, the fool and a good wife -- as well as unexpected humor. Plus it is one of the most visually striking, beautiful and horrific films ever made. Like Shakespeare before him, Kurosawa sees art and entertainment as two parts of a whole. Both artists appeal to the masses without sacrificing any of their depth or resonance and that is the mark of a true genius.

“Ran” is n Japanese with English subtitles.

Companion viewing: “Throne of Blood,” “King Lear,” “Titus,” “Scotland, PA”

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