In sixteenth century Japan, after years of bloody wars one man has prevailed, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), but now he is getting on in age and is considering what to do with his kingdom. He has three sons, and has decided to effectively split that land and property between them, with his eldest Taro (Akira Terao) at the head of the clan and his two younger siblings Juro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryû) will each be awarded castles and a lesser portion of the wealth. After a wild boar hunt, he sits down with his sons and two of his fellow lords who are seeking to marry their daughters to Hidetora's sons, and he announces his plans by demonstrating one arrow is easily broken, but three together are strong. Then Saburo breaks the three...
Ran is generally regarded as acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's last masterpiece, a film a decade in the planning and made when he was in his mid-seventies, thus old enough to sympathise with what was essentially Hidetora's King Lear character. He had adapted a William Shakespeare play before with Throne of Blood, his version of Macbeth, but if anything this was even more ambitious though if he actually did feel sorry for his fallen warlord he was somewhat sadistic in his treatment of him, not letting the man off the hook for any of the evils he may have committed before peace had been manufactured. Was it that he regarded the wisdom of age as nothing of the sort, or was it that nobody, no matter how many years they had on them, learned the lessons of war?
Bear that in mind, for in the mid-eighties the Cold War between East and West had considerably heated up to the extent that diplomatic relations were felt to be on a knife edge. Kurosawa may have planned the project for a long while, but when it arrived halfway through this decade it was more relevant that ever as it seemed as though the world could be very easily destroyed in a matter of mere minutes. This sense that underneath the surface of the planet's societies there was a very precarious balance between the order and the chaos (which was the word Ran translated into English as) and chaos was biding its time until it could reassert itself was shot through every frame of the film, a highly unsettling take on international relations with these clans representing the powers that be, the powers that could take us to utter disaster.
Hidetora is so horrified that what he thought was a great idea has allowed the madness and mass violence to erupt once again that he gives in to senility and goes round the bend, only allowed to realise the enormity of his chickens coming home to roost as a man who founded his kingdom on bloodshed in glimpses so devastating that they send him retreating into his broken mind once again. But there are other agents who even more distressingly welcome the chaos, indeed they breed it, the chief exponent of that being Lady Kaede (the fearsome Mieko Harada) who seems to be organising her life to position herself in the most politically comfortable state possible, yet has all this time been scheming to bring down the Ichimonji clan which laid waste to her family before claiming her as one of their own, ignoring her overwhelming hatred of them at their peril.
Kurosawa took a stark approach to his visuals, leaving his characters largely at a distance better to emphasise their location in the world; few if any closeups, basically, to have us not see anything except their wider place in the perspective of the mounting horror. His use of colour was as striking as anything he had attempted before, with bright primaries contrasting with the bleak hellscapes when things go horribly wrong and war returns to the region, but for all this standing back and surveying each scene, thanks to some grand acting gestures and to the point dialogue we were able to perceive what it was that went on in each of the minds of the players in this drama. The violence when it appeared was delivering on the unholy promise of apocalypse that the eighties were forever threatening to make a reality, with rivers of blood, infernos and that ever-darkening sky bringing home the terror of events spiralling brutally out of anyone's control. Also worth mentioning was Japan’s most celebrated transvestite performer Pîtâ (or Peter, if you prefer) in the jester role, one of the most obvious lifts from the Bard and the sounding board for everyone's anguish. Other changes, such as turning Lear's daughters to sons, could be excused by Kurosawa's use of actual history to flesh out his tale of angst, but it never was more relevant in 1985. Ominous music by Tôru Takemitsu.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.