by HELEN GEIB
Akira Kurosawa’s late-career masterpiece Ran tells a story inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear and a folk tale of feudal-era Japan. It follows the declining fortunes of the powerful Ichimonji family: patriarch Hidetora; first son Taro; his wife Kaede; second son Jiro; Jiro’s wife Sue; and third son Saburo. Each man’s retainers follow their own master as the family splinters, most of them to their deaths. Ultimately and inevitably, internal dissension leads to the destruction of the great fiefdom Hidetora spent his life building on the bones of his vanquished rivals.
Ran is a rich work of great artistry. Essays could be (and likely have been) written on the direction, production design, music, cinematography, and performances, as well as many of the themes and the relationship of the text to Shakespeare’s play and the Japanese tale. I suspect that I will respond to it a little differently each time I see it. On my first viewing, I was most strongly moved by the fates of Hidetora’s daughters-in-law, and by the way their pitiable lives illuminated one of the film’s central preoccupations: how people survive when their minds have been broken by emotional suffering.
Taro and Jiro’s marriages were political alliances made with neighboring clans. (Saburo marries into the ruling family of a bordering fiefdom after his expulsion from the clan at the beginning of the film; as an outsider, his wife has no part to play in the tragedy and is unseen in the film.) After marrying Taro to Kaede, Hidetora took advantage of his new in-laws expectation of security to attack and conquer their fiefdom, killing the entire family except for his daughter-in-law and occupying their castle as his new principal residence. He followed basically the same procedure with Sue’s family, but sparing one of her brothers, a young boy who was blinded to render him harmless in adulthood.
Like Lear, Hidetora famously escapes his suffering by retreating into the madness of second childhood. Sue escapes into religious faith. Her immersion is total; she is a living Buddha, or in Christian terminology, a woman of an otherworldly saintliness. Although Sue appears on-screen only in a few brief scenes, her presence in the film seems much greater than the size of her role would suggest because she is a potent counterpoint to Kaede, a character with a much larger and more direct part to play in the family’s tragedy. Deranged by loss, but refusing to crumple under it, Kaede becomes a demon; she is a woman who has sold her soul for vengeance.
The diametric opposition between the sisters-in-law is established by their respective roles in the family drama and the actress’s performances, and reinforced by the settings in which they appear. Sue is always seen out of doors and alone except for one elderly woman attendant and her blind brother, emphasizing her powerlessness and the way she exists on the margins of human society. Her opposite in this as in every way except their shared stories, Kaede appears always in this society’s equivalent of the castle’s throne room. She faces down her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, at all times taking the fullest advantage of her position as wife of the eldest son. When Jiro and his retainers come to her to deliver the news of Taro’s death, there is no question who is the strongest person in the room.
Hidetora, who has a strong attachment to Sue, cannot comprehend how she can look on him with anything but hatred and loathing. Yet he is blind to the fact that Kaede, with the same history as Sue, is consumed by just those emotions. He sees Kaede only as a mirror for his own preoccupations with status and power. His sons follow his example: Taro has his father’s desires and equally sees them reflected in his wife, while Jiro is blinded by the apparent reflection of his lust. Perhaps the most intelligent and perceptive character in the film, and certainly the most ruthless and conniving, Kaede masterfully plays upon the sons’ weaknesses. Her victims become willing instruments of her revenge.
Most of the audience cheered at Kaede’s death. I could not. She is evil, and her cruelty to the innocent Sue is fathomless and abhorrent. But I mourned equally for both women. Kaede suffered cruelly at the hands of the Ichimonji men, and I exulted with her when she realized her triumph at the destruction of their dynasty.
A note on the DVD release: Ran is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a restored transfer with newly translated English subtitles. The profuse extra features include a commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, a brief “appreciation” of the film recorded by director Sidney Lumet, a documentary by director Chris Marker called “AK,” a documentary on the making of the film from the “Toho Masterworks” series on Kurosawa, a video piece reconstructing Ran from Kurosawa’s pre-production paintings and sketches, a new video interview with star Tatsuya Nakadai, theatrical trailers, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Michael Wilmington and interviews with Kurosawa and composer Toru Takemitsu.
New releases this week: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, Red, Tuya’s Marriage