Empire or Jidaikgeki #4 – Ran

Ran is the Japanese word for “chaos.” In Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Ran, chaos is examined from several vantage points. At the start there are no obvious conflicts and a sense that tranquility will remain the status quo. That image is shattered when the King, Hidetora, announces his retirement, and divides his kingdom among his sons. Over the course of the film, chaos begins to creep into relationships between characters, the political order, and even the natural world.

By the premiere of Ran in 1985, Kurosawa was in his mid-seventies. He had lived through two world wars, the near complete destruction of his homeland, numerous changes of government, The Great Kanto Earthquake (which resulted in over one hundred thousand deaths), and just a few weeks prior, the death of his wife. There are profound parallels in the experience of Kurosawa and the pivotal character of the film, Hidetora. An aged man, Hidetora thrived in a time of war but finds himself unable to cope with a life of peace. In dividing his kingdom between his three sons, he sets in motion events that will bring about the death of himself and his legacy. The world of Ran is the world of Kurosawa. Life is lived at the whim of forces beyond one’s control, be they political, natural, or familial.

Although the initial transition of power is peaceful, with Hidetora retaining the nominal title of Great Lord, the arrangement soon unravels. Ran depicts this unraveling not as a response to a particular dramatic incident, but rather as a natural response to distance, time, and power. No one in Ran is an antagonist. Similar to Game of Thrones, every character is given enough depth to be on some level sympathetic. Like Cersei Lannister, even the Machiavellian Lady Kaede can justify her body count by the reality of the cutthroat world in which she lives.

Ran is often noted as Kurosawa’s return to the Jidaigeki genre, but it was also his second adaption of Shakespeare. In 1957 he transformed Macbeth from a Scottish king into a Samurai warlord with his epic Throne of Blood. In revisiting familiar ground, Kurosawa was able to focus on the pure craft of filmmaking. Ran was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. It contained large-scale battles enacted in real time, with extras numbering in the thousands. Virtually blind in his later years and becoming uncomfortable in his abilities to direct, Kurosawa spent almost a decade meticulously painting storyboards for each shot of the film. Without the availability of CGI, entire villages were constructed and destroyed for filming. Its scale is unparalleled, and it is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. This is a film that begs to be seen on as large a screen as possible. The imagery alone is rich enough to carry the weight of the story in an engaging way. An example is the climax to the second act of the film, in which Hidetora remains still in his throne room as it burns to the ground.

There is so much to unpack in Ran, and its themes of chaos and nihilism may be more prescient now than they were in the mid 1980’s. Ran argues that the default nature of humanity is chaos. Through social hierarchy, familial obligations, and construction of cities, humanity occasionally manages to create order. Like history, Ran shows us that governments collapse, family is no guarantee of safety, and castles are destined to burn.

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