The 1985 period epic Ran is Akira Kurosawa at his most simplistic and most profound. Adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran tells a story of family betrayal in a Japanese imperial household where a doting father falls victim to his acquisitive sons. Similar to his earlier works like Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954), Ran is surprisingly straightforward in its narrative and rendering of characters. Simplicity, indeed, is almost a habit with Kurosawa: never in his films did he tend towards the obscure, though this simplicity is not without intellectual depth.
And no other story ever gave Kurosawa’s genius greater freedom to exercise itself than that of King Lear. The story of a father utterly betrayed in his pride by his own flesh and blood is a perfect occasion to explore the conflict between traditional Japanese moral ideals of Chu (忠) and Ko (孝) and the all-too-human lust for power. Chu and Ko, or loyalty to the king and filial obedience, are the two main pillars of the Japanese moral universe; this in part explains why Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the King Lear in this film, is willing to entrust his kingdom to the sons who demonstrate the most outward filial piety, relying on them to keep their Chu and Ko. Yet this proves a fatal move. Where Hidetora expects fraternity, love, and order, there comes feuding, violence, and chaos. His initial anger at his sons’ blatant betrayal turns into utter fear when, sitting in a flaming fortress besieged by his sons’ raging armies, he recalls the cruelty and lust he himself had displayed in his older days of glory. He feels as if, by a strange twist of fate, he is the victim of his own evil. When his old moral universe of Chu and Ko collapses, his gratitude toward Saburo (his third son, the equivalent of Cordelia in King Lear) expands immeasurably to fill the void. Yet it is not long before this gratitude becomes poisoned by his abject yet overpowering grief and sours into utmost shame at himself and a contemptuous mistrust for humanity. Thus we see him always trembling and flinching, mortally afraid to trust anyone around him. His sole refuge, then, is in madness, where he is able to indulge in his grief safe from human contact. Ran, or Chaos, is just as internal as it is external.
It seems to me the most magnificent part of the film is the final scene, where a blind man in the gathering dusk stands trembling on the edge of a cliff. The silent emptiness of the scene itself acquires an august and statuesque beauty. Alone in the twilight, the blind man stands as the personification of despair—perhaps what Sartre calls “the nausea of existence”. Though a minor character in the film, the blind man may just as well stand for the viewer themselves. Having witnessed the heat of passion and the chill of despair, the viewer is left to contemplate, like the blind man, about the fundamental principles of human existence. But whatever conclusion they eventually come to, nothing could possibly alter that pervasive and overpowering sensation of loneliness and fear which marked the film’s medieval Sengoku era just as they do our own. Only a consummate artist like Kurosawa could encapsulate such complexity within a single iconic image: to contemplate atop the cliff does not—cannot—entail coming to grips with its bottomless depths.
Ran screens October 2nd at 9PM as part of the 53rd New York Film Festival at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.