Blending 16th Century Japanese history, traditional Noh theater conventions, and a Shakespearean narrative, Kurosawa’s Ran tells the story of an aging feudal lord and his sons. Patterned after King Lear, Lord Hidetora wishes to retire after 50 years of conquest and bloodshed. Betrayed by two power-grasping sons, he instead must flee into the wilderness accompanied only by his bitterly perceptive fool and a loyal soldier.
Ran achieves a masterful level of both abstractness and wrenching emotion. A scarcity of close-ups and a repeated motif of cloud images give the film a detached quality. Yet other sequences exemplify Kurosawa’s belief that sound and image should combine to multiply a scene’s emotional impact. Rightfully famous are the scenes showing the assault on Hidetora’s Third Castle: overlaying five minutes of horrifying images of slaughter there are no battle sounds, only the music of Toru Takemitsu’s score, intended by the director to resemble “the wailing of countless Buddhas.”
In creating Ran, director Akira Kurosawa wished to consider how God and Buddha, if they exist, view the same violent cycle of human behavior absurdly repeating itself. Dialogue throughout the film wavers between an angry atheism and a theology in which God woefully watches from a distance but is powerless to alter history.
The final take on this dialectic is expressed wordlessly in the concluding scenes. After almost three hours of unrelenting despair, Ran ends with a man, blinded as a boy by Hidetora, standing alone on the ruins of a castle wall. Having dropped a Buddha scroll into a crevice, whose image stares up sadly yet impotently, the camera pulls back to a very long view of this isolated, vulnerable figure. Aptly, the last sentence in Kurosawa’s screenplay is the single word, “Wretchedness!”