To steal a phrase from the popular Lord of The Rings meme, "One does not simply adapt Shakespeare." I mean this will all seriousness; because it is hard encapsulate the deep-seeded ideologies, multiple narratives, and poetic grandeur of the world's most well known bard. When it fails, it seems like a skeleton of a narrative that offers little more to the viewers than a overdone storyline that anybody could have offered. However, when one does adaptations of Shakespeare correctly the result is epic filmmaking that captures the human condition on film and inevitably rips violently at the heart strings of its viewers. Akira Kurosawa's Ran, an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear is one such example. In the matter of two and a half hours, Kurosawa manages to make the screen explode with the ebb and flow of human suffering from the eyes of Eastern ideology. The actors deliver their various performances with such conviction and subtly that it gives the best of Shakespearean troupes a run for their money. The excellent narrative is only helped by Kurosawa's unflinching cinematic grandeur, which continually encompasses both the large ideas of the world and the tiniest of moments in a being's existence. I often have a battle in my mind between Ozu and Kurosawa for best Japanese director, but it is films like this one that remind me that the late director of Seven Samurai may just edge out his fellow countryman.
As an adaptation of King Lear, one can imagine the levels of deceit and familial disappointment that exist within Ran and Kurosawa certainly shows these notions. The film focuses on the stepping down from power of a once great ruler named Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadi) who realizes that his time in charge is over. As such, he places power in the hands of his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) who accepts his responsibility with nervous gratitude. His younger sons react in opposing manners; Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) gladly follows the orders of his father as middle keeper of the lineage, while the youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryo) mocks the decision and steps away from his ties to the family altogether. Befuddled, Hidetora attempts to continue on his way without his youngest son. Foolishly, Hidetora assumes that his transfer of power will still allow him all the rights of ruler without the responsibilities. However, Taro's wife Kaede (Mieko Harada) pushes her husband to demand his place a ruler, ultimately, causing Taro to confront his father in a rather violent manner. What results are various levels of deceit amongst the family, the employees of the clan and the villagers surrounding the castle. In violent, yet poetic, fashion the rest of the film builds up to a war between the brothers all awaiting the return of their father who goes blind and crazy, as a result of his decision. Ironically, although very Shakespearean, the only voice of reason throughout the film appears to be the fool Kyoami (Pita) who through song and rhymes explains the problems of human existence. Ultimately, all the characters die either through violent ends or heartbreak, but viewers should not be surprised, because after all King Lear is a tragedy. There is certainly more to the plot I just explained, but to go into any greater detail would be to ruin its watchability, it is far more experiential than a simple paragraph could ever hope to show.
The important question to ask when discussing Ran is how precisely is it an acceptable adaptation of a Shakespeare play. The first element that makes the film a great adaptation is its loyalty to the original text. While the names of the characters and their exact words have changed from the original source material, they, nonetheless, reflect King Lear rather clearly and it does not take a Shakespeare scholar to realize this. Secondly, performance is key to making Shakespeare adaptations acceptable. Without a deep understanding of the words and ideas being expounded the film will fall flat, however, as I noted earlier, Ran is full of brilliant performances and even knowing that I do not understand a bit of Japanese, I still managed to gather the deep moving nature of each word spoken by the characters in the film, not once was a line delivered dully. The final factor, and perhaps most difficult to manage is to ensure that any adaptation of a Shakespeare work be unique and fresh. Ran does this, perhaps more successfully than any other filmic adaptation I have seen to date, including Kurosawa's own adaptation of The Bad Sleep Well, although from a formalist standpoint it is a far superior film. Perhaps Ran is so unique given that it is Japanese, yet Kurosawa's use of The Buddha, samurai code and the world of feudal Japan to rethink a story of familial deceit seem so original that I kept having to remind myself that he was borrowing heavily from Shakespeare. With that being said, I guess what ultimately makes a Shakespeare adaptation work is the ability of a director to blatantly steal the bard's work, yet, doing such a good job of thievery that it seems like their own. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, at times it can match, or, dare I say, outdo the original.
Some time ago, Criterion possessed the rights to Ran, but given their recently ended relationship with Studio Canal it appears as though it will never come back. However, if you find yourself with the finances, picking up a copy of the out of print DVD will certainly prove rewarding.