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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

25. Ran [King Lear] (1985)

Shakespearean tragedy can be something of a downer.

To give you some idea of the moody fuck I was before the age of 30, this observation had never quite occurred to me. I remember enticing my friend Numisiri to watch the Zeffirelli Hamlet with me and our friend Sam Van Horne. N did not like the tragedies, but the promise of seeing Helena Bonham Carter enact Ophelia’s mad scene did make her capitulate. The film is wonderful, but it depressed N. Yes, I had to admit, I guess the story is kind of sad.

But as dark as my dramatic tastes ran, there is, in some Shakespearean tragedy, more emotional turmoil than one can normally bear. Pericles comes to mind. Titus Andronicus is grotesquely brutal.

I guess my problem with Lear is that it seems like one of those tragedies in which there are no truly noble flaws, but instead gross foolishness that results in catastrophe for mostly, profoundly terrible people and fuckwits. Lear is like Macbeth that way, except that Lear truly wallows in the brutality of its world, brutishness apparently being contagious.

A father prematurely abdicates his throne to his sycophantic children, except for the youngest, who calls him out for his folly. The good child is banished, and then the old man will be destroyed by his own inability to predict the treachery of his family, his country. 

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, of course, was not written by Shakespeare, not translated from Shakespeare, but merely based on Shakespeare.

Ran poster

Ran came out in 1985, the same year of Back to the Future and Rambo.

Novices to Shakespeare say things like his plays are timeless, that they are universal.

Reprehensible nonsense.

We should not be so impressed by the continued relevance of Will’s work that we get absurdly mystical or dumb down Jung to try to explain why his work still has appealing mysteries for us.

To say he is timeless or universal is to regard his work as homogenously classic. It isn’t. Lear is his early 16th century imaginative take on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of England, written circa 1136.

Ran‘s screenplay, by Kurosawa with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, makes Lear surprising through interpretive choices, like (ahem) changing the plot. For example, there are no daughters of the aged king, but instead the surviving noble daughters of those he has slain.

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The emotions of Ran: the bonds of family, the regrets of age, the weariness of power, and the outrageous sense of betrayal that comes when our fate seems mockingly, comically beyond our control. To have such a hopeless aesthetic borders on cruelty.

Ran 1

Kurasawa’s film is beautiful, though. Feudal Japan, with its green hills and old architecture, seems like human beings are squandering their existence with all of their fury and struggle. The clouds that recur throughout the cinematography also point at heavenly beauty that must elude the horrors of humanity.

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Tatsuya Nakadai as the aged Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (our Lear figure) is a compelling wacko of an old man. The thick stage paint on his face makes his appearance oddly compelling in the countryside, amidst fortresses and pagodas. The lack of realism is jarring, as if the face we wish to show the world is pointless artifice.

Ran 4The paleness of Nakadai’s legs consume me with sorrow, dear reader.

Much is made of how this late masterwork featuring an old man was approached by Kurosawa oh so appropriately in old age. Fine.

But one of the greatest characters and performances in this film is the villain, Lady Kaede, played by Mieko Harada. She is not the villain in her own point-of-view. Instead, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, having defeated her own family, is the villain in her story, a point made no less painful to her as the wife of Ichimonji’s oldest son. She is instrumental in hastening the fall of the house of Ichimonji. Critically, she will entice the other son in a scene that could end in assassination,


or maybe just intimidation,

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or get weirdly erotic involving a neck wound.

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In a film crammed with people driven crazy, she is the craziest.

Kurosawa’s version of Lear is, despite the morbid content, in color, and bright, and is remarkably gorgeous and well-paced, even with a running time of over two hours and forty minutes.

Does a Shakespeare adaptation that is not using the bard’s words still somehow essentially Shakespearean? Kurosawa’s film offers much more backstory than Shakespeare did. Some of the poetry is lost, but much magic was gained. Ran may be better than Lear.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.