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And yet, when discussing Ran shortly before its premiere at the 1985 New York Film Festival, Kurosawa insisted his epic was, ultimately, optimistic. To be sure, he acknowledged, "Many people have accused me of a certain amount of pessimism. But I don't believe that's true of this film. I believe that it is necessary to look desperation in the face. They say that pessimism is when you cannot see beyond your immediate desperation. But if you stare desperation in the face, this is the only way to see the happiness that lies beyond it.
"The farthest thing from my mind while I'm making a film is to teach anybody anything. I have no desire to impose my personal philosophy on my audience. But I do feel that the world as a whole has come to such a pass that our situation is tragic. I feel it is therefore of great importance to encounter this desperate situation face-to-face, and not turn away from it, in order to find a way out, to find the light of a new beginning."
While preparing his enlightening tragedy, Kurosawa once again sought inspiration from William Shakespeare, who previously provided Kurosawa with source material for Throne of Blood (a 1957 re-imagining of Macbeth) and The Bad Sleep Well (an audacious 1960 update of Hamlet). Kurosawa initially intended to spin a story based on the life of Motonari Mori, the 16th-century warlord whose three sons still are revered in Japan as models of filial virtue. As he progressed, however, the legendary filmmaker was intrigued by the idea of turning history on its head: What, he wondered, would have happened had Mori's sons been more like Lear's daughters?
"I had already done a straight adaptation of Shakespeare, Macbeth as Throne of Blood. But my view of Lear is that he must be the opposite phenomenon. Macbeth begins as a fairly good person, and over the course of the play, with the intensification of his ambition, he becomes a very evil person. Though it isn't stated in King Lear, I feel that Lear starts out at the point where Macbeth finishes. The evils have all been done. And the development of his character is toward the good, as he throws away all his ambitions for power. This comparison is something that interested me greatly. In Shakespeare's play, the character of Lear never reflects on his own past. He doesn't seem to understand why things are happening to him the way they do. But I feel that a reason for his madness in the play is that his evil past is coming back on him. Unless I interpret it this way, I cannot justify what happens to him."
In Ran, King Lear morphs into Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai, star of Kagemusha), the aging ruler of a land forcefully united through wars and repression. Hoping to enjoy the fruits of his violent labors, he announces his intention to abdicate the throne and to turn authority over to his eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao). "It is time to stable the steeds of war," Hidetora grandly announces, "and give free rein to peace." But the steeds don't stay stabled for long.
The trouble begins when Taro's manipulative wife, Kaede (Mieko Harada), encourages her husband to solidify his new status by stripping Hidetora of his largely symbolic titles and perks. Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), Hidetora's second son, also wants Hidetora neutralized. More important, he also wants Taro's throne. Jiro is willing to kill to fulfill his ambitions. But even at his worst, he's no match for Kaede, who turns out to be, in the tradition of Throne of Blood, another Lady Macbeth clone. Kaede seduces Jiro -- at knifepoint -- then eggs her husband's killer into a rash war against Hidetora's one faithful son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Nothing good comes of this.
Ran abounds with breathtaking set pieces: the fiery assault on Hidetora's Third Castle, and the killing of his retainers by the armies of his traitorous sons; the tumultuous battle scenes, masterpieces of boldly inventive editing and composition; and perhaps most haunting, Hidetora's excruciatingly long descent from a burning tower to a courtyard filled with soldiers. Hidetora, his lined face and red-rimmed eyes suggesting the mask of a Noh tragedian, isn't bothered much by the troops; he looks so much like a ghost, they're too frightened to kill him.
The genius of Kurosawa's Ran is that for all its scenes of death and destruction, it does indeed point a way toward higher ground. By showing the worst that men can do, Kurosawa also suggests a possibility for nobility and redemption. By destroying all illusions, he nevertheless revives hope.
To give Akira Kurosawa the last word on the subject: "The character of Hidetora begins at the point of the pinnacle of worldly power and confidence -- as a result of having carried out unspeakable deeds throughout his life to attain that power. What happens to him in the course of the film is he is forced to pay for his misdeeds. And it is at the point where he has almost fallen to the depths of misery and desperation -- when he is being treated not like a great warrior, but like a beggar -- that he arrives at his first understanding of what is important in life. Through his downfall, he attains a kind of purity and has his first glimpse of clear blue sky when he realizes that all he really needs is the love and understanding of one faithful son.
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