After seeing King Lear last week and still eager to shovel dollops of culture into my brain, I rented a movie that I’ve been meaning to see for a while: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, an adaptation of Lear that resets the story in Edo-era Japan. I’ve liked the other Kurosawa movies that I’ve seen, and I saw little reason why this one wouldn’t be awesome. It does, after all, take a crushingly dark tale of crushing darkness and then amp up the kickassitude by adding samurai. It had to be awesome, right?
Short review: Ran is awesome!
Longer review: Ran is fucking awesome!!!
Somewhat more thorough review: Ran is a remarkably clean and direct movie. I can see how that could be taken as something of a backhanded compliment, but I don’t mean anything of the sort. When I say that it’s “clean and direct” I mean that it takes a story of intrigue, betrayal, shifting alliances, and high emotion and presents it all in a remarkably non-messy way. There are a lot of things going on, and a lot of really dramatic shit happening, and I kept thinking while I was watching it that there was a lot of potential for the story to get muddled. There was no muddle, though. That’s a big, big deal, that kind of clarity and directness.
I also had a great deal of appreciation for how it was all shot. Most of the scenes had several people in the frame at once, and they tended to react to each other, not the camera. I also don’t remember seeing any close-up shots. Close ups, I think, are somewhat overused. Directors seem to have this attitude of “How should I show the audience that there is emotion going on? Am I going to trust the strength of the narrative? No! I’m going to zoom in uncomfortably close on someone’s face!” Most of the time, though, closeups are really not that compelling. Unless you’ve got an actor who can really pull it off, I don’t think most directors should bother with them.
Oftentimes, I got the impression that I was watching a play that had been filmed, and I mean that in a good way. The actors were all in the frame together, reacting to each other, and even if they were just sitting at attention they didn’t vanish from the action- the director was thinking about the whole scene, not just what happened to be moving about at the time. That’s not something you see very often, and I was impressed by the weird and wonderful stylistic difference between Ran and, well, most everything else.
So it’s well made. Very well made. It’s emotionally compelling, and I was more than a little emotionally effected at the end. It’s great. In and of itself, it’s utterly phenomenal.
But how does it compare to King Lear? Obviously, this must be scored and quantified.
A Few Ways in Which Ran is Totally Better Than King Lear
1. The Cordelia character is actually interesting. Cordelia is one of the weakest bits about Lear. She’s basically Pretty Princess Perfectpants and about as compelling as a Hallmark card. Ran‘s equivalent of Cordelia, Saburo, is someone who actively calls out his dad on his bs, and is somewhat of a swaggering, mouthy guy. Totally better than a stupid little princess.
2. The Fool doesn’t weirdly disappear. One thing that’s always bugged me about Lear: Where the hell is the Fool at the end of the play? Did he get lost in the storm? Wander off? What? I’ve always thought that he got eaten by the bear from The Winter’s Tale, but my theory is not widely subscribed to. In Ran, he’s actually around until the very end, which is more consistent.
3. Evil femme-fatale! Sure, Lear has Goneril and Regan, but they’re not quite this dark. Lady Kaede, a manipulative superbitch who bends men to her will by pouring honeyed words into their ears and also having sex with them, may not exactly be a paragon of feminism, but she was fun to watch. She’s eeeeeeeeevil!
4. Samurai doing the wave! Really. I’m not kidding. It just sort of comes out of nowhere.
A Few Ways in which Ran is Not as Good as King Lear
1. Not enough eye gouging! When I saw King Lear with my friend L, she mentioned that her favorite line in all of Shakespeare was “Out, vile jelly!” spoken triumphantly by Cornwall as he gouges out Glouster’s eyes. Ran does not have an eye-removal scene, which sort of made me sad. There is a guy who’s had his eyes gouged out, but it’s just not the same.
2. No Edmund! Edmund is awesome. I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more fun villains, a clever, conniving charismatic evildoer who, in some productions, gets to make out with Goneril and Regan. Plotting complicated, scheming webs of evil while doing the deed of darkness with a pair of very naughty girls sounds like a fun time to me, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t around. Lady Kaede sort of made up for it, though.
3. No clever disguises! One of the reason why the storm scene is so awesome is that everyone’s either in disguise or insane except for the Fool, a bit of dramatic irony that has fueled thousands of high school English papers. Edgar was pretty much excised, though, and the Kent character in Ran spent barely a scene in his disguise. Working in alternate identities may have bogged down Ran a bit, but I still missed them a little.
4. No Fool banter! Sure, the Fool is in the movie, but he doesn’t have nearly the sort of weirdly omniscient commentary that he has in King Lear. He is, though, quite the spry and jumpy little fellow, and fun to watch. Still, though… I like his stuff that almost breaks the fourth wall.
All in all, though, a great movie. If you like Shakespeare and/or samurai, you should see it. Quite possibly the best Shakespeare movie I’ve ever seen. Well, maybe not the best Shakespeare movie. That would be Ten Things I Hate About You. That movie rocks.