"As critic Roger Ebert observed in his original review of Ran, this epic tragedy might have been attempted by a younger director, but only the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who made the film at age 75, could bring the requisite experience and maturity to this stunning interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It’s a film for the ages—one of the few genuine screen masterpieces—and arguably serves as an artistic summation of the great director’s career. In this version of the Shakespeare tragedy, the king is a 16th-century warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora) who decides to retire and divide his kingdom evenly among his three sons. When one son defiantly objects out of loyalty to his father and warns of inevitable sibling rivalry, he is banished and the kingdom is awarded to his compliant siblings. The loyal son’s fears are valid: a duplicitous power struggle ensues and the aging warlord witnesses a maelstrom of horrifying death and destruction. Although the film is slow to establish its story, it’s clear that Kurosawa, who planned and painstakingly designed the production for 10 years before filming began, was charting a meticulous and tightly formalized dramatic strategy. As familial tensions rise and betrayal sends Lord Hidetora into the throes of escalating madness, Ran (the title is the Japanese character for "chaos" or "rebellion") reaches a fever pitch through epic battles and a fortress assault that is simply one of the most amazing sequences on film." (text taken from Amazon)
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Ran Review and Discussion Questions
Names: Kierah Hanna and Matt Martocci
School: Upper St. Clair High School
Course/Grade Level Taught: Honors/MYP World History – 10th Grade
Film: RAN (1985) by director Akira Kurosawa
Suitable Grade Levels: Grades 9-12. The film utilizes powerful imagery and symbolism to convey thematic concepts on Japanese feudalism. Due to the length of the film (165 minutes), it would be challenging to show in entirety to any grade level. Additionally, throughout the film there is some violence, and although it does not reach the graphic nature of some of today’s film violence, it may not be appropriate for younger viewers. For example, in an act of desperation Hidetora (main character) and his concubines attempt to commit ceremonial suicide. The concept of seppuku would require some contextualization for younger viewers. Additionally, in several battle scenes, although there is a large amount of blood, it is stylized as bright, almost comic book color.
The film RAN follows the story of the aging, Japanese warlord Hidetora. In an attempt to restore peace, while still maintaining indirect control over his kingdom, Hidetora abdicates his power and divides the kingdom between his three sons - Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Hidetora requests to live out his years as an honored guest in the castle of each of his sons, expecting each son to take turns hosting the de-facto leader of the kingdom. In the opening scenes, after hunting, Hidetora expresses his wishes to his sons. While the older two sons flatter their father, the youngest son attempts to warn him of expecting the three sons to remain united. The youngest son, Saburo, thinks his father, who gained power through war and treachery, is foolish to expect his sons not to use the same violent methods to compete for absolute control over the kingdom. When Saburo expresses his opinion, Hidetora mistakes these comments as a threat against his authority. Enraged, he banishes his youngest son, leaving the two older brothers in charge of the remaining two castles. Hidetora foolishly strikes out Saburo as a matter of pride. Influenced by their wives, trusted advisors and own greed, it is not long before Taro and Jiro eventually betray their father. Taro and Jiro jockey to gain power and control over the kingdom from their father and each other. This betrayal ultimately leads to war, dividing the family and driving Hidetora insane.
Inspired by Shakespeare's King Lear and the legends of the daimyo Mori Motonari, the film Ran is about political authority as much as it is about family dynamics. Many key plot and character elements from Shakespeare’s King Lear are incorporated into Ran. Both works are set during the feudal period, following aging kings who decide to give away authority to unworthy, manipulative children. Both Hidetora and Lear wish to maintain the power of the king, while unburdening himself the responsibility. Both characters are accustom to absolute power and do not respond well to challenges against their authority (example: Saburo and Cordelia - Lear’s youngest daughter - challenging the decision making of the respective kings). Although Saburo and Cordelia are truly devoted and love their fathers, it goes unnoticed by the kings. Hidetora and Lear both value the appearance or expression of love over actual loyalty and devotion. In relinquishing power, both Lear and Hidetora deliver their families and the entire kingdoms into chaos. The stable, hierarchal feudal order that Lear and Hidetora initially represent falls apart as disorder engulfs the kingdom.
We have used the portions of the film and excerpts from the play King Lear to highlight examples of the hierarchical structure of feudalism, samurai/knight culture and ultimate decline of feudalism in Medieval western Europe and Japan. The film and play fit perfectly into a comparative unit on feudalism. Because both the film and play are long and at an advanced reading level, we utilize only selected excerpts. By starting the film at chapter one through chapter eight on the DVD, students will be able to grasp on the basic plot as Hidetora divides his kingdom, banishes Saburo and Taro and Jiro begin to plot against their father. The last portion we have used was chapter fourteen. In this section, Taro openly attacks and banishes Hidetora, plunging the kingdom into chaos and war. For the play, we have used portions from act one, scenes one through five. These excerpts correspond with the selections from the film, providing a point of cross-cultural comparison.
Film / Play Discussion Questions:
1. Construct a Venn diagram comparing the plots, characters, themes and historical connections between Ran and King Lear.
2. List examples of medieval feudal political-economic structures and culture throughout the film and play.
3. What role does loyalty play in the feudal system? How is loyalty depicted in the plots?
4. Why do the kings Hidetora and Lear, in an attempt to maintain peace, divide their kingdoms?
5. Do you think the children of Hidetora and Lear are justified in their actions towards each other? Explain.
6. Do you think the children of Hidetora and Lear are obligated to accommodate their fathers? What connections can you make to modern families and relationships?
7. How does the order of the feudal system breakdown through the plots of each story? Who is to blame for the chaos? Where do we see a political-economic transition from feudalism to nation-states?