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Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao,Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryn, Mjeko Harada, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Peter, Masayuki Yui, Takashi Nomura
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Because he is long dead and conveniently out of copyright, William Shakespeare has been gleefully plundered by filmmakers since the birth of the movies: forget dialogue - a silent version of King John appeared in 1899, followed by, among many others, a 1909 American version of A Midsummer Night Dream. Italy, appropriately, made a version of The Merchant of Venice in 1910 and in 1912 Britain offered cinemagoers Frederick Warde as the hunchbacked villain of The Life and Death of Richard III.
The coming of sound made the Bard an obvious and frequent choice for up-market movies, allowing everyone from Laurence Olivier, Michael Fassbender, Orson Welles and Jon Finch to Ian McKellen and James McAvoy to play Macbeth or a riff on the character and Lady M has been impersonated by, among others, Judi Dench, Francesca Annis, Jeannette Nolan and Alex Kingston. We’ve seen Marlon Brando giving his version of the Best of the Bard along with Shakespearian cinema delivered by, among others, Charlton Heston and Howard Keel, while everyone from Mel Gibson, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh added their particular brand of ham to Hamlet.
King Lear has been filmed quite a few times and been played by, among many others, Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield but for my money (and it is one of the very few films I would happily pay to see, Akira Kurasawa’s 1984 riff on Lear is far and away the finest version.
Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters vividly retell the essence of Shakespeare’s story, re-setting the tragedy in feudal Japan where warlord Tatsuya Nakadai (the most memorable revamp of Lear) retires, dividing his fiefdom between his three sons, two of whom approve while the third disagrees and is banished, triggering off escalating tragedy accentuated by the evil wife of the eldest son, unforgettably played in a manner that makes Lady Macbeth resemble a Salvation Army girl by comparison.
Oscar-nominee Kurosawa strikes no false notes in vividly blending drama, action, superb spectacle and extraordinary performance. His unique take on Shakespeare also boasts brilliant Oscar-nominated cinematography (Takao Saito), art direction (Yoshiro Muraki and Shinobu Muraki) and Academy Award-winning costume design by Emi Wada.
Even if you believe that you may have suffered enough Shakespeare at school and since (I admit it: try as I may I cannot erase the memory of Dawn French’s Bottom on stage in London), run and see Ran. It’s Kurosawa’s masterwork and rewards you magnificently every time you see it.
Japan/France 1985. UK Distributor: StudioCanal. Colour.
160 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12.
Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.
Review date: 02 Apr 2016