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RAN – Tôru Takemitsu


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Ran, which translates as Chaos, was a passion project for the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and most critics believe it to be his last great film. He had envisioned the film for many years, and he even made detailed paintings of the castles and sets he hoped to one day construct. He began writing the screenplay in 1976 but production was delayed by Tōhō Studios executives who balked at the estimated $5 million price tag, which would have made it the most expensive Japanese film ever made. The fact that his last film, Dodes’kaden, was a box office flop also served to harden studio resistance. Fortunately the great success of his film Kagemusha restored studio confidence in Kurosawa, and he was able to forge a partnership, securing funds from French producer Serge Silberman. There are recognizable parallels between Ran and Shakespeare’s King Lear, although Kurosawa related that the similarities did not become apparent to him until after he had conceived his script. Ran was Kurosawa’s last great epic film, one that offers a classic morality play, which affirms the truism that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. We are offered an excruciating tragedy, which reveals deception, envy, treachery, betrayal and hubris.

Ran tells the story of the ruthless but now aged Warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who following a dream decides to abdicate, and out of love for his three sons, to abandon primogeniture. To his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) he bequeaths the prestigious First Castle as well as the mantle of leadership of the Ichimonji clan. For his second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), he bequeaths the clan’s second castle, and to his third son Saburo (Daisuke Ryû), he bequeaths the clan’s third castle. Hidetora counsels the three on the necessity of unity by demonstrating how easily one arrow is snapped, and how three arrows held together, are much harder to break. Saburo breaks the three arrows across his knee, bristles at the lecture, and criticizes his father for his foolishness. An angry Hidetora banishes him and sets into motion events, which unleash chaos and the dogs of war. We bear witness to a family, which divides against itself, descending into brutal armed hostilities that ultimately destroy House Ichimonji. The film broke even in Japan, but became a commercial success once it was distributed in the west. It obtained critical acclaim, securing three Academy Award nominations including, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, winning one for best Costume Design.

Tôru Takemitsu was Japan’s preeminent film score composer and Kurosawa secured his involvement in 1976, during the project’s early stages. Their initial conception of the score was to use tategoe, a “shrill-voice” chant style without instrumentation. Over the intervening years Kurosawa’s conception of the score changed dramatically. As they began production his desire had changed 180 degrees, now insisting on a powerful Mahleresque orchestral score. Takemitsu responded with which many describe as his most romantic effort, one that achieved a perfect blending of Oriental and Occidental sensibilities. Also notable is the grandeur and pathos achieved through the juxtaposition of pastoral music with the heart-rending chaos and violence unfolding on the screen. The score is anchored by the Motif of Doom, which is intimately associated in the microcosm with the demise of Hidetora himself, and in the macrocosm with the demise of House Ichimonji. High register wailing string figures cycle with wood block strikes over low register orchestral rumblings. The motif never resolves, forever cycling unto itself in a repeating statement of despair. It speaks to the tragedy unleashed by Hidetora decision to abdicate, which destroys House Ichimonji – the karmic reckoning for the evil and ruthlessness of his life. The motif is kindred in construct to the sounds of the shinobue, a traditional Japanese transverse flute used in Noh and Kabuki theatre. Takemitsu was guided in his efforts best summed up in the Japanese word “Ma”, which suggests the incongruity of a void abounding with energy. He related: “My music is like a garden, and I am the gardener. Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture.”

It should be noted that the collaboration between Kurosawa and the temperamental Takemitsu was rocky. Kurosawa constantly sent Takemitsu notes, which only served to infuriate him, so he frequently visited the set to gain a direct sensual experience. Takemitsu actually resigned and demanded to be stripped from the credits after an intense fight over the scoring of scene 36, where Kurosawa bypassed him and had the sound technician alter the register and time meter of his music. Fortunately producer Masato Hara intervened, made peace, and Takemitsu returned to the film. Years later Takemitsu would relate: “Overall, I still have this feeling of … ‘Oh, if only he’d left more up to me …’ But seeing it now … I guess it’s fine the way it is.”

In “Opening Credits – Main Title” the film opens with a grand panoramic vista of verdant Japanese mountains, with four mounted samurai standing is a silent vigil. As the credits roll, the Motif of Doom sounds, sows disquiet and instills us with palpable unease. The music is eerie, stark, and portentous. Wood percussion, taiko drums and a wailing shinobue shatter the ambiance as a wild boar appears and Lord Hidetora and his escorts pursue it for the kill. The following tertiary cue is multi-scenic. “Kyoami” reveals Lord Ayabe and Lord Fujimaki offering their daughters to Saburo in a bid to forge a partnership with House Ichimonji. Hidetora defers a decision, and Taro orders jester Kyoami to entertain them, which Takemitsu supports with an ambient line of shinobue and metallic percussion. The next pivotal scene is unscored. Warlord Hidetora, who following a dream decides to abdicate, He retains the crest of House Ichimonji, and to his eldest son Taro he bequeaths the prestigious First Castle as well as the mantle of leadership of the Ichimonji clan. For his second son Jiro, he bequeaths the clan’s second castle, and to his third son Saburo, he bequeaths the clan’s third castle. Hidetora counsels the three on the necessity of unity by demonstrating how easily one arrow is snapped, and how three arrows held together, are much harder to break. Saburo breaks the three arrows across his knee, bristles at the lecture, and criticizes his father for his foolishness. An angry Hidetora banishes him and sets into motion events, which unleash chaos and bring ruin to all. At 0:21 we segue darkly into “The First Castle” atop a haunting flute and brutal taiko drums as Lady Kaede orders Hidetora’s concubines to give way to her passage. Hidetora is outraged at the affront, but defers action. Lady Kaede proceeds to poison Taro’s heart then sows seeds of discontent by complaining that he is not being allowed the proper authority and titles as head of House Ichimonji. Takemitsu’s music is portentous. At 0:39 we flow into “The Brave General’s Bow” where Taro’s men try to take Hidetaro’s family standard. A wailing shinobue and sharp drum strikes portend doom as Hidetaro’s bow cuts down one of Taro’s men trying to kill Kyoami.

“The Flute Orchestra” offers a playful shinobue, which supports the jester Kyoami’s comedic efforts. Next comes a quaternary multi-scenic cue. Hidetora has suffered the indignity of signing a forced pledge of allegiance to Taro. He is outraged and leaves to take up residence with Jiro at the second castle. “The Buddhist Praying Temple” reveals him arriving and seeking out the company of Jiro’s wife Lady Sue at the temple. She is not there and an ambiance of twinkling chimes and bells supports the moment. At 0:12 we segue into “The Last 110,000 and Hidetora” where Hidetora has found Lady Sue on a terrace. Takemitsu supports their meeting with lute and plaintive strings. She is polite despite the fact that he murdered her parents. When Jiro joins them he relates that Taro has instructed him to remove his personal guard. In “The Fury of Ootemon” Hidetora is outraged and disowns Jiro as he departs. The Doom Motif wails as the gates close behind his exit. At 1:39 we segue into “The Second Castle”, which offers an ominous line.

Hidetora is now a pathetic wandering fugitive. Taro has ordered all villages to withhold food and water, yet Tango returns with food and water, assuring Hidetaro of his and Saburo’s fidelity. Hidetaro rejects his offer and orders his men to the third castle, which Saburo and his men have abandoned. “Hell’s Picture Scroll” brings us to the score’s supreme moment, which abounds with pathos born of Hidetaro’s horrific crucible of pain. Taro and Jiro jointly attack the castle, slaughter all of Hidetaro’s men and concubines. There is more treachery as Jiro’s general Kurogane shoots Taro dead, thus allowing Jiro to ascend to Lord of the Ichimonji. What makes this film segment so remarkable is that Kurosawa dialed out all ambient noise from the men and battle, ceding the sonic environment solely to Takemitsu’s music. Takemitsu responded by writing one of the immortal cues of film score music, a masterpiece, and a poignant elegy that channels Mahler’s tragic romanticism. String figures from the main title now coalesce and find expression within the orchestra. What we view is a profound juxtaposition of film imagery and score. Takemitsu’s time meter is slow and flows with solo oboe lines, and dense plaintive strings, which offer powerful counterpoints to the ferocious violence, and ruthless slaughter unfolding before our eyes. The supreme pathos of this cue earns Takemitsu immortality.

“The Crimson Citadel – Surrendering the Castle – Desert of Madness offers an exceptional use of minimalism, which perfectly underscores the unfolding tragedy on screen. The third castle, awash in blood, has been torched and is slowly engulfed in flames. That last of Hidetaro’s samurai are shot and he foregoes seppuku, the traditional Japanese way for a disgraced and defeated man to end his life. Hidetaro is devastated and succumbs to madness; staggering out of the burning castle in what is for me is a scene for the ages. The troops who are in awe of their once great warlord, part, allowing him safe passage. Takemitsu supports the scene with starkness, a grim deep register orchestral rumbling. At 3:39 a plaintive flute with chimes join, carrying his progress to desolation and ruin. Slowly the soundscape mutates into a grotesques, formless dissonance – an externalization of Hidetaro’s inner state. A lyrical shinobue dances as Kurogane exhorts Jiro to kill Hidetaro to affirm his supremacy as leader of the Ichimonji clan. Jiro however hesitates, shows mercy, and forgoes patricide. The cue concludes with Tango and Kyoami finding Hidetaro wandering aimless in the fields, collecting flowers. He has a vacant stare as he has gone mad. Takemitsu informs us of this with plaintive strings and the Motif of Doom. What an astounding cue!

Tsurumaru is the brother of Lady Sue who now lives alone in a village. When Hidetaro killed their parents, he was blinded and sent into exile. In “Tsurumaru’s Flute” his identity is revealed to Hidetora, who revisits the carnage visited on his family. Tsurumaru offers him music from his flute, his only remaining pleasure. Takemitsu provides us with a now fully constructed and rendered Motif of Doom, whose damning notes cause Hidetaro to flee from the horrific memories it unleashes. At 1:14 we have a scene change to “Azusa Castle In Ruins”, where Lady Sue and Tsurumaru are fleeing for safety. Plaintive strings inform us of the desolation of their ancestral home. The following two cues offer a study of minimalism. In “Saburou’s Army Arrives, Saburo rides into Jiro’s realm to reclaim their father. His father-in-law Lord Fujimaki holds the high ground, thus preventing any encircling advance by Jiro. Aggressive pounding taiko drums carry Saburo’s advance. At 0:45 we segue into “Departing for the Front”, as Jiro decides to meet his brother in battle. A pulsing solo drum ushers in a menacing drum strike flurry before dissipating atop the rhythmic pulse.

“Endless Hell” reveals Hidetaro seeing Lady Sue atop the castle wall, which reopens his psychic wounds. A tormenting Motif of Doom wails over dark orchestral rumblings and metallic strikes, serving to remind him of his ruthless murder of her parents and blinding of Tsurumaru. At 0:59 we segue into “Escape”. A tormented Hidetaro believes he is in Hell and flees the castle ruins, fleeing into the wilderness. Takemitsu informs us of his torment, and carries his progress with a plaintive wailing shinobue. Stark sonic minimalism returns in “Tension In Yahatabara – Assault” dark drum strikes announce the arrival of Jiro’s massive army. Further aggressive drum strikes support the arrival of Lord Ayabe’s army atop the overlooking hills. Jiro is anxious as he stands between a vice. The arrival of Kyoami causes Saburo to take a contingent to the Azusa plains to recover his father. As he leaves, Jiro orders a contingent to intercept and assassinate Saburo, and then orders an assault on Saburo’s army. Dark and aggressive drum strikes return and inform us of his menace. In “The Battle of Yawatano” Saburo’s commander orders his troops into the woods, where Jiro’s cavalry cannot operate. As Jiro’s cavalry charge Saburo’s riflemen cut them down, leading to a slaughter and retreat. A regrouping and second charge fares no better. Takemitsu supports the carnage with the minimalism of orchestral rumbling and drum strikes. At 2:30 word comes to Jiro that Lord Kyabe has left to lead an assault on the first castle. Jiro orders a retreat and sombre Mahleresque string writing informs us of the approaching tragedy as his routed army flees the field in chaos.

“Lamentation” reveals a scene of great pathos and tragedy. Just as Saburo and Hidetaro have reconciled, Saburo is shot dead. For Hidetaro, this is the final straw and he dies from grief. Takemitsu provides a painful lament with repeating string phrases full of grief, pain and despair. At 0:44 we scene shift to “Chaos In the First Castle – Ujigabana”. Jiro’s army is in disarray and flees into the castle. An assassin brings the head of Lady Sue, which sends Kurogane into a rage. He confronts Lady Kaede who confesses her revenge in destroying House Ichimonji, after which Kurogane beheads her. Low register orchestral rumblings, formless strings and percussive strikes underpin the chaos. At 1:36 we scene shift into “Illusions In the Sky” atop the Motif Of Doom. We see the slain body of Lady Sue, and we are shattered by the piercing shinobue, now joined by kindred woodwinds and strings in a painful lament. We close as we see the first castle engulfed in flames. In “Attendance At the Funeral” we see a funeral procession with Saburo’s men bearing the bodies of Hidetaro and Saburo. Takemitsu supports the scene with a grim marcia funebre. At 1:37 we change scenes in “Flute of Darkness” where we see Tsurumaru bearing the image of the Amida Buddha atop the walls of the castle. He accidentally drops and loses the Buddha, informing us that all hope is lost. The film closes grimly with the Motif Of Doom as we see Tsurumaru’s silhouette atop the ruin. The “Ending Credits” offer a final score highlight with highlights of Takemitsu’s score. He bathes us in tragedy, pathos and the pall of dark auras of inconsolable despair.

Lastly, the album includes the two suites, which served as the original incarnation of the 1985 soundtrack release. Each reprises the score’s major tracks with “Suite Part 1” comprising the early tracks and “Suite Part 2” the later. They provide an enjoyable alternative listening experience, and I believe them to be a nice feature of the album.

Please allow me to thank Reynold da Silva and David Stoner of Silva Screen Records for this most welcome reissue of Takemitsu’s masterwork Ran. A special thank you to Jelena Jancic for her assistance with this review. The sound quality thanks to the mastering of Rick Clark was excellent. I believe the Kurosawa/Takemitsu collaboration achieved its zenith with this epic film. In scene after scene the synergy of cinematography, film narrative and music was superb and achieved a remarkable confluence. This timeless tale offers a story of supreme tragedy where the world is sundered and all our characters brought and ruin. Takemitsu correctly understood the needs for an authentic Japanese soundscape, and infused his score brilliantly with ethnic woodwinds and drums. His Motif of Doom perfectly captured the film’s emotional core – the tragic demise of House Ichimonji. He also embraced “Ma”, offering minimalism, which imparted significant emotional energy despite the paucity of notes. Lastly, he brought pathos and desolation for key scenes such as “Hell’s Picture Scroll”. I believe Takemitsu achieved a perfect blending of Oriental and Occidental sensibilities. The grandeur and pathos achieved through the juxtaposition of pastoral music with the heart-rending chaos and violence unfolding on the screen was genius, and a testimony to his mastery of his craft. Folks, I believe this score to be the finest of Takemitsu’s canon, one, which earns a place on my list of the 100 Greatest Scores of all Time. This album is a remarkable achievement and I highly recommend it for your collection.

Buy the Ran soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Suite Part 1 (17:00)
  • Suite Part 2 (15:29)
  • Opening Credits – Main Title (2:16)
  • Kyouami/The First Castle/The Brave General’s Bow (0:56)
  • The Flute Orchestra (0:52)
  • The Buddhist Praying Temple/The Last 110,000 and Hidetora/The Fury of Ootemon/The Second Castle (1:57)
  • Hell’s Picture Scroll (5:47)
  • The Crimson Citadel/Surrendering the Castle – Desert of Madness (7:46)
  • Tsurumaru’s Flute/Azusa Castle in Ruins (1:32)
  • Saburou’s Army Arrives/Departing for the Front (3:23)
  • Endless Hell/Escape (1:15)
  • Tension In Yahatabara/Assault (1:31)
  • The Battle of Yawatano (3:51)
  • Lamentation/Chaos in the First Castle – Ujigabana/Illusions In the Sky (2:36)
  • Attendance at the Funeral/Flute of Darkness (2:28)
  • Ending Credits (3:38)

Running Time: 73 minutes 09 seconds

Silva Screen SILCD-1518 (1985/2016)

Music composed by Tôru Takemitsu. Conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki. Performed by The Sapporo Symphony Orchestra . Original orchestrations by Tôru Takemitsu. Score produced by Tôru Takemitsu. Album produced by Reynold da Silva and David Stoner.

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