Until its re-release this week, I hadn’t seen Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece set amid the turmoil of 16th century Japan, since its first appearance in 1985. I had, however, listened to its soundtrack, by Toru Takemitsu, many times. In terms of orchestral accompaniment to films of great quality, it ranks for me alongside the scores provided by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Alberto Iglesias for Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.
Takemitsu (1930-96) was to classical composition as Kurosawa was to film: a master with a love of formal experimentation, whose reputation became global. Both of them helped introduce Western audiences to the history and the culture of Japan. Takemitsu composed many pieces for all kinds of ensembles; they included the celebrated Requiem for String Orchestra in 1957 and, 10 years later, the beautiful November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra. He also wrote the music for more than 100 films, but never one like Ran.
To accompany Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, in which an old ruler’s bungling of his legacy leads to intra-family warfare, madness and disaster, he juxtaposes Japanese and Western instruments: a solo flute (possibly a hochiku rather than a shakuhachi), woodblocks and other dry percussion sounds, and a full symphony orchestra. Kurosawa’s genius is to use this wonderful music sparingly, bringing it to the forefront during the central battle scene.
Ran is the Japanese word for chaos. Amid astonishing scenes of death and destruction, colour-coded armies hurtle silently back and forth on a wasteland of volcanic dust while flights of arrows pass across the screen like flickers of static and blood-soaked bodies lie in piles; the only sound is that of the orchestra. The slow sweep of strings and the mourning incantations of bassoons and English horns form a stately, richly textured lamentation for human folly.
* The restored version of Ran is showing at the BFI Southbank in London and at arthouse cinemas around the country. Sadly, the soundtrack album is out of print.