Ran (1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû, Mieko Harada
By Alan Bacchus
The 1980’s were kind to Mr. Kurosawa, the legendary cinema master who by 1985, was nothing short of a living legend. After a tepid decade of the 70’s with a couple of odd, though no less interesting features, ‘Dodes'ka-den’, and ‘Dersu Uzala’, Kurosawa returned to his genre of choice, with two astounding epic Samurai films which effectively tied a neat bow to his illustrious career (his 90's non-Samurai films notwithstanding).
The first was 'Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior', a beautiful and powerful film with an endearing humanist core, and second is 'Ran' – perhaps his most brutal and cynical film. Loosely based on ‘King Lear’, Ran is the third film in Kurosawa’s filmography which adapted Shakespeare to feudal Japan. At the outset we meet elder warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) who announces he’s giving up control of his empire to his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, but with a distinct hierarchy – Taro, the eldest receiving the presitgious first castle and Jiro and Saburo the lesser of the three castles and in essence subordination to Taro. This gesture, which for Ichimonji is meant as a gesture of goodwill, is met with conflict and argument by all. And it doesn’t take long for the brothers to wage war against each other for ultimate power.
The result is Kurosawa’s bloodiest and most violent film, a deep penetrating brutality which digs deeper than mere flesh and blood but actions and choices of his main characters which demolishes the sacredness of family.
As a 'Jidaigeki' film - a Japanese genre refering to the distinct melodramatic dramatic style of Japanese period films - there’s a distinct heightened theatricality to the performances, which for Japanese newbies, might be a little oft-putting. Even I find it difficult to get into many of these films, but like the works of Shakespeare, which are even more daunting to penetrate, Kurosawa’s theme are universal and identifiable. Like the tragedy of his main influence, 'King Lear' , 'Ran' lasers in on the effect of a life of greed on its main character and the dues he's forced to pay at the end of his life.
In the first half of the picture we sympathize with Ichimonji, whom we feel unjustly suffers the pain of his mutinous and greedy sons. But as Ichimonji’s journey progresses we discover the actions of his sons against him represent a shake of bad karma against his own despotic ways. Specifically, the blind character of Tsurumaru, who gives the fleeing Ichimonji shelter, only to discover Ichimonji, himself, was responsible for gauging his eyes out and rendering him blind. And the character of Lady Kaede, who at first comes off as the conniving and manipulative Lady Macbeth of the film, by the end reveals a lifetime of shame at the hands of Ichimonji who destroyed her family’s kingdom and made her marry his son, as a form of brutal subjugating punishment.
At 160mins, ‘Ran’ is no easy task to get through, especially if you have other distractions at home watch a DVD. Many of the scenes linger on and on longer than traditional Hollywood fare – the opening scene which contains the inciting incident could have cut out after 3 or 4 mins, instead Kurosawa stays with the scene for 10-12more mins.
But it's only two scenes in particular which elevate this picture to cinematic high art. The first is the phenomenal midpoint assault on Ichimonji’s castle – a scene of uncompromising brutally, with buckets of bright red blood, comparable to Sam Peckinpah’s carnage in 'The Wild Bunch', but executed with the grace and elegance of a Bergman film. As the armies of soldiers pound each other with swords, arrows and guns, Kurosawa takes out the sound, except for the music for a powerful sublime visual and aural effect.
The final battle scene features some of Kurosawa’s finest compositions, showing his best epic chops, comparable to David Lean’s late career work. Kurosawa uses the engulfing effect of the mountains and landscape to punish his characters and rendering their insatiable actions of greed petty and small. In the end, none of the characters get off scott free, a self-destruction of monumental proportions. And the awesome final shot, featuring the blind and innocent Tsurumaru wandering hopelessly on the edge of massive cliff reinforces this cynicism.
'Ran' is now available on Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion-comparable 'Studio Canal Collection' and via Maple Pictures in Canada. The Blu-Ray transfer is good, though not astounding, but is the ideal way, other than the theatre, to experience Kurosawa's awesome imagery.