1985, 161 min.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Saturday had been a date circled on the calendar since the beginning of the summer film series, and had been circled again (you know, for emphasis) ever since I had seen the 25th anniversary trailer for this film, Akira Kurosawa's Ran earlier this summer at The Paramount.
The Japanese film maker is considered one of the top few directors of the 20th century. He influenced generations of directors, including the American film school hotshots of the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Roman Polanski and George Lucas. If you know Kurosawa's style, it's clear they idolized him and emulated him when they could. Don't believe me? Check out these dapper fellows below in a photo from 1980.
That's Akira looking classy with the shades (age 70 at the time). Surrounding him in the photo are Coppola, Irvin Kershner (mentor of George Lucas and director of The Empire Strikes Back), Lucas, and Spielberg. Nice beards, guys. Yeesh.
In a long and distinguished career, Kurosawa made numerous great films. Ran was made when the old master was 74, and is the last of his cinematic epics. Although nearly three hours in length, it never drags or feels long (much like Coppola's Godfather films). It's a mark of a mature director. The story had time to unfold properly without being self-indulgent.
An adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran sets the story in feudal Japan, making it a samurai tragedy. Powerful warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), is depicted as a respected man who appears to be losing a step physically due to his age. As his inner circle murmurs about his physical and mental capabilities, he abdicates his throne and divides his empire amongst his three sons. The eldest, Taro, receives the title of ruler of the land while his younger brother Jiro is given control of a lesser castle in the empire. A third son, Saburo, bluntly questions his father's decision and is promptly disowned and banished from the kingdom.
Hidetora may have relinquished the title, but acts as if absolute rule still resides with him. He invites himself to live as a guest in Taro's castle, but quickly butts heads over the issue of authority. At the urging of his wife, Lady Kaede, the new lord tries to rein in his father with a list of indignant demands. Bristling at the prospect of having to actually act as a guest instead of lord of the manor, dad packs up and heads for Jiro's castle. From there, characters begin to make power plays and the Ichimonji clan edges closer towards total collapse due to pettiness, jealousy, vendettas, and plain ol' human nature.
Previously, most of the films I've seen of Kurosawa's were black and white, so the appearance of color in this film took a few minutes to get used to. As the movie went on, I found myself admiring the use of color itself to help identify and define characters. Kurosawa cast each of the brothers with a different primary color that reflects their personalities. Taro and his armies are clad in yellow, and his weak leadership abilities fall right in line with the color choice. Jiro is the middle child and draped in red. Like Mars himself, he could be referred to as a lord of war. Jiro is a stronger leader than Taro, but his eagerness towards conflict only accelerates the descent of the family. Saburo (always dressed in blue) is the pragmatist and, although exiled, shows a calmer demeanor than his older siblings.
I found myself loving what Kurosawa does with these palettes at his disposal. Ran is vibrant and beautiful to watch. The cinematography is epic in scope, showing different terrains of Japan. Some landscape is lush while others are more barren and war torn. There is a symmetry of the land itself reflecting the deteriorating mental state of Hidetora himself. Wandering aimlessly through his countryside, the land becomes increasingly desolate and rocky. To him, it's a world of jagged edges and decay, with increasing hellish tones.
The drama is captivating, but the battles raged during the film are intense and magnetic themselves. Conflicts rage and buckets of blood are spilled. Oh? And did I mention they are very graphic?. I wasn't expecting the level of bloodshed in Ran, and wondered if I should add Mel Gibson to the list of Kurosawa devotees. Anyone who was in awe of Braveheart's warfare would not be disappointed here.
But there is still poetry and artistry in the bloodshed. The major battle scene takes place about in hour into the film, and is a tour de force. An ambush occurs at an abandoned castle, and the majority of the fighting occurs onscreen with no ambient noise at all. The scene is accompanied solely by the film's score, and it's haunting and powerful. After several minutes, the conflict slows to near silence... until a death is punctuated by a single rifle shot. The cracking of the rifle seems so loud and startling, I literally jumped in my seat. After that sound, all hell breaks loose once again, and the war rages on for several more minutes to a fiery conclusion. This sequence is simply brilliant in execution. The combat rages like an inferno, spreading like wildfire on screen while taking the audience's breath away.
Ran is also populated by many interesting characters in addition to the Ichimonji family. I was fascinated by Kurogane, Jiro's right-hand man who brings attention to the manipulation he observes but may be powerless to stop it. Kyoami, the court jester, is the kind of fool who tells it like it is as he clowns around. Although often silly, his words continue to have gravity as he is the lone witness to Hidetora's complete descent into madness. Oh, and I can't leave out he aforementioned Lady Kaede, who I kept viewing as a version of Lady Macbeth. The audience grew to hate her so much, one could feel a palpable tension when she was on screen.
But as the world crumbles around him, Hidetora remains the center of the film. Although distressing to watch, the audience comes to realize that the tragic events are the results of the seeds he has sown as a warlord. Spoils of war often come at a great cost to many except the victor, so there is a sense of karma in what befalls the Ichimonji empire. His soul comes under attack from the ghosts of his past deeds as he blindly wanders the ruins of his domain. The film reaches its tragic conclusion with a heavy heart. The audience sees Hidetora's downfall as more than just one man misfortune, it is the very tragedy of mankind itself.
A film made near the end of his illustrious career, Ran speaks volumes about Kurosawa's ideas regarding the human condition, and it's not a pretty picture. We are blind, and teetering on the edge of our own destruction. Man's flaws are as elemental as the landscape and the clouds in the sky, and his downfall is as inevitable as the setting of the sun.
As for myself, I am pleased that I finally got to see this masterpiece. And on the big screen, no less. The restored anniversary print was gorgeous, and the story never lets go of your attention. Akira Kurosawa may have ceded his cinematic legacy in the late 20th century to the likes of Spielberg and Lucas, but unlike Hidetora, he was no foolish or senile old man. He remained a master of film until the very end of his days. Luckily for us, his films can live on for years to come. Ran serves as a reminder of his lasting brilliance, and thankfully also reminds us that the best samurai epic of the past quarter century did not, in fact, star Tom Cruise.