Director : Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay : Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1985
Stars : Tatsuya Nakadai (Lord Hidetora Ichimonji), Akira Terao (Taro Takatora Ichimonji), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro Masatora Ichimonji), Daisuke Ryu (Saburo Naotora Ichimonji), Mieko Harada (Lady Kaede), Yoshiko Miyazaki (Lady Sué), Hisashi Igawa (Shuri Kurogane), Peter (Kyoami), Masayuki Yui (Tango Hirayama), Kazuo Kato (Kageyu Ikoma)
There is a sequence that opens the second hour of Ran that is among the most breathtaking of cinematic achievements in Akira Kurosawa’s long and remarkable career. It takes place as two sons lay siege to a castle inhabited by their father, an aging warlord who has turned over his kingdom only to see it torn apart. Kurosawa stages the battle with violent majesty, giving us wide panning images from a god’s eye point of view of hundreds of warriors on horseback intercut with static, painterly images of the battle’s blood-soaked victims.
What makes the sequence hover at such lyrical heights is Kurosawa’s denial of sound. We don’t get the harsh, ugly noises of battle--guns firing, swords clanging, armor creaking, horses galloping. Instead, the images are set against a heartbreakingly beautiful orchestral score by Tôru Takemitsu, one of the greatest Japanese composers of the 20th century. The intense violence of the scene takes on a magisterial quality, enhancing the grandiose scope of Kurosawa’s film. It is tragedy writ large by a master filmmaker in the twilight of his years.
Because Kurosawa was himself near the end of his career (he would only make three more films over the next eight years), he could identify directly with Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), the aging warlord at the center of Ran. Transposing William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear to 16th-century feudal Japan (much as he had done with Macbeth in 1957’s Throne of Blood), Kurosawa takes a familiar Western story and makes it his own, merging Shakespeare’s themes about human lust, greed, and the need for revenge with his own.
One of Kurosawa’s most important additions to Shakespeare is the inclusion of Lord Ichimonji’s backstory. Whereas it was never explained how King Lear obtained his power and lands, it is made clear that Lord Ichimonji gained power though half a century of vicious bloodshed in which he showed no mercy for his enemies, sometimes inflicting on them sadistic violence (such as when he gouged out the eyes of one of his enemy’s sons). Thus, although he is a tragic figure, driven mad by his own failure, there is a nagging element of divine retribution, suggesting that Lord Ichimonji’s years of inflicting violence are being turned against him. The carnage of his earlier life destroys his attempts for peace in old age, resulting in utter turmoil (the film’s title in Japanese means “chaos”) that underscores Kurosawa’s theme of the cyclical nature of violence.
At the beginning of the film, Lord Ichimonji decides to turn over his kingdom to his sons, dividing it among the three of them with primary authority given to his eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao). This does not sit well with his other two sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Jiro is ambitious and wants all the power for himself, but Saburo is genuinely concerned about the well-being of his father and the future of his kingdom; he sees a divided kingdom as a weakened kingdom. Yet, because Saburo is brash and outspoken in his criticisms, however well-intentioned, he incites his prideful father’s wrath and is banished from the kingdom, along with Lord Ichimonji’s trusted advisor, Tango (Masayuki Yui), who takes Saburo’s side.
It becomes quickly evident that Taro is not a particularly good leader, and when his father continues to assert authority, Taro drives him out. Taro and Jiro then join forces against Lord Ichimonji, further dividing the kingdom and driving it into a state of war that also draws attention from neighboring warlords who see the civil strife as a chance to reclaim lands taken from them long ago. Much of this is also driven by Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), Taro’s scheming wife who later becomes Jiro’s wife. Lady Kaede is very much a Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating her husband’s pride in order to stoke the fires of conflict and bloodshed. Yet, unlike Lady Macbeth, Lady Kaede is not just a vicious femme fatale, but rather a tragic figure in her own right because her family was slaughtered by Lord Ichimonji and she was forced to marry his son. Thus, the power struggle and internal divisiveness of the Ichimonji clan plays into her long-standing desire for familial revenge.
Ran was the second of Kurosawa’s epic samurai films, following 1980’s Kagemusha, and the last film of significant scope he would make. The film’s opening shots of warriors on horseback standing amid a sea of mountains and grassy hills establishes the film’s scope (Kurosawa employed three cinematographers, all of whom he had worked with before), and from there Kurosawa maintains a sense of tragic urgency that drives the story smoothly along its 160-minute running time. As he so often did, Kurosawa borrows elements of Noh theater, particularly Tatsuya Nakadai’s mask-like acting style as Lord Ichimonji. Kurosawa also employs theatrical effects to depict the film’s bloody violence, often employing literal geysers of gore that not only give the film a stark physicality, but also reflect the passions of the characters.
For many, Ran is the pinnacle of Kurosawa’s late films, an achievement of visual and thematic grandeur. It brings together many of the thematic strands that informed much of Kurosawa’s work, particularly the tragic results of human weakness. Working near the end of his career, Kurosawa had years of memory to inform his film, and he was struck directly by tragedy during its production when his wife of 39 years passed away. It is hard, then, not to see a darkness suffused even in the film’s brightest, most colorful imagery. Despite the frequently beautiful deployment of purplish mountain vistas and majestic green hillsides, much of the film takes place among burned-out ruins and ashen volcanic plains, suggesting that everything eventually burns away, a sentiment Kurosawa was surely feeling as he sat behind the camera.
|Ran Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 22, 2005|
|For those of us who have suffered for years with the Fox Lorber DVD of Ran and its awful transfer, this new high-definition transfer from Criterion is true cause for celebration. Mastered from a 35mm interpositive in anamorphic widescreen and digitally restored, Ran looks better than it ever has on home video. The image is well-defined with good detail and excellent grain structure to give it an appropriately film-like appearance. The colors, which are so crucial to Kurosawa’s visual strategy, are bright and natural, with strong saturation and no bleeding or blooming.|
|The stereo soundtrack is likewise excellent. The majestic music score by Toru Takemitsu sounds absolutely fantastic.|
|The Criterion two-disc set is also a major step up from the Fox Lorber disc in terms of supplements. |
The first disc opens with an appreciative introduction by film director Sidney Lumet (Network), who discusses the film’s impact and what he thinks are its most vital elements. This disc also includes an excellent audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, who contributed a commentary on Criterion’s DVD of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1964), as well. Having authored a book on Kurosawa’s films, Prince is a full-blooded expert on both the director’s work and the history and culture of Japan, and his commentary not only discusses in intricate detail the film’s aesthetics and production history, but also includes numerous insights into details of feudal Japanese life that add another dimension to the film for Westerners.
The second disc opens with A.K. (1985), a 74-minute film by French New Wave director Chris Marker about Kurosawa and the making of Ran. Your tolerance for elliptical artiness will largely determine your response to A.K.. It is a fascinating piece of work in its own right, but those looking for straight information about Kurosawa and Ran may find themselves a bit frustrated with Marker’s unorthodox approach. Straight information is best gleaned from either Prince’s commentary or the included 30-minute making-of documentary that was originally part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Another excellent supplement is the 35-minute video piece that reconstructs Ran through Kurosawa’s paintings and sketches. It was originally created as part of the series Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity, which also had a segment on Kagemusha (included on Criterion’s DVD of that film). Finally, there is a new video interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai and four scratchy theatrical trailers (one U.S. and three Japanese). The 28-page insert booklet features a new essay by film critic Michael Wilmington and reprinted interviews with Kurosawa and composer Toru Takemitsu.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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