I almost did a double take when the first splash of color filled the screen at the opening of Ran. Perhaps I was so used to Kurosawa's sharp black and white photography that finally seeing his work in color threw me. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was the first film that broke me of my childhood distaste for monochrome films, by showing me just how detailed and real a world that was at all times obviously false could be. But if his black and white masterpieces were realistic, then Ran looks at once even realer yet utterly fantastical. It's been too long since I've sat down with one of the master's films, and this later-day masterpiece has reminded me of his power.
An adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran is a culmination of everything the director ever put to celluloid: it's a study of a broken old man trying to do something right with his life before he passes (Ikiru), a Shakespearean adaptation (Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well), and a samurai epic (too many to list). It's also a showcase of his state of mind at the time.
Kurosawa had been a prolific artist in the post-war years, pumping out about a film a year. He hit his stride in 1950 with the monumental work Rashomon, a film that operated within a small frame but felt epic thanks to its staging. The endlessly deep observation on justice and its subversion offered no answers (even in the deceptively "Hollywood" conclusion), and was so innovative that it not only spawned a genre all its own but became the basis of a psychological condition (the Rashomon Effect, in which more than one story is plausible even if they cancel each other out). Many point to it as the father of art-house cinema, which would explode in the late 50s and early 60s with stunning films from European legends like Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman.
It also sparked a 15 year working relationship between Kurosawa and leading actor Toshiro Mifune, inarguably the greatest Japanese actor of all time and surely one of the all time greatest actors of any nationality. The Kurosawa-Mifune team would prove to be the most fruitful director/actor collaboration in filmic history, spawning such masterpieces as The Hidden Fortress (a HUGE influence on Star Wars), Yojimbo (remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars), and the legendary epic Seven Samurai (also remade in the West, as The Magnificent Seven).
When their relationship fell apart following 1965's Red Beard, so too did Kurosawa's career. Studios in both Japan and abroad mistook his visual perfectionism for arrogance and megalomania, and where once Kurosawa's films were like clockwork they were now sporadic, coming only when the director finally managed to drum up money from various sources, usually high-profile fans of his. Indeed, New Hollywood darlings George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola funded Kurosawa's Kagemusha, which was a big critical hit but nevertheless didn't make enough money to ensure a comeback. Five years later he finally got the money for this pet project, which he had wanted to make long before he made Kagemusha.
But why am I spending all this time writing about behind-the-scenes material? After all, I hate the modern film "criticism" in which people decide whether they like a film based on who's in it and what couches they've jumped on in their lives; why care in this instance? Because Ran is as much about Akira Kurosawa as it is Lear: when the old man tries to kill himself, fails, and goes mad because he must continue to live in a life that suddenly lost all value, it uncomfortably recalls Kurosawa's own suicide attempt in 1971 and his years of depression.
The plot generally follows Shakespeare's play, but changes a few aspects in its transposition to feudal Japan: the old warlord Hideotora (Tatsuya Nakadai), planning to live out his days in tranquility, divides his kingdom amongst his three sons, Taro, Kiro, and Saburo. The eldest two smile and bow and praise their father, but young Saburo speaks the truth: why would Hideotora expect his sons to keep to this agreement when he himself built his kingdom on treachery, brutality, and war? Of course, the truth is uncomfortable, so the father banishes the son.
The resulting story is pure chaos. Saburo's observation proves true before he's even out of the kingdom; Karo forces his father to fully sign over his title to his son on the instruction of his wife, Lady Kaede. Kaede takes a page from another Shakespeare work and operates as a Lady Macbeth; bitter with hatred over the murder of her family on Hideotora's order decades ago, she sees the whole thing as a way to destroy the family line. When the warring between brothers goes ill for Karo, she simply moves into to seduce Jiro before she even has time to fake some tears.
Kurosawa is no stranger to action; in fact, he's probably the most important action director ever. But he outdoes himself with the constant warring of the Ichimonji clan; consider the epic battle against Hideotora's remaining troops, in which the two elder brothers combine forces to massacre everyone still loyal to their father. Kurosawa, who used to get down and dirty with his action sequences, observes with long static shots, a god momentarily interested by the plight of the peons below.
In that respect, Kurosawa's direction in this film reminds me a great deal of Kubrick's underrated gem Barry Lyndon. That film also removed itself from its characters, to the point that many dismissed it as cold. Well, they're right; Barry Lyndon, as well as Ran, are cold and detached, but they aim to be. Kurosawa's previous samurai action flicks had such a personal touch to them that you almost can't refer to them as "epic," but Ran has a different kind of feel. If his previous work could shock because the audience felt like participants and thus learned the truth only when the characters did, Ran unsettles and disturbs because we know how this will turn out long before its characters do.
Kurosawa utilizes this new style with aplomb, mainly thanks to the acting of leading man Nakadai. Of the three major recurring actors in Kurosawa's work, Nakadai is the least praise, and for good reason. Not because of a shortcoming in talent, but because of his "competition." On the one hand there was Mifune, wild and earnest, who threw his whole being into every role and did it in such a way that this overacting never seemed overacted but plausible. On the other was Takashi Shimura, the old, wise man who pretty much wrote the book on old, wise men in film. He could convey everything you needed to know about his character in a simple glance.
But Nakadai works in this role better than either of the other leads precisely because he plays Hideotora with the same coldness that Kurosawa used for his direction. Where Mifune would have made us pity Hideotora, Nakadai recognizes that we are not meant to sympathize with him (or anyone else in this film).
As with Kurosawa's other work, the action is gigantic and thrilling, but it's never the point. He inserts layers and layers of themes into the story; the film is about an old man wants to make the world a little better for his children (even if he didn't think the plan through), while the next generation does not care for his help and has their own pettiness that must be expressed. It also documents the backstabbing of politics and the general corruption of the powerful. Not quite as obvious, it also works —according to Kurosawa— as "a metaphor for nuclear warfare." Clearly the volleys of gunfire do give off an apocalyptic feeling.
So where does Ran rank with the master's other work? It's as complex as Seven Samurai, if not necessarily as great and expansive. It lacks the more lusty humor of his earlier work but has a few dark laughs sprinkled here and there. As a personal statement, Ran is absolutely vital, a beautiful catharsis for Kurosawa that allowed him to pour out his demons onto the screen. The juxtaposition between the grayish banality of the landscapes with the gorgeous and bright costumes of the soldiers makes both entities more beautiful and reminds us what an artist Kurosawa is (painting is what kept him barely sane in all those years of inactivity). Overall I'd rank it firmly within the upper echelon of the man's work; it doesn't get mentioned as often as his 50s-60s output, but it left me as invigorated yet drained as the very best of classic material.