Ran (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 06/07/10 at the Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

In celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of cinema great Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), a number of retrospectives and re-releases of his films are expected throughout the year.  The first of which to hit San Francisco is a re-release of his 1985 film, Ran, his last great epic, perhaps his last great film, and I took the opportunity to see it in the theater on the “big screen” because my only other experience with it was sadly on a video on television some many years ago.

I was 16 or 17 when Ran came out in 1985 and made its way to my hometown of Gainesville, FL.  It’s perhaps the first foreign film that I became interested in, though I sadly didn’t actually see it on release.  Over the years, I’ve come to a great appreciation for Kurosawa, having been catching up on a number of his films on DVD including The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Rashômon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Ikiru (1952), and The Hidden Fortress (1958), mostly from his fecund early period of success.  I don’t know that Ran is the only of his color films that I’ve seen, but colorful indeed it is.

The film was meticulously storyboarded by Kurosawa, planned over many years, and while based roughly upon some historical elements, the story is heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well.  An aging lord, Hidetora, who came to power through much battle and bloodshed, decides, somewhat suddenly, to divide his kingdom between his three sons, with his eldest holding the greatest righteous power.  The youngest and most brash of his sons calls him out as a fool for this, as does one of his noble gentry.  He bannishes them both for their offences.

The problem is, that they were right.  His eldest son, Taro, has a devious wife, who, though often stoic and seemingly proper, sows the seeds that will lead to the undoing of the whole clan.  She convinces Taro that his father needs to be humbled and that he needs to stake his claim more solidly on the castle, which leads to an argument and the father’s departure for his second son’s, Jiro’s, castle.  Jiro has followers who cajole him as well, barring his father’s entourage, but not his father himself, from his castle.  In anger, Hidetora is left to wander without a home.

Really, the seeds that are sown are not only what proves to be the vengaence of Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, but the poisonous spoilage of Hidetora’s years and years of killing, cruelty, and harshness.  While wishing to hang his old age upon some laurels, to enjoy a hard-fought for peace, and to live his life out in some sort of mellowed happiness, all that Hidetora is truly left with is pure carnage, destruction, and death.  It’s an epic tragedy of grand, grand scale.

Kurosawa sets much of the action on the mountainous regions of Mt. Fuji, with thousands of extras clad in the color-specific flagged battle costumes signifying for which lord the soldiers battle.  But interestingly, in some ways, it comes not to matter.  Death comes for all, good and noble, pious, impious, vengeful, ruthless, everyone.  And it’s hard not to be impressed with the grand scheme played out on such grand scale.

There is much going on in the film, much too much to fully comment on here.  But watching it this time, I felt aware of what was perhaps a commentary on the Cold War or at least the destructive power of war, a contemporary vision of the mid-1980’s.  As well, there is Hidetora, whose age is similar to that of Kurosawa at the time the film was made, a perhaps personal character, a perspective on the futility of one’s life’s work, of coming to an age when all is supposedly behind one, and the sizing up of that is not perhaps what one would have hoped for.

While richly colorful, I found some of the color almost garish, while other aspects of it are most lush.  And the acting, particularly that of Hidetora and Lady Kaede is in strange, theatrical contrast to the acting of many of the other performers.  Hidetora wears a ton of make-up, projecting his intense mania as he is struck into madness by the tragedies befalling him and his family, and Lady Kaede, who at times wears a refined, unexpressive make-up, also lurches into moments of grand theatrics.  While these performances and styles reckon back to Noh theater, I am not enough of a scholar of Japanese theater to sort through why those two are the key figures to perform differently.

What is always fascinating in Kurosawa is his mixture of Western and Japanese traditions.  He often used Western texts from Shakespeare (Throne of Blood) to Dashiell Hammett (Yojimbo (1961)) as narrative inspiration for his Samuari and other films, he brought these themes upon a truly Japanese landscape and historically and culturally.  Perhaps this is partially why his popularity in Europe and America was so profound.

Ran fits appropriately at the end of a long list of great, telling, visionary films fitting well within his canon.  It was great to see it again, and to see it on the big screen, a screen large enough to appreciate the breadth and scope of his story and imagery.  I will be looking out for others of his films in this centenury and I recommend the experience.

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