is a film that Kurosawa had in mind to film for many years, but the 73 year-old director had fallen out of favour in his own country and found it impossible to find funding for such an epic and costly film. Nevertheless, while he was unable to continue making films in Japan, his reputation in the west was much higher and he was able to receive funding from European and American producers such as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas (who would finance Kagemusha), Stephen Spielberg (Dreams) and Serge Silberman, who allowed the director’s long cherished project to be finally put on the screen. Ran, a samurai version of King Lear, is a film that only a director of Kurosawa’s experience and skill could bring together. The result is an astonishing film regarded by many as a masterpiece and by the director himself as the crowning achievement of his career.
While on a hunting expedition, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji has a terrible premonition in a dream and decides he is too old to continue ruling. He abdicates in favour of his eldest son, Taro – giving him complete power while he retires to a tower in the First Castle. To his other sons Jiro and Saburo, he offers the Second and Third Castles. The plan is bitterly opposed by the youngest son, Saburo, who believes that it will weaken the family’s power. He is banished for his outspokenness, along with the Lord’s close advisor, Tango. Hidetora however had not reckoned on the power that Taro’s wife Kaede would now wield over the new ruler. Her influence sets off a bloody and brutal war, plunging the land into chaos, as the cruelty of Hidetora’s reign comes back to haunt him.
Ran (meaning “Chaos”) isn’t Kurosawa’s most accessible film, and I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the director’s work – it’s long, slow and ponderous, heavy with the weight of history and complex family ties and unnaturalistic in stylisation and acting. Nor is it a typical example of Kurosawa’s work, which is characterised more with strong humanistic principles in small-scale individual dramas. Ran on the contrary is a slow, brooding nightmare of a film – a dark tale of greed for power, lust for revenge, descent into madness and the collapse of a world into complete destruction.
The film gains it weight and it’s ponderous style from Shakespeare’s King Lear, being fairly faithful to the play in its themes and tone, but also from traditional Japanese Noh theatre in its stylised designs and mannered performances. Kurosawa had tackled Shakespeare before in this way in his remarkable adaptation of MacBeth, Throne of Blood (1957), a comparatively much more modest and smaller scale drama. Ran has much grander ambitions but the sheer spectacle of some of the most stunningly visualised battle scenes ever filmed never seem to dwarf the human elements, they only serve to heighten the level of greed, power and folly that man can reach. The individual performances of the actors also live up to this intense drama. While to western eyes they can appear stiff and formal, each of the characters is perfectly captured in minute detail in gestures and in the clipped delivery of short commands and pronouncements carrying subtle hints of lust, greed and power that deliver devastating consequences. Just examine how few outward gestures and words are made by Taro’s wife, Kaede, yet how powerful her presence, how threatening her demeanour and how menacing those words. Only Tatsuya Nakadai fails to convince for me. His performance is of course intentionally as demonstrative as the make-up he wears as a Noh mask, but I’m afraid I’m of the old-school Kurosawa fans who would have loved to see Toshiro Mifune bring his subtle, yet commanding presence to the film.
So in many respects Ran is not typical Kurosawa, but in others it most certainly is. Bleaker and more pessimistic it may be, but Kurosawa was now experienced enough as a director to depict the full complexities of the human psyche and in this respect the characters are even more complex than their Shakespearean counterparts. It’s possible also that personal fears about his own declining powers which had culminated in an attempted suicide a few years earlier may also have influenced the feel and tone of this film. Typically for Kurosawa he also marshals the full force of nature to emphasise the characteristics of the protagonists and their circumstances. Indeed, all nature seems subservient to Hidetora’s folly – from the lush, fertile hillsides of the opening scenes to the barrenness of the rocks that the banished Hidetora sits upon, from the blood red menace of a sunset to the howling winds that buffet the old Lord as he loses his mind. This is Kurosawa employing his experience and skill on an epic scale and the results are astonishing.
If, like me, you had only seen Ran previously on the rather poor letterboxed Region 1 Fox Lorber DVD release, then you haven’t really seen the film at all. The picture on the Studio Canal/Warner Bros release is pretty much flawless. Presented anamorphically in the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the image is clear, sharp and stable with only the hint of grain in one or two scenes. Colours are just about perfect – rich, bold and with a perfect level of saturation – so vital to the whole look and feel of the film. A screenshot from the Fox Lorber release is shown below in comparison with the new Warners Bros print above.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. There is a fair amount of background hiss on the soundtrack which is quite evident during silent passages. However, it is much preferable to put up with the minor noise than have excessive noise reduction dampen down the sound. As a consequence voices remain clear, while music and sound effects are strong and powerful, with only the faintest of crackles on the louder passages.
Subtitles are fixed, but unlike the Fox Lorber version, they are not burnt into the print but are player generated. They are fairly large and readable, but there doesn't seem to be any way of removing them.
A.K. – The Making of Ran (71mins)
Disc 2 of the two-disc set contains the Akira Kurosawa documentary by filmmaker Chris Marker (Sans Soleil, La Jetée), showing the director shooting the battle scenes on the slopes of Mount Fuji. It’s long and slow and shows little more than how difficult it was for the director to shoot in the changeable weather conditions.
Although I personally prefer the earlier, more intimate, small-scale Kurosawa films, there is no denying the incredible force of Ran. Anyone coming to the film for the first time cannot fail to be struck by the power of the images on the screen, by the vast spectacle of masses of samurai warriors in battle and the utter devastation both they and the individual characters wreak over the course of the film. Even if you have seen the film before, it’s unlikely you will have seen it looking as good as it does on this DVD release, and it deserves to be seen afresh.