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Ran is the late masterpiece and testament of a great director contemplating his own twilight—and the world’s as well. It’s a tragedy fed by Shakespeare, Noh, and the samurai epic, full of metaphors and grand themes, a film that shows human brutality, warfare, and suffering as if from the eye of a dispassionate God, seated far above the world’s terror. In King Lear, we hear that spine-chilling speech, “As flies to wanton boys, so we are to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” But in Ran, it is the humans who kill, wantonly and bloodily, before a God who never interferes, freezingly sad and silent.
Three decades separate Ran from Akira Kurosawa’s other great epic, Seven Samurai (1954), and though each is a grand, visually overwhelming saga of warfare, they’re quite different in style and effect. Seven Samurai is robust, earthy, full of lusty humor, excitement, and emotion—a film by a director in his prime. Ran, made when Kurosawa was seventy-five, is coldly beautiful, bleak, horrifying, and remote, with an Olympian view that holds little sympathy for most of the main characters.
Where Kurosawa loves the seven samurai led by the wise old Kambei (Takashi Shimura), glorying in their raffish camaraderie and rough-hewn courage, he is unsparing toward Ran’s self-destroying old emperor, Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), whose ceding of his empire to his sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), is followed by an avalanche of betrayal and bloodshed. He is clearly contemptuous of Taro and Jiro, and unfazed by the sheer evil of Lady Kaede, the fiendish seductress who incites the war and plunges them all into hell.
As Kurosawa grew older—and especially during the years after 1964’s Red Beard, when his films were more infrequent and his career more difficult—the darkness that had always lain under his work, from Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), and Rashomon (1950) onward, began to grow more apparent. That pessimistic view of human nature and justice, which he shared with the great Russian novelists—and which is softened, in one way or another, in films like Rashomon, Ikiru (1952), and Seven Samurai—began, in some cases, to swallow up his fictional world. Almost like the darkly comic, cynical Yojimbo (1961), Ran initially shows a war in which both sides, Hidetora’s and his older sons’, are corrupt. If, by the end, we tend to root for Hidetora’s youngest son, Saburo, the true child who tries to rescue his father (Kurosawa’s equivalent for Shakespeare’s faithful Cordelia), it’s not with the intense empathy with which we cheer on Kambei’s samurai.
Instead, Ran’s tide of events is as pitiless toward Saburo as it is toward everyone else, the wicked—Kaede, Taro, Jiro—as well as the good: Jiro’s Buddhist wife, Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki); the epicene fool, Kyoami, a girlish jester (played by the drag entertainer Peter, in a striking departure from Kurosawa’s usual machismo) who goads and binds himself to his master, Hidetora; Sue’s blind flutist brother, Tsurumaru (Takeshi Nomura), who, in the film’s terrifying last image, is seen teetering on the edge of a cliff, and an abyss, a bloodred sunset flaming behind him.
That resolution has a contemporary edge. The secret subject of Ran—as Kurosawa explained to me in a 1985 interview—is the threat of nuclear apocalypse. The film is saturated with the anxiety of the post-Hiroshima age. But, like Ingmar Bergman’s contemporaneous Fanny and Alexander (1983), the film, set in the past, suggesting the future, also takes the form of a personal testament and mass reunion. For Ran, Kurosawa, as usual, brought back actors (Nakadai, Ryu) with whom he had previously worked. He also assembled a great company of his behind-the-screen collaborators, including scriptwriters Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide; costume designer Emi Wada; art directors Yoshiro and Shinobu Muraki; and his three cinematographers, Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai (Seven Samurai), shooting his last film for Kurosawa.
Most evocatively, the second unit and action direction is again by his longtime friend Ishiro Honda (here described as “associate director”). Honda is most famous as the director of that cult A-bomb parable and sci-fi classic Godzilla, and various monster-movie follow-ups, and together, he and Kurosawa create a world plunged into endless war, shrouded with omnipresent menace and threat.
Ran is a film built on metaphors and grand statements, one that intentionally makes us think before we feel. Kurosawa avoids Shakespeare’s sense of tragic catharsis, and also the fervent emotionality of his own great work of the fifties and sixties. Following Red Beard, he worked more seldom (only about once every five years for a while), in a way, making each new film as if it were his last—as if in Dodes’ka-den (1970), Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993), as well as Ran, he felt he had to cram in all his philosophy and worldview. His art was more careful and willed. His new use of color photography in these late films made them seem almost inevitably more self-consciously picturesque, somewhat less spontaneous and real than a Rashomon or a Seven Samurai. In this period, Kurosawa often painstakingly prepared his visuals with numerous, very beautiful paintings (many of which were exhibited posthumously at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival). His filmmaking technique began to seem more painterly, more classical, and even sober. But if he no longer sought infallibly to rouse and entertain us in the way of his fifties films, he still aimed to strike to the core of existence and the world’s greatest fear.
Nowhere is this change more obvious than in the way that Kurosawa—perhaps the most influential action director of the twentieth century—edits and stages (with Honda) Ran’s fights, murders, and battles. They craft an action movie in which most of the usual exhilaration of screen battle has been deliberately drained away, in which the fiery charge we get from a Seven Samurai, a Hidden Fortress (1958), or a Yojimbo never appears. The battles are often shown from a vast distance, whereas in the fifties films, we are in the middle of the action and the heart of the violence. His signature had been the use of simultaneous three-camera setups and furious editing; in Ran, he shows everything mostly from a single angle, often in continuous takes, with the editing so discreet and inevitable that we barely notice it—save for such poetic devices as the first great battle scene at Saburo’s castle, shown in ritualistic tableaux that eliminate spontaneity and drenched in Toru Takemitsu’s dirgelike, Mahleresque score.
Hidetora is played by Nakadai, the handsome Japanese superstar who first appeared for Kurosawa in a fleeting bit part, as a passing young samurai, in Seven Samurai, and later played the sexy, psychopathic gangster Unasuke in Yojimbo. Nakadai, who also appeared in Kagemusha (where he replaced the original star, the recalcitrant Shintaro “Zatoichi” Katsu), never seized the center of Kurosawa’s world as did Takashi Shimura, with his pure humanity, and the swaggering Toshiro Mifune. But, in a way, his greater fragility and good looks (even tortured into Hidetora’s Noh mask of a face) fit the sense of tenuousness and impermanence that the film everywhere projects. When Nakadai’s Hidetora descends into madness, we may not feel for him as much as we would for the fiercer, more human Mifune in a similar role; Mifune, the great beast, might have ravaged our hearts. But the more exquisite-looking Nakadai, balancing himself between real emotion and stylized, Nohlike gesture, makes us see something crucial: the inevitability of Hidetora’s fate and of the decline of the world he created and that will destroy him.
The themes of Ran are the evil of humanity, the deadly heritage of warfare, and madness. But in showing all this horror, Kurosawa leaves us one great consolation: the beauty of the art with which he reveals it all. The stylization in Ran is not completely original. Besides Shakespeare and Noh, we can see its antecedents in the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and other masters from the great thirties-to-fifties era of the Japanese film epic. Where the young Kurosawa had deliberately disrupted the elegant forms of the films from that period, injecting more spontaneity and danger, here he engages with that tradition more subtly, using those films’ overwhelming sense of ritual and the past to create a stabbing feeling of inevitability and fate. Finally, when we see Hidetora and his sons trapped in the poetic frames and staging of Ran, we’re watching a theatricality heightened past grand opera to a point near vertigo and frenzy.
And we’re watching, in the hands of a master (a sensei), a great metaphor of the apocalypse, a world in flames whose chaos is made strangely beautiful.
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune’s lead film critic and also the movie critic for Chicago cable station CLTV.