What does a cinematic legend do when he reaches the ripe old age of 75, after a career littered with lauded epics, inspirational dramas and uniquely original storytelling? He simply goes and directs another film. Albeit this time round perhaps a more contemplative and personal effort after years of becoming Japan’s most prized filmmaker until the gradual demise of his celebrity in later life. Akira Kurosawa requires no introduction on this blog or within the filmmaking community at large. His works have inspired the likes of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone, whilst redefining how storytelling itself is told through the camera lens. His inventive approach to using elements such as camera perspective, weather, adaptation and history have transformed his works into iconic staples of not just world cinema but of how movies in general are shaped. His 1985 epic “Ran” acts as the closing swan-song to such ‘Kurosawa-esque’ filmmaking whilst still proving that the director never lost his touch even as he began to experience the odyssey of his twilight years.
Ran, the Japanese word for ‘chaos’ is based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, set in the Senguko period of feudal Japan. A harrowing time of social rebellions and royal betrayals where various warlords competed to become the all powerful shogun of the land. An aging warlord Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to retire from his post as leader and divide his lands equally to his three son’s. However, as one son refuses to embrace his fathers plans, the other two begin to conspire with their loyal warriors in a plot to claim all of Ichimonji’s empire for themselves. What follows is the slow disintegration of the high lord’s mind as he witnesses his family betray him whilst fighting amongst themselves for absolute power. The thematic qualities rich within Ran are telling for the director’s personal investment. Age plays a central role in the prime motivation of the main character, as his perspective and personal animosity towards nature, power and life begin to transform and disintegrate. Nakadai’s performance is exceptionally strong and is granted additional gravitas when we begin to see his world fall apart around him, one son at a time.
The cold world of Ran is also magnificently displayed through Kurosawa’s grand vistas of the Japanese landscape. The harsh light of the sun is used chillingly when depicting the more brutal bouts of slaughter during the various castle sieges. Saturated cinematography allows the outdoor battle arenas to become a colorful and chaotic collection of armored men fighting to the death, richly revealing the horrors of war. Indeed, Ran‘s main color is that of blood, a visual motif so common in Kurosawa’s works yet never before so dazzling when witnessed on screen. The performances from grade A Japanese stars such as Mieko Harada are displayed with such fraught tension it is hard to not become engrossed within the framework of the narrative. Harada’s character Lady Kaede acts as a Lady Macbeth figure, twisting the motivations and poisoning the minds of her husband and his followers for her own gain. In true essence she is the centerpiece of the film’s antagonism whilst acting still as only a supporting role within the grand tapestry Kurosawa has woven here.
Ran‘s narrative is larger than any singular individuals journey during its 160 minute length. Ichimonji’s ever descending trial into hell allows for an entire litany of characters to emerge. We are taught the consequences of long ago actions and the cruel sense of irony that Fate plays in dealing out retribution. Revenge, greed and above all age are the motifs this director has chosen to ultilize in this grandiose tragedy, not lacking in any of the same dramatic flair used in his most iconic motion picture “The Seven Samurai” released some thirty-six years earlier. Although the director would continue to shoot films after its release, Ran would act as the final epic in a collection of immensely well-crafted visions, brought to us by a man who truly understood emotional spectacle and above all ‘human’ storytelling.