Akira Kurosawa: Ran (1985) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
11Jan/130

Akira Kurosawa: Ran (1985)

1Kyle Commentary BannerI didn't remember as much of Ran as I thought I did. Specifically, I did not remember that it was roughly 50% killing that takes place inside a 3-hour nightmare. The plot is based on King Lear, which I've never read, but judging by the Shakespeare I have encountered the plot here is probably fairly close to the original.

The strengths of the movie for me are when Akira Kurosawa stands back from the drama itself—which he wisely establishes with clear-cut archetypes and decisive conflicts of the type we're already used to—and lets the camera revel in the consequences. The foggy, color-coded scenes of battle intercut with Lord Ichimonji's (Tatsuya Nakadai) realization that his faith in his sons has been tragically misplaced pretty well act as a microcosm of the whole movie for me—we're seeing what is established as a noble, respected empire at the beginning turn into a chaos pit of vanity, revenge, and war for war's sake.

What works so well for me, however, is the way all of this is presented in such a surreal manner. The soldiers in battle seem less like organized armies with a purpose and more like marauding demons hell-bent on destruction. The bold colors used to distinguish one army from another here serve a different purpose than in Kagemusha—whereas that film used this technique to illustrate each army's distinct but equal role in battle and tie the loyalty of the men to one central character, it serves here to emphasize an amorphous, depersonalized mass. The army is nothing more than an extension of each son's treacherous intentions, extended out in a horribly realized form in Ichimonji's continuous nightmare.

The makeup work that transforms Lord Ichimonji from a wise and confident figurehead to a walking zombie contributes to the effect even further. Each time we see him he looks less like a person and more like a terrified spirit forced to wander through his own life. I'm focusing almost entirely on the feel and atmosphere of the movie here because for me it perfectly embodies the emotional and dramatic struggles in a way words probably can't—it makes me wonder what a movie like I Live in Fear could have turned out like if Kurosawa had managed the same strength of vision and devotion to extremes on display here.2AndrewCommentaryBannerIchimonji's continuous transformation is my favorite aspect of the film.  He starts off in these white robes looking gaunt and frail.  Then when the life of his favored clown is threatened he makes a precision shot from the top of a tower clad in a gold robe with a fierce look in his eye.  Even in his old age he is still deadly as a golden eagle.  A fun bit of design I discovered, the robes and skin of Ichimonji's decay match that of an aging golden eagle - starting from his golden and fierce high, determined brown, weakened gray, and finally wilting white.

Aside from Ichimonji's decline, I was not as enthralled with Ran this time as I was so many years ago.  The biggest set-piece, a rampaging battle culminating in the mental destruction of the lord, has loomed large in my memory but not much else of the film has.  This time I wasn't as interested in the broader character details between Ichimonji and his three sons.  I agree it is wise of Kurosawa to give them those broad characteristics (devious, opportunistic, openly hostile) to anchor the nightmare but I wasn't much interested in them as characters and more potential geysers to erupt in stylish blood.

There are two things that held my interest this time around.  The first is fitting this film into the greater context of Kurosawa's career.  Each one of his Shakespeare-esque films, be it directly inspired (Throne of Blood) or incidentally (The Bad Sleep Well) are true nightmares.  The sound design in each one follows a very schizophrenic pattern, be it the echos of the unseen reporters in Bad, the wind and whispers of Blood, or the muted horses and screams of Ran.  The events seen are so horrific and inevitable the characters try and mute their own experience of what's happening.  So when we finally see the lord stumble out of the castle, powerless to the point that he cannot even kill himself honorably, it's no surprise this is the most quiet scene in Ran.3It's also, while I still hold immense respect for Kurosawa's attention to detail on such a grand design, why the film doesn't hold as much interest for me beyond that.  The lord is broken and the subsequent betrayals of each brother hold diminishing returns as they all basically stab each other in the back in roughly the same way at the same time.  With Blood and Bad the consequences continue on until they snowball into devastation.  Ran peaks halfway through, then sticks with the decay.  It's an unconventional method, but not one I enjoy.

The other aspec I love is the one background player instrumental in bringing down the clan, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada).  At first it seems as though she is another echo of Lady Macbeth but strikes the most imposing figure in the film and leaves an imprint that rivals that of Ichimonji.  We've talked on and off again about how fair or not Kurosawa films are to women and here she gets the best written role in the film.

The brothers are shallow but Lady Kaede is simultaneously a schemer manipulating the players and a brash opponent who is not concealing her treachery in the slightest.  Harada delights and horrifies in the many scenes where she uses the clan's traditions and perceptions of her against one another as each of the brothers fall.  I love that Kurosawa, in spite of Kaede's demonic appearance, justifies her rage by establishing that Ichimonji is responsible for her family's death very early on.  She, for my money, is the only true character to come out of Ran instead of a broad archetype and is the real treasure of the film.4Kyle Commentary BannerThat's a good point about Lady Kaede, which may also help to explain why the movie leaves a distinct impression in my memory, but not a very detailed one. I don't remember it as a 3-hour long narrative so much as a few very vivid moments and images in service of a larger idea. The opening scenes are a bit more distinct, because they were still working to clearly and directly establish the characters, but once Ichimonji starts his decline into madness, the film becomes a blur.

I don't actually mind that approach, but it does explain why I couldn't remember much of anything about the movie before watching it again this second time around. It's not one I'll probably watch again anytime soon—the point has been made. I'm still a little more enthusiastic about it than you are though, I think primarily because I like seeing Kurosawa take the kind of stylistic leap he does here and run with it so completely. We've seen some more surreal moves in the dream sequence from Kagemusha that we both liked, and Throne of Blood offered up a more coherent, controlled nightmare-world, but here he seems devoted exclusively to the madness aspect—it doesn't necessarily make for better drama, but in the context of his career it does at least make for a new approach to a familiar topic.

I've said this before, but I feel like I'm at a point with this movie where anything I'd say I've already said. Taken on its own, isolated from all the other movies we've watched and discussed, I may be more interested in taking it act by act, looking at how the technique shifts from a more conventional, straightforward narrative to an impressionistic abstract play—but instead I feel like this is just an extreme evolution of techniques and tendencies we've already talked about.

If I had been a Kurosawa fan all my life, watching his films as they came out year after year, and Ran rolled around after some rocky patches and an extreme slow-down in his output, I would probably have watched every screening the theater had scheduled for multiple days in a row. I can imagine how, under those circumstances, this would stand as a fusion of reliable, familiar techniques and thematic obsessions with a new approach and visual strategy that would be exciting. As film #27 on week #31 or so, it's solid.5Next week we're entering the final stretch of three films with the scatter-shot series of short films in Dreams.

Posted by Andrew

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