Now my memory is a little hazy, but i believe RAN was the first film from Akira Kurosawa that i tracked down and watched. I remember in my Video Production class in high school there were a number of movie poster’s for some old classics (Singing in the Rain, etc…) but the one i remember most vividly was the poster for Kurosawa’s 1980 masterpiece Kagemusha (it was this one).
Now we had been told that we would be watching parts of all of these films by the time we were done with Video 10, 20, 30 and as time passed we did watch some of those films. Impatient as i was, i asked if we would watch Kagemusha to which my teacher said “… Naaaaa, we won’t bother with that one, it was just a warm up for RAN anyway…”
RAN… It was such an easy name to remember, and having just watched The Last Samurai (and loving it) i really wanted to explore the Samurai film genre. So i hunted down a copy (again another first for me) at a video rental store that specialised in more obscure fair and watched with baited breath.
To my shame i will admit to not being completely blown away by it, i mean i loved its visual splendour and one of the battles, but i was so used to Hollywood conventions for period films (i wanted planned choreography for the battles, and to actually see the action not just the results of the violence) that i was a little disappointed by it all.
Thankfully RAN was good enough (and i was smart enough) that i pursued more from Kurosawa, and as i get older i begin to see for myself that it really is the masterpiece everyone says it is.
Akira Kurosawa loosely adapts William Shakespeare’s King Lear to bring us the tale of ageing Lord Hidetora’s fall from power due to the bickering of his three sons.
To say that RAN possesses a visual splendour would be an understatement. Much like he had done in the interim between Dersu Uzala and Kagemusha, Kurosawa took the time to paint out the storyboards of RAN. This sort of per-visualisation really pays off in the end, although Kurosawa was always a master of framing in any format he chose to work with here all of the shots really seem to be paintings come to life. If you stop just about any shot in any scene, you could print and frame each and every one of them and it would be a picture that is indeed worth a thousand words. It is genuinely stunning that this man had that much control of his framing given his predilection for shooting with multiple cameras, (although no doubt he had a lot of help from no less than 3 cinematographers: Shôji Ueda, Takao Saitô, and Asakazu Nakai) and also the fact that the man was going blind. Truly you can compare Akira Kurosawa to the likes of Beethoven, whose passion for their art circumvented any sort of physical ailments.
Apart from the visual pageantry on display you also have a tragic story in that grand old Shakespearean tradition. However Kurosawa does a much less direct translation of King Lear than he had with Macbeth in Throne of Blood. RAN branches off from the play drastically but Kurosawa chooses to keep the central themes of betrayal, karma, and the cold whim of higher powers preserved. In this way it can stand fully on its own and doesn’t really need to be compared with its source material.
Tatsuya Nakadai, although hardly needing to prove his worth as an actor at this point in his career gives a wonderful performance of the old warlord Hidetora. He masterfully takes the character from a proud man who has probably rarely if ever bowed to anyone (other than in polite greetings) to a crazed wild man running through the desolation of the ruins his life created.
Their is of course substance to all of this, and the themes RAN deals with are indeed the ones that we may prefer not to think about. The consequences of things like greed, unchecked ambition, and the karma of living a life of violence are all laid bare. The world of RAN is one bereft of gods or justice and no one, whether guilty or innocent is left untouched by the horrors of these darker parts of our nature.
If i have to pick out anything bad to say about RAN it would be a warning that if you as a viewer are expecting a historical epic in the same vein as Braveheart or Troy or any Hollywood film you may be as disappointed as i was. This film isn’t interested with heroic charges, the thrills of battle, or even showing off its remarkable scale of production. The battles in RAN are more concerned with the horrors of violence and it is the aftermath of these events that is focused on, and its scale is not only used for its specticle but to heighten and emphasise the deafening crash of it all by the end.
Also such a bleak film can indeed be hard to watch, this film genuinely says nothing good about humanity as even the faithful are abandoned by their gods and loved ones. It really is a depressing movie when you think about it…
RAN defines how film can be an art form to itself. Every aspect of its production is geared to the expression of thoughts and ideas. I can’t say that i really agree with what it says about humanity but it’s the passion that Kurosawa brings to his argument, and the fact that the metaphors and themes are so well integrated into its tapestry that makes it impossible for me to dislike, regardless of my feelings on its subject matter (it also helps that it has Samurai in it…).
I can and do say that RAN is indeed essential viewing for anyone who has an interest in Samurai cinema or a has even a slightest hint of appreciation for cinematic art.
***** OUT OF FIVE