Some personal comeuppance. It’s true, I initially underestimated Kurosawa’s importance in film history. Yes, he was a great filmmaker, I just didn’t know how good. Looking down my own personal list of his masterpieces, most of which I have just seen recently; 1. Ikiru, 2. Stray Dog, 3. High and Low, 4. Seven Samurai, 5. Dodesu-ke-dan, and now 6. Ran, I feel that besides Kubrick, he’s the best. No other director has blown me away more with visuals, story, sound, music, and theme.
My latest discovery Ran seems obsessed with the struggle between personal validation and mass chaos. The stunning opening shots of Samurai on horseback overlooking the deep, lush green, valley cuts almost immediately to a fast paced boar hunt. This is a foreshadowing of the upheaval to come, contemplation transitioning quickly to hysteria. Immediately Kurosawa has initiated a shift in tone, and the film always keeps this structure in mind.
A reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran deals with the sudden shift in power of a legendary and brutal Samurai clan, Father/mentor passing down the reigns to his eldest son of three. This simple transition, one of the calmest scenes in the film, leads almost immediately into upheaval, with youngest son being banished for insubordination. Worse than that, this family turmoil is witnessed by two other factions who can smell the scent of weakness at first sight.
From here Kurosawa spreads his wings as a storyteller and unloads multiple story-lines following each participant, Father, sons, people they have wronged in the past, servants, soldiers, advisors, etc. Loyalties are tested, shape-shifters present themselves, and destiny’s are written in blood, all action marching towards complete annihilation of the clan structure in place. Ran is a gigantic picture, using location, color, camera movement, all within the mise-en-scene to display an epic and immediate importance.
While watching one cannot help but be drawn in by the frame and everything the filmmakers use to perfectly fill the space. But, as will all the Kurosawa’s I mentioned above, the trajectory of the story dictates the style. Ran remains first and foremost a tragedy of guilt, doubt, and inaction. But the film is so much more. As Sydney Lumet says in his commentary for the new Criterion release, the film sounds like a symphony, a Beethoven one no less. Very high praise.
Personally, it astonished me how Ran can have such confidence in it’s characters, allowing them to be human even while residing in a world where murder, sex, manipulation, and greed surround and engulf. The past never stays hidden for long, and everyone in Ran pays a heavy price for not only their own decisions, but those of their leaders whom have been entrusted with the loyalty and devotion of the people. One gets the sense that these men of power, these giants of strength and fortitude, never truly understand that their personal decisions affect not only their direct situation, but each layer of the surrounding population (Kurosawa never shows the common folk). There’s a gap in seeing outside the box, both on a personal and international level. Definitely a thematic approach that still rings true today.