Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai Akira Terao Daisuke Ryu Mieko Harada Peter
Running time:160 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
Akira Kurosawa’s "Ran" mixes "King Lear", Noh theatre, Japan ’s violent feudal era and the great director’s vision to create one of the most elegant and powerful films about war ever made. It stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the unforgettable Emperor Hidetora, a wizened but still dangerous lord who gained his domain after years of merciless conquest and bloodshed. He suddenly decides to divide his power among his three sons, triggering an upheaval in which bonds of family are tossed aside in a maelstrom of betrayal and, as the film’s English title indicates, chaos. Soon Hidetora finds himself banished by his sons Taro and Jiro, lost and alone in the wilderness save for Kyoami, his court fool. What few allies he has left desperately try to reunite him with Sanjuro, his last truly loyal son, in the face of overwhelming odds and ever-diminishing hope.
If there is one thing to keep in mind while watching this film, it is the old saying: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While he initially means well in devising his flawed plan, Hidetora certainly won’t relinquish his reign nearly as easily as he led on, and soon his overly ideal vision of a leisurely retirement rapidly dissolves into an all-out blood feud. Similarly, viewers may at first be thrown off by the peaceful, idyllic green hills amongst which Hidetora describes his plan to his sons, guests and entourage. Yet as the film moves along, it gradually becomes clear just how terrible Hidetora’s legacy is and how it has affected his children’s own cunning natures. The scene in which the two traitorous sons attack the castle where Hidetora has retreated to is undoubtedly the showstopping scene of the film, and the one in which the seriousness of his dire situation truly hits home. As soldiers scramble across the black soil (of Mount Fuji , where the famous scene was shot) and his handmaidens commit suicide and are mowed down by gunfire, the once-great lord is driven mad, becoming a mere shell of his former self.
As impressive as Nakadai is in his part, Mieko Harada steals the show even from him as Lady Kaede, one of the most hateful villains in all of Japanese cinema. She is the wife of Taro, but immediately starts seducing his brother Jiro after his suspicious demise in battle. Her family having previously been wiped out by Hidetora, she acts as an all-too willing catalyst for his house’s fall, not fanning the flames of war so much as dousing them in gasoline. She is at the top of a wide selection of despicable characters whose selfish motives bring the world around them down in ruins. There are some good figures in the film (most notably Sué, Jiro’s Buddhist wife, and Tsurumaru, her brother who was blinded by Hidetora many years ago), but they are easily swept away by the tides of turmoil.
"Ran" is such a spellbinding work that, if not for its distant quality and overwhelming pessimism, it would probably trump "Seven Samurai" as the crowning achievement of Kurosawa’s career. Granted, the film’s aloofness is very much a deliberate aesthetic choice, intended to present the story’s tragic events from the vantage point of the gods looking down from the heavens with despair. Kurosawa’s strategy is highly effective, firmly situating the film’s audience as outsiders who have no choice but to helplessly watch as the characters fall victim to each others' greed, ruthlessness, ambition and treachery.
In the later period of his career, Kurosawa noticeably traded in his inspiring hopefulness for a more critical view of the world and its faults, backing it up with stylistic brilliance. While undeniably bleak, "Ran" features a high level of quality and perfect balance of all of its elements – direction, acting, score (masterfully executed by Toru Takemitsu), costumes (from Emi Wada, who won an Oscar for her elaborate, hand-created pieces) and so much more. Those who search for an example of truly visionary cinema should find their wishes amply fulfilled in this masterpiece of magnificence and woe.