Ran ★★★★★

Short version: Not sure a 'perfect film' exists, but you could make a pretty good argument that Ran's as close as it gets to one.

Long version: If you're going to make a nearly-perfect film epic, it helps to have made one previously as a dry run--Kurosawa's camera here, aided by years of storyboarding and research, is astonishingly beautiful---partly for the use of color, which helps throughout to take the film as more of a universal metaphor in addition to a character drama, if you're so inclined, and partly for the way he overwhelms his characters with the scope of the world they're in--using closeups sparingly, transitioning between the sky and the action below (I would happily watch a 90 minute film that was Kurosawa filming clouds) and often framing characters on the edge of scenes of great depth, watching or responding to something happening in the distance-leaving them as much spectators as we are (a really good example of this is when Tango confronts the traitors who have just been fired)

It's also interesting that, despite the amount of King Lear in this film's DNA, it also feels very much a personal film for Kurosawa on revisiting it. Made by a filmmaker who was seen by many as being past his prime at the time, it's very tempting to draw parallels between Hidetora's decisions and Kurosawa's reflections on the world and his place on it. (It's interesting in this sense that the youngest son, Saburo, sits and scratches during the opening meeting where he and his father rebuke each other in a fashion that's very.....evocative of Mifune circa Yojimbo/Sanjuro.) Despite the temptations to read commentary on the Mifune/Kurosawa split into the film, I have to say on rewatch, you can also just take this in as a showcase for Tatsuya Nakadai's genuinely powerhouse performance--at first central to the screen and then increasingly marginalized, popping up at the corners of the giant frames and trying to comprehend the action, buried under a 4-hour makeup job that nevertheless accentuates his eyes and mouth, he gives a remarkably singular performance that shifts from the Lion in Winter to something that's like....Munch's 'The Scream' come to life. Kurosawa makes terrific use of his presence and deep voice early on, and there's a real sense of command--once the betrayal at the keep happens though, things shift to another level, and Nakadai plays broken so convincingly that when he speaks lucidly, or channels his voice for moments in the second half of the film, it's genuinely jarring. And those eyes are large enough to really capture and reflect all the horrors they're taking in--horrors that are happening in large part because of the Lord's past catching up to him and the unintended consequences of his decisions.

Lady Kaede is perhaps the other pivotal character, and played by Mieko Harada, she comes across very much as a force of nature, despite her calm surface. One area where I've often seen criticism of Kurosawa is his focus on male protagonists more than female ones, and I've seen the argument that Kaede kind of plays into that, as a representation of the idea that women can be the source of men's problems-on revisiting the film, I don't know if I see the male protagonists elevated above Kaede in that way, however. We don't get a lot of screen time to sympathize with Kaede, but her motivations are presented in a way that makes sense, and she's as trapped by the past as any of the male characters--when you think about it, her fate--having her family slaughtered and then forced to marry the son of the warlord who killed them and keep living in the castle, now that he's taken control of it, is one where it's understandable that she'd hold a grudge--and it's easy to imagine the deep well sourcing that rage she reveals in the second half of the film. Likewise, I thought more about her in contrast to Lady Sue this time around--I think, given Kaede and her relationships to the other characters, that scene where Hidetora and Sue are talking on the battlements and he says something to the effect of he'd be more comfortable with her hatred than he is with her love and prayers for him--Kaede and Sue are opposites, but they're connected in that they show two paths for women, two different ways their lives are manipulated and controlled by the men they have to tie their fates to in this world, and despite the difference in the damage they cause, it's arguable that Hidetora and the other warriors understand Kaede, expect her betrayals in a way--(the fox speech kind of hints at that) and that, looking at the way the final confrontations play out, they almost expect things to fall apart at their hands. Sue's mercy and good nature as a reaction to the chaos around her seems far more jarring, and it's worth noting, I think, that even before Hidetora recognizes her and her brother in the ruins of their castle and flees from them (running away from the brother for the second time, really), Sue is almost as much a recluse as her brother is, despite living in the second castle with Jiro.

Also, I had forgotten how great the soundtrack is--how effectively Kurosawa uses both silence and sound (natural and music).

Also, one thing I noticed (one last thing) in the battle when Jiro and Taro's forces are storming the castle this time around--there's a shot of the red-helmed infantry of Jiro rushing into the courtyard in the background and one of the soldiers in the middle of the screen falls forward, does a complete faceplant, picks himself up as everyone around him does their best to ignore what happened, and just keeps going. It's an endearing moment partially because it makes the achievement of all the moving parts on the camera that Kurosawa was challenging appear all the greater.

Despite really thinking this is a great film (timely for 2018, too!) I am glad that this wasn't the capstone for Kurosawa's career--I love Dreams, and while Rhapsody in August and Madadayo are smaller, simpler films in many ways, they're quieter and they feel like the peace after the storm passes, perhaps. Despite the amount of rage and despair on display in Ran, the amount of craft and preparation that went into it shows a filmmaker who hadn't lost any of his zest for creation or passion for experience and I think that stands, paradoxically, as part of a testament to the film's effectiveness--it captures the pain of the world but also why life is so precious.

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