Ran ★★★★

Heading into Kurosawa’s samurai-epic revision of King Lear spelled muted expectations on the right side of cautious; Anxious yet hopeful as sour memories of studying Lear half-to-death were about offset by the Great Japanese Master’s unrivalled ability to thrill and astonish. And honestly? Both suspicions came to ring true, in their own way. I don’t know if I’ll ever love Ran quite so much as some, but there’s so much of this magnificent beast that I can’t help but love and I’d like to highlight that.

One of the first images that sticks out when I think of Kurosawa is his unmatched command of the elements. The omnipresent fog in Throne of Blood. The sticky, claustrophobic heat in Stray Dog. Of course, the disquieting downpour of rain as a landmark of Seven Samurai. With Ran, Kurosawa channels one the sharpest tools in an overflowing arsenal to marshal the wind. Windswept landscapes, shifting cloud formations, the rustling of hair and robes to the rippling of flags and military banners. The sneaky sneakster even weasels it into his background, with Toru Takemitsu’s score consisting predominantly of traditional woodwind instruments. Never is it more effective than the appearance of the famous burning castle. The wind howls as if something is on its mind. The black smoke billows with a bite as one character is driven from their place of refute, head-down in shame. It’s one trick Kurosawa employs to build atmosphere and keep his frames alive, but here it’s used to evoke our characters’ turbulence, inner turmoil and familial unrest personified. It’s one detail used as part of this highly orchestrated production, painstakingly engineered down to the smallest of subtleties. Lavish doesn’t do it justice. A rousing spectacle for the ages.

Drawing from The Bard himself, it should come as no surprise to discover this colourful cast of characters as one of Kurosawa’s most memorable ensembles. ‘The Lord’ reigns MVP in a depiction of Shakespeare's eponymous greed-stricken father, staggering enough to strike fear in the soul and demand pity in the heart alike. And look the part while doing it. Reportedly Tatsuya Nakadai spent four hours a day in the makeup chair to become weathered enough for his role. Every second spent was worth it to aid this iconic, unforgettable offering, as inflated as his ego and as magnified as his eventual downfall. Suitably so, given the source, the performances are universally theatrical; highly-tuned, play-it-to-the-back-of-the-room gravitas and delivery. A style so purposefully caricatural and driven by affectation that I required some practice to ebb with its wavelength; but once it clicks, it registers as a behaviour that merges Kursosawa’s samurai sensibilities and the texts chaotic, bordering on vaudevillian tone to a degree that inspires only awe.

If there’s one facet of King Lear that (non-voluntary) over-analysing never could force me to dislike, it’s that ending. It’s a climax that builds and builds, a narrative and emotive tapestry pulled together to a dizzying degree as threads merge onto a crescendo of sensation. The ultimate descent; You know it’s coming but the blow is no softer. And that’s without even getting into Kurosawa’s touch. Transferred to the screen with perfect execution, he sticks the landing with a finale that serves not only to complete character arc upon character arc with utmost satisfaction, but ties the bow on its thesis as a warning call on greed, loyalty, power, chaos, foolishness and even growing old.

With Ran, Kurosawa accomplished something incredible, imbuing the very best of his own old-school spirit, while simultaneously adapting his source in such a way that makes the most of its orchestrated disorder. Never less than dazzling in it’s weathered, breathing, invigorated beauty and at all times a feast for the senses. The story told stops it short of reaching my personal top-tier Akira canon, but it’s shockingly close given the battle it’s had to put up to get there. An apt curtain call for the samurai stories of one of our greatest to ever do it.

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