Ran ★★★★★

Shakespeare within the Japanese mountains. Ran, a relocated retelling of King Lear, is possibly the greatest film adapted from Shakespeare. This is Akira Kurosawa at his most ambitious and most mature, making cinema his tool to tell an epic and deeply human story of greed and deceit. People acted out this tale hundreds of years ago, and Ran maintains a melodramatic and theatrical sensibility, whilst capturing all its moments on film. It is classical storytelling confined by the rules of modern cinema, but if Kurosawa is setting those rules, there's no limit on how creative it can be.

The cinematography in Ran is astonishing, and every frame could be a painting (some quite literally, given Kurosawa's pre-production process). This is a film of bright colours on earthy backgrounds. The production design is clean and colour-coded, making it very easy to follow. All the lines of motion are carefully choreographed, directing our eyes as Kurosawa intended. The movement is smooth in whichever quadrant it appears, giving the film a calmness due to its seemingly natural progression. Ran has an elaborate scale, using huge backgrounds with landscapes to die for. Often Kurosawa allows the action to move into those massive backgrounds. The battle scenes are some of the greatest in all cinema, using jump cuts in the action to make it all the more overwhelming. Often the focal plane goes beyond the action, letting death and war become abstract. This is a film where many scenes are stage-like, and yet it can easily alternate to moments that are large and undeniably cinematic. At one point there's a massacre. The scene plays silently, just music over constant death. Shots linger on bodies left slumped over, covered in sticky blood. In the aftermath, Kurosawa captures a smoke-filled, misty atmosphere. Weather plays a part in Kurosawa's vision, as he utilises mist for destruction and wind for madness. This is a film of pure chaos and a storm needs to be there for that.

Ran is the story of Ichimonji Hidetora, the film's equivalent of King Lear. Hidetora is reduced in Ran from a merciless, bloodthirsty monster to a man who has lost his mind. He gives his land to his three sons, and is promptly abandoned and turned against. He's been fighting a long time and now he wants peace, but it's naïve to believe no one would instigate more violence. Very quickly he is disrespected and made to sit below his son. Hidetora muses at one point that he loved his sons too much, seeing love as weakness through his callous worldview. He shows how breaking individual arrows is easy but three together remain unbroken, a trick quickly undone by the youngest son who snaps the arrows on his knees as a sign that the three sons are not unified. This son is then exiled, even though he ironically is the son who most cares about his father.

Hidetora lived a lifetime of wrongs and they slowly catch up to him in Ran, as all his regrets unspool. He ends up persecuted by his own sons and loses his mind. He watches his servants, soldiers, and concubines die in front of him, their blood painting the walls. Eventually he descends the burning tower, now a madman. Hidetora trembles and cries, his strength taken from him by all that he has lost. The completed work of one generation is so easily undone by the next. The equivalent of The Fool from King Lear, Kyōami, is given a prominent role in Ran, even if such a character has little basis in historical Japan. Kyōami provides some of the film's only emotional warmth, ending up the only sane and peaceful character. His interactions with the mad Hidetora shows a kindness few others possess. At one point, Kyōami considers leaving but he cannot leave someone so weak and so betrayed. Kyōami, unlike anyone else, actually cries for Hidetora. Some have speculated that Hidetora is a stand-in for Kurosawa, who himself went through a lot of trouble in the 1970s, including a suicide attempt. If this is true, and the sons represent the younger filmmakers who saw him as a has-been, one wonders what Kyōami represents. Perhaps the character's androgynous nature indicates something universal, like cinema? Or maybe a woman in a world of men, like Kurosawa's wife or daughter? Or maybe nothing at all, because Kurosawa was a fantasy storyteller, not a man who revealed his dreams in his films ... oh wait.

Once free, some of the sons think they have a chance to seize total power, gambling their lives to attain it. Ran becomes a film of military struggle and feudal politicking. Lady Kaede, the wife of Hidetora's first son (and later his second son too), is power-hungry, pouring words of doubt into the ears of her husbands. She wants revenge, especially now she has control of a castle where so much of her family's suffering occurred. She is probably the only character who is entirely strong-willed. She is relentless and brutal, getting men under her control through her sexual, psychotic, shapeshifting nature, alternately controlling and very calm. She may also be the film's wisest character, able to analyse situations incredibly effectively. Her scheming destroys the family she's married into, but that's the very act of revenge she always wanted. The actors playing Lady Kaede and Hidetora use techniques reminiscent of Noh theatre, with long periods of static motion before quick changes in stance. This stylistic acting emphasises the heartless passion and single-mindedness that defines the characters, as well as the subsequent change in power dynamics that both experience.

Without a unified authority, the world descends into chaos. Ran is a film of the follies of man, of the overwhelming toll that warring lands inflict upon us. This is the usually optimistic Kurosawa at his most depressing and pessimistic. Ran is a film where the good die pointlessly and the bad die before being able to atone. The film opens with wild boar being hunted but not eaten, a nihilistic pursuit. War is decided on a whim, an exercise in foolishness. As the entire Ichimonji family is wiped out, it seems foolishness has lost them their lands. Everyone loses in war. Ran depicts a cruel world, where everyone has a tragic tale destined to end in sadness. "In a mad world, only the mad are sane", says Kyōami. Kurosawa depicts a world in distress, one in pure chaos, where the gods are absence. Lady Sué, a devout Buddhist, ends up beheaded. Then again, the gods cannot save people from themselves, as they choose sorrow over joy and suffering over peace. Ran depicts firearms taking over from swords, as mankind only gets more efficient at killing people. In this nuclear age, this trend still continues. At the end of Ran, a blind man stands alone by an edge. This perfectly encapsulates the world of Ran. He can't see clearly and he's so close to ruin. Ran: beautiful chaos.

Akira Kurosawa Ranked

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