'Ran' was released in 1995 and was helmed by one of the greatest directors of all time, Akira Kurosawa. Following an incredibly challenging period in his career, during which he faced the onset of blindness and depression (he also attempted suicide), not to mention his almost total financial ruin and sullied reputation, this movie marks Kurosawa's true return to form. Following on from his previous movie, the complex and impressive 'Kagemusha', the troubled perfectionist continues in the same vein with this epic samurai drama. Winning an Oscar for Best Costume Design (a well deserved accolade) and also receiving nominations for Best Director, Cinematography and Set Direction, the critics seem to agree that this movie is one of Kurosawa's best efforts to date. Having recently reviewed 'Kagemusha' on Blu-ray, I was very interested to see how this supposedly superior offering would compare.
A stellar cast has once again been assembled for this movie. The most prolific of all Japanese actors and long time Kurosawa collaborator, Tatsuya Nakadai ('Kagemusha'), takes on the primary role, playing Hidetora. Akira Terao ('Change'), a former singer, plays Taro; Jinpachi Nezu ('Saraba itoshike daichi') plays Jiro; Daisuke Ryu, following on from his stellar performance in 'Kagemusha', plays Saburo and Mieko Harada ('Out') plays Kaede. So, with a fantastic cast and suitable financial backing, it seems as though all of the pieces had finally fallen into place to allow this brilliant, but complex, director to express his creative talent and make the movie he laboured over for almost fifteen years.
'Ran' (simply meaning chaos in Japanese) charts the demise of a powerful warlord clan in 16th Century Feudal Japan. The Ichimonji clan are led by the ancient and wise Hidetaro. Following 50 years of blood soaked battle to establish his empire, and on the eve of his 70th birthday, he makes a rash and uncharacteristic decision. He decides that the time for war has ended and he decrees that his vast kingdom will be split amongst his three sons, and also declares peace with his closest rivals. Taro, the eldest brother, dutiful follows his father's wishes, echoing the strict and formal codes of his samurai upbringing. Jiro, the second eldest, also supports Hidekaro's decision. Saburo, the youngest son, disputes the proposal, fearing that a split in the kingdom will surely lead to difficulties and projected weakness. Outraged at Saburo's apparent insolence, Hidetaro banishes him. The kingdom is split, with Taro becoming leader of clan, assuming complete power and claiming the First Castle (which was his fathers) as his own. Jiro becomes his second in command and his enforcer, bound by oath to loyally obey his brother's every command.
Hidekaro plans on seeing out his remaining years visiting his sons and enjoying the peace which he has bestowed upon his former kingdom. However, things start to go awry when Taro begins to exact his will upon the old man, forcing him to submissively sign over total command to him and his army. Finding it difficult to relinquish the power which he wielded with such authority, and shocked at his sons' treachery, Hidekaro begins to feel the first touches of insanity. Taro, drunk with power, begins his quest for dominance over the remaining Ichimonji, waging a bloody war to completely eradicate all influences of his father's legacy. Meanwhile, Hidekaro descends deeper into the realm of insanity. Deeply shamed by his decision to banish Saburo, he realises that he was the only son who really showed him any signs of love. Kaede, Taro's wife, was captured and forced into marriage after Hidekaro burned her castle and slaughtered her family. She too begins to employ treacherous methods to take advantage of the unusual dynamic which the Ichimonjii clan have adopted. For the remainder, we witness the Ichimonjii clan tear itself apart as the two eldest brothers struggle for power, forcing Hidekaro to come to terms with his decisions (both past and present).
The title “chaos” is most definitely a suitable one. The treachery which Hidetaro faces at the hands of his sons causes his world to descend into complete disarray. He finds himself completely alone, with only his fool for company (who turns out to be not as foolish as one would assume). Not only do his sons turn the clan against him but he also struggles to come to terms with the loss of his command and status. He was once the all powerful warlord of a prolific clan and now he is merely a guest in the castles of his sons. Hidetaro also struggles, after the “loss” of his two eldest sons, with the guilt of 1000 deaths, which he incurred through 50 years of massacre on the battlefield. The immense mental and physical pressure which the old warlord suffers gradually pushes him over the edge and he begins to lose control of his senses. He is haunted by the demons of his past, seeing false images of dead soldiers, which drive him further into the arms of insanity. He is also forced to come to terms with the loss of Saburo, whom he banished from his kingdom. With all these factors weighing heavily on the old man's mind, it begins to shatter and unravel. All of these factors cause chaos to descend on Hidetora's once idyllic existence as he begins to wither both physically and mentally. This chaos perpetuates and begins to spread, like a horrific disease, infecting all of those whom Hidetora interacts with. His two sons begin to plot against him, causing instability in the entire clan which, in conjunction with the exile of Saburo and Kaede's mind games, is crippling and destructive. In the end it's this chaos which dominates and is the deciding factor in the collapse of the once all-powerful clan.
As is to be expected from Kurosawa's crowning achievement, the plot runs deep and is wonderfully multilayered. The interaction between all the major players is masterfully executed and is both exciting and gripping. All of the acting talent on show, especially the memorable and compelling performance by Nakadai, is completely flawless and always convincing. The pace is also very satisfying, with the acts of treachery and madness coming thick and fast. Sure there are a couple of periods of relative inactivity but it's in these moments that Kurosawa takes the time to build tension and expand on characterisation and motivation. This movie is not simply another movie, it is a work of art and a bastion for artistic integrity. Like a prized painting, the effort which has gone into the production is plainly visible. All of the sets and costumes are spectacular and incredibly authentic, with no CGI trickery to fall back upon if stunts did not go to plan. The Kurosawa pageantry is still present but toned down in favour of a slightly more “active” plot with plenty of beheadings, a couple of grandiose battles and lots of double-crosses. Imagery is strong, with some very atmospheric shots of encroaching thunderstorms and rays of light breaking the clouds. These appear to herald the slow collapse of Hidetora's world and forecast an impending storm which will lead to the downfall of the entire Ichimonji clan. This imagery was borne from Kurosawa's intricate and personally hand-painted storyboards. The cinematography, especially the manner in which the director frames each image so carefully and precisely, is simply stunning.
With a plot of such depth there's ample opportunity to introduce various themes. Fear of the unknown and fear of aging are two such themes, which are explored here by Kurosawa. Hidetora has a dream wherein he envisions his own lonely demise, which sparks the rash decision to split his kingdom. Even though this great warlord felled 1000's of enemies on the battlefield, he fears losing the love of his sons and growing old alone. But these sentiments are simply too little too late. His years of militaristic instruction, the only advice he ever bestowed upon his boys, has already corrupted them into power hungry warmongers. It is only Saburo who, even after his banishment, still truly loves his father. It was the apprehension of the onset of old age which spurned Hidetora to make rash decisions, causing him to lose everything. Perhaps this is a reflection of Kurosawa's own fears. Having alienated many throughout his career due to his strong artistic integrity (and difficulty to work with), he too may have felt lost and fearful, like the great warlord depicted in this movie. The movie also explores the fickle nature of man and his almost insatiable lust for power. Here, via the guiding hand of the wily Kaede, Jiro and Taro's desire for uncontested control of the clan turns them against each other. The passing of time and the dawn of change is another strong theme. As Hidetora's sons take control of his kingdom, he is completely stripped of all his power. With no personal retainer to hold his hand and react to his every need, the outside “real” world is too much for the sheltered Hidetora and he simply can't handle it. This is perhaps a reflection of Kurosawa's own feelings as Japan hurtled towards the eighties, forcing him to adopt many alien techniques, such as filming in colour. The topic of God/gods also arises frequently, with many characters questioning God's will and His decisions. Hidetaro's fate could indeed be his punishment from God for all his wrongdoings over the years. This fact is bolstered when his sword breaks during an altercation with Taro and Jiro's men, forcing him to retreat and preventing him from performing seppuku (basially Hari-kair). Instead of a noble death he is forced to live, trapped for the rest of his life in his own personal hell. The folly of man (and his lust for women) also features throughout, as demonstrated by Kaede's almost casual disruption and destruction of an entire samurai family dynamic. The ignorance of man is also exemplified in the closing scenes, as the blind Tsurumaru stumbles towards a cliff edge. This scene may again be a commentary on the role of religion in mans' life. Once God is lost (as indicated by Tsurumaru's lost image of Buddah) man, now truly alone, is doomed. Whatever anyone may say about the difficulties they experienced working with Kurosawa, he certainly provides plenty of food for thought and reasons to re-watch again and again.
Having relied on Western contributors (such as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) to provide much needed funded for 'Kagemusha', the critical success of that movie made attaining funding to complete 'Ran' a lot easier. This finally gave Kurosawa the artistic freedom and control he needed to make a movie which he was wholly satisfied with. The movie is based on Shakespeare's “King Lear” and the entire production feels more like an epic tragedy, rather than a blockbuster movie. The manner in which the entire plot is delivered is masterful; the audience is lured into a false sense of security at the beginning, only to have to entire piece descend into unrelenting chaos as the movie comes to a close. While initially this movie was not received with enthusiasm, it has, over the years, increased steadily in popularity and is now regarded as Kurosawa's modern masterpiece. This movie is the accumulation of years of experience, which is drawn upon here to create one of the most engaging and multi-layered movies available. The scale of the production is immense, overtaking all other previous samurai dramas, even, dare I say it, surpassing 'Seven Samurai' in terms of achievement. Kurosawa's immense eye for detail and framing shines through. Every scene is shot with pinpoint precision, with the director labouring over every minute aspect to ensure that the finished product is nothing but perfection. In that aspect I cannot fault this movie but I did not personally feel that it made any vast improvements over 'Kagemusha'. 'Ran' is most definitely a superior movie but not superior enough to warrant a nine. In saying that, this is the most engrossing and thought-provoking samurai drama out there and is a must for all lovers of great cinema.
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