Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
The horses and the horse riders are put through the wringer in Ran, the final epic of Akira Kurosawa and perhaps his greatest film. I saw horses struggling through water coming up to their necks, soldiers falling off horses, and horses just about to trample a soldier who fell off his horse. It’s a movie entitled “Chaos,” after all! And, well, that’s about as fresh an angle I can manage for this or any Kurosawa title, the director being so widely studied and appreciated. Of course, I’ve come into this one for the first time nearing the age of 30, long after film school let out. I have nothing to add to the conversation, so take this review on a humble blog as a missive – delivered by horseback – that I’d like the conversation to continue.
Based on King Lear as well as Japanese legend, I’ve always known that Ran is about an aging ruler who divides the kingdom for his three sons, and a spot of trouble ensues. It’s possible that my delay in seeing the movie came from a misapprehension that there wasn’t anything more to the story – and a broader misapprehension that cinema itself was little more than story. Hidetora Ichimonji declines, or perhaps achieves mad king status, but we find that his madness actually awakens him to the true ruin of his ways. It isn’t just the hubris of dividing the kingdom and exiling his youngest son for objecting, as this inciting episode is only the latest in a career of pillaging brutality. As Hidetora is pushed further from the safety of his castle into the wilderness beyond – with the commensurate wailing and tumbling through the fields – he’s made to face his victims. What looks like a post-apocalypse of scorched land and castles has become his hell.
It’s the Shakespeare roots that ensure scenes of exposition are more theatrical than cinematic, with characters spouting backstory or current events at each other. But what is shown is breathtaking, with some of the deepest frames I’ve ever seen in a pre-digital film, and hundreds, maybe thousands of warriors in that beautiful red or black lacquered armor and flags, flowing across battlefields like a typhoon. The centerpiece battle sequence is a towering, terrible spectacle, first presented in a vacuum of sound to capture the sheer violence. Offset only the dirge-like score, women are gunned down in a panic, and soldiers shout at their leaders to prepare for death moments before being killed. It’s all guns and spears and arrows – the fiery accents to dense, layered compositions. Period warfare gripped by Shakespearean madness and tragedy, with a predictable but nonetheless shocking body count.
And everyone loves the opportunity to do Shakespeare, making for spectacular performances like Tatsuya Nakadai as the mad king and Peter as Kyoami the fool, but some of the film’s most moving scenes are surprisingly quiet. It might be something as simple as the loyal warrior Tango riding off to retrieve the youngest son, telling Kyoami to watch Hidetora while he’s gone. In that moment, I had this pang of what might have been familiarity, witness as we all are to the breathless decision-making of hospice. And then Kyoami, so often spurned or threatened for his jeering performances, begins to wonder why he’s dedicated his life to this now-ailing king. What had been mere duty transforms into something else when Hidetora croaks, “Where am I?” into the darkness of night.
However, it might just be Mieko Harada who steals the show as Lady Kaede, invoking both the devious Shakespearean archetype but also, in the end, Tsugomo Hanshiro of Harakiri. Early on, Kaede delivers her lines with a strained, alien inflection, and we soon learn that it’s a calculation. She isn’t the total product of the kingdom’s interior, and her subsequent rage is positively biblical, as she’s screaming and slashing at her clothes. And there’s so much destruction in Ran, of the old ways and the old symbols. We start with the disrespect of a son positioned physically higher than his father, and by the end witness a beheading in the very same court. Well, we don’t see anything except for a shower of blood against the wall, but it’s enough. Akira Kurosawa knows when to withhold, though he doesn’t make a habit of it. Ran is a film of such magnitude that it makes other epics look, well, like horseplay.