1985 // Japan // Akira Kurosawa // July 5, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Webster University Moore Auditorium)
[Ran is being screened on July 2-6 and 8, 2010 as a part of the Webster University Film Series' retrospective on the films of Akira Kurosawa, in honor of his centennial birthday.]
Ran is something of a seminal film for me. It was not only the first Kurosawa film I ever saw, but also the first non-animated Japanese film and the first non-English-language epic. It remains the only staging, adaptation, or re-imagining of King Lear I've ever seen, live or filmed. On this point, I think that Kurosawa's take—which owes as much, if not more, to legends of the historical daimyo Mori Motonari than it does to the Bard—makes for better cinema than a stricter adaptation of Lear might have made. Ran doesn't really have any analogues to the often confusing Gloucester plot threads in Shakespeare's tragedy. The story rests on the simple formula of the Great Lord and the Three Sons, with Lady Kaede thrown in as the wild card (or the ace up Misfortune's sleeve, depending on you look at it). That said, at its core, Ran is fundamentally a singularly bleak Shakespearean tragedy, stocked with characters who lament (to the heavens, no less) the cruel, capricious, bloody nature of the human condition in suitably purple prose. It's a flawlessly grim film, where even the jester Kyoami's japes seem ripe with dire portent, and it is this discipline in tone that prevents Ran from sliding into the depths of angst-ridden self-parody.
Consistent with what I suspect is the pattern for most viewers, the first time I saw the film, the bloody siege of the Third Castle is what stuck in my mind, along with Tatsuya Nakadai's frightening visage. To be sure, the siege remains a brutal, utterly de-romanticized depiction of warfare, but repeat viewings reveal a slower film than one might remember, replete with pauses, meanderings, and lengthy shots of little more than Nakadai's Hidetora reacting to each fresh twist of fate with stupefied, goggle-eyed horror. Which isn't to say that Ran is a sedate film, by any means. With the exception of the opening sequence on a bucolic green hilltop, the scenes in which very little action is occurring are nonetheless characterized by an uncanny "offness," frequently underlined by natural sounds that intrude into visually placid moments, bestowing a sense of alarm and discord. This gives the audience ample time to savor the pure cinematic majesty of the film, while still maintaining a gnawing awareness that events are tumbling into chaos.
This was my first time experiencing Ran on the big screen, and I discerned endless details that I had never picked up on before. The most startling occurs in the final shots, as Suburo's army marches away in grief across a barren plain. Eventually the films cuts to a closer shot of the orange cliffs that loom behind the army, where blind Tsurumaru waits on the precipice for his sister. I had never before observed that Tsurumaru is actually visible in that initial long shot, as little more than a dot on the cliffs. That detail, putting an actor on that precipice, all so that there would be that little shadowed speck there, and the audience would gasp, "Oh my God, is that the blind guy, still standing there...?" just before the cut that confirms it... well, that's what epic film-making in the days before CGI was all about.