The Ultimate Kurosawa Anti-Epic: “Ran” (1985)

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For me the greatest film director ever was Kurosawa Akira (1910-98). After a series of epoch-making films during the 1950s (including, Rashomôn, Seven Samurai, Ikiru), Kurosawa and actor Mifune Toshirô parted after the long-extended (two years) shooting of “Red Beard” and Kurosawa had difficulties getting movies financed, especially after the commercial (and artistic) failing of “Dodesukaden” (1970) bankrupted the sort of “United Artists” production company he and  Ichikawa Kon had set up.

It took five years and going to Siberia to get financing (Soviet) for another movie, the gorgeous “Dersu Usala,” another five years after that and help from some of Kurosawa’s (then young and newly successful) American admirers (Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) to put together financing of “Kagemusha” (The Shadow Warrior, 1980) with  Nakadai Tatsuya (born in 1930) as Lord Takeda Shingen and as the thief who was recruited to play his double and was engulfed by the role. The scene in which he must sit still atop a hill to inspire the clan’s troops makes me gulp and shudder even in memory. The battle scenes surpass even Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” The compositions and cinematography are ravishing.

The costumes and visual compositions and epic battle scenes in “Ran” (Chaos, 1985) match those of “Kagemusha.” King Lear is widely considered the Mount Everest of roles for an actor and Nakadai Tatsuya rose to the challenge. This is the ultimate story about aging and making bad decisions that cannot be reversed

At the start of the film, the 70-year-old Japanese warlord Lear, Hidetora Ichimonji (Nakadai), who has a lot of blood on his hands over the years fo consolidating power, is concluding a successful hunt for wild boars. He has a terrifying dream while taking a nap and resolves to put his earthly affairs in order. He gives each of his three sons one of the castles he controls.

His youngest son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryû playing the Cordelia of this version), attempts to convince him that dividing his realm is a bad idea. The son who is concerned about his father infuriates the father and is banished.

Controlling castles and realms of their own, the sons (egged on by Lady Macbeth-like wives [Kurosawa had already done his version of “Macbeth” in 1957’s “Throne of Blood”) make retirement less than quiet and comfortable for Hidetora. Turmoil grows into fratricidal civil war. There is an unforgettable scene in which Nakadai (exceptionally tall for Japanese especially of his vintage) slowly emerges from a burning castle and down a long flight of stone steps.

The sequence is stunningly dramatic, and I learned from bonus feature interview recollections from Nakadai that he was all alone inside the burning building and there was no possibility of a retake if he stumbled on the way down.

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Kurosawa carried over from Shakespeare the structure of a ruler too soon old and way too late gaining understanding. Cordelia/Saturo dies and only after dying is recognized as the filial child, while Hidetora/Lear wanders disconsolate on the cold plain.

There is a fool in both, and Kurosawa turns the blade an extra twist, as well as expanding the part (Kyoami, played by Pîtâ, is the least stylized character in the film: that is, he has a personality rather than just playing a role).

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In “Ran,” Kurosawa offers less catharsis than Shakespeare’s “Lear,” not being interested in providing any straw of consolation for audiences to clutch.) Kurosawa also provided a (bloody) backstory for the king/lord splitting his realm and retiring.

The movie has a lot of action and a lot of blood. What makes it the greatest film of the 1980s and one of the greatest ever are the astonishingly wide-ranging (in emotion) portrayal by Nakadai (the star of some other searing dramas including “The Human Condition,” “Seppuku,” “Kill!”), and the stunning, expressionist visual composition (includingWada Emi’s Oscar-winning costume design) and color cinematography (Nakai, Saitô, Ueda). Both “Kagemusha” and “Ran!” show the devastation of pride and empire — to music inspired by Mahler’s First Symphony, “The Titan.” (Kurosawa pressed that model on Takemitsu Toru, who had wanted to use human voices).

Kurosawa looked down on human folly as if from heaven throughout his two great, culminating 1980s masterpieces, and the last scenes in both movies are shot from above. Kurosawa made some more, smaller movies, but he thought “Ran” would be his final statement and it resounds as the self-conscious pinnacle of a great artist’s artistry and ambition.

The cataclysm is filmed in the most vivid colors. “Ran” is the ultimate Kurosawa film. After that he doodled—interesting doodles, but there is nowhere to go after Lear.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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