M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is that rare epic picture, at once enormous and intimate, simultaneously melodramatic and nuanced. The superlatives that seem permanently attached to its name (magnificent, grand, breathtaking) betray its very nature: this is a quietly pessimistic movie, one that peels back the layers of deceit in its characters to find a Godless universe. Weaving together momentum and stasis, Kurosawa fashions a nimble motif of juxtaposition. Visual formality masks emotional anarchy. Like so many of its characters, Ran seems to be one thing but soon proves itself infinitely complex. The title translates to ‘chaos’ and true to its name, Ran ultimately subverts the values it so deceptively inhabits.

On the occasion of its 15th anniversary, Winstar Cinema is re-releasing Ran in a brand new 35mm print. Struck from a well-preserved negative stored in producer Serge Silberman’s personal archive, Ran will tour the major U.S. cities before being widely released. This is a perfect opportunity for young filmgoers who’ve only seen the movie on video. Size does matter if we are to fully appreciate Kurosawa’s characters at play in the fields of the Lord. In a strange way, Ran is also the ideal millenial movie. It ties together such big concepts as God and family in a story that, while ostensibly lifted from King Lear, plunges deeper into time by borrowing heavily from ancient Japanese fables and legends.

Ran follows Shakespeare’s five act structure, but it feels more naturalistic than that. The first hour or so blows over us like a warm breeze. We meet Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), an aging warlord, as he divides his kingdom among his three sons. The youngest, Saburo, rejects his inheritance and is banished. The elder two assume power in what Hidetora mistakenly believes to be a peaceful transition. Kurosawa composes these early scenes as a sequence of static shots, each of which are as detailed and inert as a painting. Setting these scenes amid vast mountains and the big sky reduces the characters to mere specks. All this fussing and quarrelling is inconsequential, Kurosawa suggests. What endures is the world around us.

stills from
Akira Kurosawa's Ran
[click photos for larger versions]

The movie then moves inside, introducing us to a painfully ritualistic society in which people move and talk in slow motion. The rooms are spartan and feel two-dimensional. Kurosawa is imitating theater, creating an artificial world of symmetry and visual order. But it’s the destruction of that outward perfection that interests Kurosawa and he wastes no time in introducing one of cinema’s great bitches, Lady Kaide (Mieko Harada), wife of Taro, the eldest son. In her oppressively layered costumes, which themselves suggest mounds of duplicity, she orchestrates the banishment of Hidetora from his kingdom and instigates a war between the brothers. Lady Kaide may have wandered in from the set of MacBeth (or Kurosawa’s own Throne of Blood) but she is a product of Japan’s Noh theater: her makeup represents the face of remorseless Vengeance. Mourning the death of her husband later in the movie, she impassively crushes a butterfly between her fingers.

Hidetora’s other daughter-in-law, Lady Sue, is a devout Buddhist and faithful subject, even though Hidetora once ravaged her home and blinded her brother. She has chosen forgiveness, which Hidetora can’t understand. She, like his sons, behaves contrary to what he expects. Interestingly, her face is never shown, nor that of her brother’s. They are spirit-like, floating somewhere above the political maneuverings. That Lady Sue and Lady Kaide should meet the same grisly fate points to a resigned atheism. Nothing is rewarded and everything is punished in a world devoid of divine intervention.

And yet God is everywhere in this movie. He’s certainly in the battle scenes, which Kurosawa has filmed with a kind of omniscient detachment. He’s also in the weather – gentle at first, then increasingly stormy as brother fights brother, and ultimately hurricane force as Hidetora goes insane and wanders the wilderness with his Fool. This is all punctuated by large, billowing clouds that Kurosawa frequently cuts to as if to emphasize the immateriality of it all. Clouds finally give way to a red sunset as the death toll mounts and we are left with complete destruction in the movie’s final scenes. But nowhere is God’s presence more apparent (and sorrowful) than in Hidetora’s wizened face. Reason having long since abandoned him, his skin becomes chalky white, his beard long and unkempt, his face completely slack. He has grown confused by his own creation run amok and has lost the ability, and desire, to control it.

Ran was not Kurosawa’s last film, but if feels like it. It’s a movie about an old man, made by an old man, both of whom were weary of the world. At one point, Hidetora remarks, "How hard it is to be old!" For Kurosawa, the difficulty was in reconciling the hypocrisies he saw around him. Of his movie Rashomon, he wrote in his autobiography, "human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves… even the character who dies cannot give up his lies." This cynicism informs Ran’s ideology: who can endure a world where God is present but powerless, where family members betray each other, where insanity is the only means of survival? Enshrining the story in a sumptuous visual style, Kurosawa has perhaps created the ultimate social critique – a movie whose outward richness seduces us into thoroughly enjoying a tale of human damnation.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Ran re-opens in New York on Friday, August 18th at UA Union Square Theater. Also opening August 18th in Los Angeles at Landmark's Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theatre and Seattle at Landmark's Egyptian Theatre. Additional play dates: September 8, 2000, Washington DC at Kennedy Center/AFI; September 15, 2000, Philadelphia at Ritz Theatres; September 29, 2000, San Francisco at The Castro and Chicago at The Music Box; October 6, 2000, Berkeley at Landmark's U.C. Theatre and Milwaukee at Times Theater; October 7, 2000, Chicago at Doc Films; October 27, 2000, Rhinebeck, NY at Upstate Films; and November 17, 2000, Pittsburgh at Harris Theater. Other play dates to be announced.

Movie Web site:
Akira Kurosawa's Ran: 15th Anniversary


Photos: (© 2000 Winstar Cinema. All rights reserved.)