Friday, February 01, 2013
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, William Shakespeare
Photography: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Mieko Harada, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Pita, Masayuki Yui, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Mansai Nomura
Akira Kurosawa's late grand epic, made when he was 75, can serve today as one self-contained clinic in The Big Movie, the sweeping, ponderous exercises that swallow one whole, with story, with image, with music and color and faces and event. They come in many shapes and sizes, of course (nearly always long), and Ran is only one. It is filled with gravitas, riffing equally on classic Japanese jidaigeki and Shakespeare and matters of great moral and personal moment, at the highest and lowest levels of power. At the same time it occupies an exclusive cinematic space defined across the decades of Kurosawa's career. Perhaps most surprising, it is capable of a convulsive, headlong narrative momentum.
I think that's probably the Shakespeare, of course, the famous Western streak of Kurosawa. I don't know King Lear, the Shakespeare story adapted here, but I recognize the complexities and symmetries of the storytelling, which has biblical strains as well in its primary narrative arc of spiteful sons and stupid father. It has two remarkable characters: first the stupid father, the warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), and then his daughter-in-law Kaede (Mieko Harada). They share a complicated background that plays out by proxy, the ghost of their conflict haunting the epic battle scenes for which this picture is rightly famous. Ran is another fine example, perhaps the last so purely, of Kurosawa's never-ending adroit balancing act of self-consciousness, between East and West, privation and privilege, pageantry and naturalism, theater and cinema, war and peace, life and death and the spirit world.
Ran is seen best on a big screen, in 70 mm if you can. There I said it. I don't say this kind of thing often—Lawrence of Arabia is the only other title I might say it about, but I better not start down that road. But I do think that literally the bigger Ran is the better it is, noting also that it's OK on TV, the way I saw it most recently. The word itself, "ran," appears to be a nuanced Japanese term whose closest approximation in English is "chaos," with connotations of political uprising and nihilistic violence. Thus this movie claims license for the operatic excesses, which it has earned any number of ways and delivers with fine touches.
Two things that Kurosawa has always done exceptionally well are rain and battles, and there's not a lot of rain in Ran. But what's most remarkable to me about the battle scenes is how much they seem to come of a deeply felt touch. I account for it by Kurosawa taking the editing credit for the picture (as indeed he did for many of his pictures). As large and sweeping as Ran is, it also feels handmade and intimate in some persistent way. Consider those battle scenes that occupy so much of it. They tend to be composed of two parts. The first is the assembly of the forces, where great lines of men on horseback are ranged against hills or winding across great plains. These images are still and bucolic, filled with green and the lovely lines of horizons and the sound of wind, with armored men bearing colored banners, on foot or on beasts, moving slowly across landscape.
The second part, the battles proper, is where I think Kurosawa's shaping of the movie as an editor is felt most keenly. They are dreamlike in the way they are connected, for example first as if fascinated by the sounds of multiple arrows flying and hitting. Then by fire. Then suddenly lapsing into montages of horrific imagery, with all sound dropped out except for the haunting orchestral music of Toru Takemitsu. These scenes are remarkably affecting, soothing and disturbing at once, horrific, littered with corpses, bloody and yet also beautiful.
As always, Kurosawa's persistent sense of the sky overhead is felt, here in the many cutaways to dramatic and beautiful vistas of clouds and sky and sunlight, lingering on them until we feel nearly as tempted as his characters seem to be to lose oneself in them. I was also impressed with Kurosawa's use of color, specifically the way each of the three warring brothers is branded with his own colors, yellow, red, or blue, and stripes indicating their age position from eldest to youngest. It's a bit schematic, obviously, but helpful in a movie about great crowds of men at war with one another in ever-shifting alliances.
The use of landscapes is equally impressive, simply a pleasure to look at—and another reason to see big. Another interesting point in the credits is that there are no fewer than three cinematographers. Some of the most dramatic scenes are staged theatrically, with only dirt for stage. In other scenes, characters on horseback ride deep across and into the dirt, receding and shrinking slowly, creating a vast sense of space by the simple expedient of patience.
Mieko Harada delivers an explosive performance as the scheming Kaede, working from misplaced eyebrow makeup, a mincing gait, and eyes that see everything. She is a great villainess, not least because she becomes more sympathetic as the details of her backstory are revealed, even as her behavior becomes more repulsive. She tends to own every frame she is in and remains the most fascinating character here—the one everyone remembers, though I believe she has clear enough forebears in work in the '50s by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa himself.
Kaede is matched with Hidetora in nearly perfectly symmetrical counterpoint. The lifelong warlord starts the picture sympathetically, a foolish old man generously lauding his sons with gifts and titles and power. But as his backstory emerges, he becomes more terrible, even as his behavior moderates into that of a child with his madness (accompanied by the jester fool into the wasteland).
There's a wonderful quality to the way Ran moves so determinedly from the deceptively peaceful beauty of its opening sequences to the utter ruin of everything, a movement that is otherwise belied by everything the movie is and does. Its vision is bleak—"Man is born crying," says one character here as things grow worse. "When he's cried enough, he dies"—but one can't help also noting that this single-minded look into an abyss of Ran is also filled and throbbing with life and beauty. It's hard to miss, in fact.
Top 10 of 1985
Even though I have some reasonably big gaps in 1985, I think I'm safe in calling it something of a lackluster year (in something of a lackluster decade, I am increasingly reminded). After Hours is the apotheosis of a certain mid-'80s type that I adored once and still like, with Something Wild, Desperately Seeking Susan, arguably even Liquid Sky. Come and See I just saw recently but much impressed, a great war picture. The Emerald Forest is from memory, have not seen since it was new, which reminds me I probably should again. And Pee-wee's Big Adventure is verified from a screening a couple of years ago. That is a stone classic. After that it's just stuff I saw in theaters that I remember liking. Moving on.
2. After Hours
3. Come and See
4. The Emerald Forest
5. Pee-wee's Big Adventure
6. Lost in America
7. The Sure Thing
8. Desperately Seeking Susan
9. Prizzi's Honor
10. Back to the Future
Didn't like so much: Brazil, Cocoon, The Color Purple, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Witness
Gaps: My Beautiful Laundrette, Out of Africa, Re-Animator, Runaway Train, Shoah