For any great artist, there is usually at least one great work that defines them throughout the ages, often referred to as their “masterpiece.” In the case of your director, Akira Kurosawa, as Francis Ford Coppola once stated, “He didn’t have just one or even two masterpieces; he had something like seven or eight.” You, Ran, are something of an overlooked masterpiece for Kurosawa; his twenty-seventh film and the last great epic of his career, you present a nihilistic vision of humanity. Using equal amounts of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Japanese history and Noh theatre, your narrative details the downfall of a samurai warlord and his clan at the hands of its own deceit, greed, and an inability or unwillingness to break the cycles of violence that shaped it. While most remember your director for such greats as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Red Beard, or Ikiru, you stand out among his films for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the darker, elegiac tone that you display.
Your story seems simple enough: an aging warlord abdicates his power among his three sons, expecting to retire peacefully but failing to heed the warnings of his youngest son that he will be betrayed by the elder two and instead banishing him for it. Indeed, he is betrayed and ultimately driven to madness, all thanks in no small part to the machinations of his middle son’s conniving and vengeful wife, whose family the warlord had murdered in one of his past campaigns. It’s essentially “King Lear,” but as he did with his adaptation of “Macbeth” in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa makes it his own. By using the framework of Japan’s history of feudal conflict and samurai warfare, the tragic elements of Shakespeare’s play resonate all the more forcefully. Those unfamiliar with Japanese politics of the time may not be aware that the conspiratorial behavior exhibited by your characters, with little regard for familial ties and power was achieved through treachery, was quite ordinary during this period. What is so fantastic about your story is the manner in which Kurosawa weaves numerous threads into a cohesive web, the layout of plans within plans unraveling so expertly. When we finally reach the final images of the blind man left alone on a precipice, his next steps symbolic of humanity’s path leading either to safety or destruction, there is no plot element left unresolved, no character’s fate ambiguous. Considering the subtle complexity of your narrative, of which an in-depth analysis would perhaps take much longer than your two-hour-and-forty-minute runtime, that’s quite a feat indeed.
From a filmmaking standpoint, you are something of a marvel, whose majesty is appreciated by most critics but perhaps lost on the average filmgoer. Your use of color throughout is masterful and painterly (unsurprising considering Kurosawa composed numerous paintings in lieu of storyboards), from the blazing yellows, violent reds, and serene blues of the three sons and their armies, to the ghostly white of the warlord in the pivotal battle scene. The use of axial cuts has been a Kurosawa device for years, but you possess some of the most intricate arrangements of these cuts ever put to film. As well, the use of multiple cameras to capture single takes accentuates your theatrical qualities. Your actors are all top-notch, displaying a less natural or realistic but heightened sense of drama and theatricality akin to your Noh predilections, with Tatsuya Nakadai’s thoroughly powerful and ethereal portrayal of Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the delightfully venomous Lady Kaede deserving especial mention. T?ru Takemitsu’s score is also notable; as Takemitsu’s philosophy toward composing music for films was that it was his job not to add music but to take away music, there is a subliminal quality to your music. Just as you balance Japan’s history and theatre with Shakespeare’s tragedy, your score balances the Eastern sparseness of Nohkan flutes and kotsuzumi and ?tsuzumi drums with the Western denseness of dirge-like symphonies evocative of Gustav Mahler.
Perhaps your greatest achievement as a work of cinema comes in the massive battle sequence of the third castle. In terms of the scene’s constructive elements, it is perhaps the pinnacle of film violence. Horror upon horror compounds as the violence escalates; images of bodies riddled with arrows, drenched in blood that stains the ground, the explosive sound of arquebus rifle fire shrouding the world in smoke, the gut-wrenching shot of a soldier holding his severed arm, glaring at it with horrified eyes (an image later imitated by Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan), the defeated warlord’s concubines committing seppuku or throwing themselves in the fray to protect him… it’s one of the few times in film that such graphic violence is presented in its terrible, brutal truth, never glorified or celebrated. Your set designs and camera compositions are nothing short of impressive, but to see a $1.5 million dollar set engulfed in flame as the broken warlord appears almost as an apparition, trapped in an insane trance as he walks into the maelstrom, effectively spooking the army that has just defeated him… put simply, it is one of the single most magnificent scenes ever filmed.
Having been produced late in Kurosawa’s life and career, the suffering and destruction in your story mirrors (albeit in a much more dramatic fashion) that of your director. At the age of 75, Kurosawa was seen as something of a pariah or a has been in the Japanese film industry; funding for his films had become so difficult to acquire that in the time between you and 1965’s Red Beard – the last film he produced in black & white and with his star actor Toshiro Mifune, along with much of his usual company of actors – that you’re only the fourth film to be produced in 20 years; a stark contrast to the 23 films he produced in the two-and-a-half decades prior to that. His wife died during production, many of his past collaborators were either dead or dying, and the man himself was not in the best of health. With this in mind, it should perhaps come as no surprise that your outlook on life and the world eschews the heroism and heart of his past films in favor of a dismal and rather apocalyptic one in which even the innocent are doomed to die. You are devastating, epic, majestic, tragic, and above all beautiful. You, Ran, are a gem in the world of cinema, shining darkly, but truly deserving of the term “masterpiece.”
With enduring love,