Before I get underway here, I just thought I should mention that Kurosawa was nominated as Best Director for this film and lost to Sydney Pollack. Pollack’s film? Out of Africa. Y’know, something about that fills me with an infinite sense of "wrongness." For me, coming upon that fact is like walking into a room and seeing all the furniture on the ceiling. It’s just not right.
Anyway, a newly restored print of Ran will be screening at the Brattle June 30-July 6th and if you’ve never seen it I’m making the humble suggestion that you get up off of your ass and get down to the theater to check this one out.
Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran is a strong candidate for the lofty title of Kurosawa’s best work. That, in turn, means it’s also got a strong claim for being one of the greatest movies ever made, but that’s just my own pro-Kurosawa bias shining through. At once grandly epic and intensely personal, Ran is a rich, beautiful, cinematic experience. So rich, in fact, I’ve had a hard time trying to decide which aspects to highlight in this small review as it would be impossible to cover everything without the aid of a long (and boring) laundry list of superlatives. I’ve decided to run with a couple of elements that I especially dig. Hopefully that’ll serve you well enough to lead you into the theater to see if you can’t some away with your own highlights.
First and foremost for me is the parallel between the aging emperor, Lord Hidetora, and Kurosawa himself. When this film was made Kurosawa had become something of an exile in his own country. He was out of fashion in Japan as a filmmaker, suffering from depression and, owing to the grand scale he worked on, was unable to secure financing for his work. His two previous films, the dark Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) and the brilliant and touching Dersu Uzala, had only been produced via outside aid provided by two Kurosawa fans, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, and Mosfilm (as in Moscow, then part of the Soviet Union) respectively. With the above in mind, it’s difficult not to track the anguish of Hidetora and see it as an extension of the directors own pain. With the love I have for this directors work, that aspect of the film has always manifested itself as a bittersweet triumph. On the one hand I’m exhilarated by his ability to express his own frustrations and sadness so eloquently, and on the other I’m troubled that this man, the greatest filmmaker the world has even seen (and I say that without qualification of any sort), ended up feeling this way in the first place.
Aside from that more esoteric element, Ran also delivers more traditional highlights that I’d like to touch on and then I’ll pack up and get the hell out of the way.
At the top of the list, the acting is wonderful. Tatsuya Nakadai (Lord Hidetora), Mieko Harada (as Lady Kaede, a Lady MacBeth type character that hearkens back to the glorious evil of Isuzu Yamada in Throne of Blood) and Peter (as Kyoami, The Fool) especially stand out for me. Also, as is standard for Kurosawa, the cinematography is breathtaking, aided, oddly enough for people unfamiliar with his work, by the fact that it’s one of only a handful of films he shot in color. Kurosawa was trained as a painter and the perfection with which this the film is framed is as strong a testament to his painterly eye as exists.
That’s it. The magazine isn’t big enough for the praise I have for this movie so I’ll silently curse Joe and Jeff (since they nixed my idea to not run any ads this week), step aside and hopefully we’ll all pile into the Brattle together this weekend.
Originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in June 2000.