"You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
Akira Kurosawa directed 30 films between 1943 and 1993. His long career can be divided into three periods, the earliest of which (1943-1950) displayed flashes of technical and narrative brilliance despite restrictions placed on him first by Japan's war-time censor board, then the American Occupation government.
He is most remembered for his middle period, a fourteen-year stretch from 1950 to 1964 in which he released a string of films as evocative as they were innovative. Among them: Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), the genre-bending chambaras (swashbucklers), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), and Red Beard (1964). Many of these titles, alone, would be career-defining for a director who's merely great. That they all came from Kurosawa, and are characterized by his unique sensibilities and visual approach, has made him one of the most influential filmmaker's in the history of cinema.
With the exception of Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low, the films listed above are jidai-geki, period films, or more specifically, samurai films. Jidai-geki are for the Japanese what Westerns are for Americans: formulaic, pulp melodramas for the most part but, in the right hands, capable of rising to the level of art that observes and comments on culture, history, and collective psychology. Kurosawa's films fall in the latter category, their tendency to flip the genre on its head rooted in the director's disdain for bushido, the samurai code of fealty, which he replaces with a humanist compassion and focus on the power of the individual to become heroic through self-sacrifice. These sensibilities had the odd effect of making his work fairly accessible to the world outside Japan, while it was challenging for a Japanese population struggling to make sense of its past in the wake of defeat in World War II.
Despite the astonishing productivity and genius of his high period, Kurosawa's late period (1965-1993) found him in disfavor with Toho, the studio with which he'd had a long-standing relationship, and having to beg to finance his films. During that final 23 years of his career, he managed to make only seven films. After the much-publicized unraveling of his deal with 20th Century Fox to direct the Japanese half of the World War II spectacle Tora! Tora! Tora! and the financial failure of his 1970 film Dodes'kaden, the director even attempted suicide.
These difficulties changed his films' sensibilities: they became more philosophical, their pacing slowed, and they were marked by a relentless fatalism. The humanism was still there, but it was now pessimistic and darkly existential. Kurosawa's aesthetics shifted, too. He adopted color photography for the first time, and ceased shooting with anamorphic lenses despite the renown of his tight, natural, beautiful compositions in the 2.35:1 frame.
Pardon the lengthy primer, but Ran is Kurosawa's late-period masterpiece, a film he labored for nearly a decade to realize and one that stands beside the best of his high-period masterpieces. The picture is a complex and action-packed epic capable of entertaining Kurosawa neophytes, but it's also deeply personal; the more one knows about Kurosawa's life and career, the more one can recognize and appreciate Ran's many layers of meaning.
Facts of the Case
In a futile attempt to undo his bloody past, the aging warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha) divides his kingdom among his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, believing that their combined strength will produce a lasting peace among his clan and those of his rivals. But in their lust for power, the brothers turn against one another and chaos ensues. Driven mad, Hidetora wanders the blasted heath as his rivals watch the Ichimonji clan destroy itself.
Like many of Kurosawa's best works, Ran is a fascinating mélange of Japanese history, Western literature, and the director's personal psychology. Kurosawa recognized an intersection between Motonari Môri, a 16th-century Japanese warlord who successfully divided his kingdom among his three sons, and Shakespeare's King Lear, which is Motonari turned tragic, the title character bringing about his own doom in a failed attempt to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Lear's appeal to Kurosawa is obvious: 75 years old when Ran was released, he was the old king of Japanese cinema who'd been turned out, left to wander the world seeking a way to restore his former glory. By grafting Lear's tragic sensibilities to the basic framework of the Môri story (a very familiar one to the Japanese), the director delivers a film that resonates with both Western and Japanese audiences, while offering something new and uniquely his own to both.
A number of the film's scenes are lifted nearly wholesale from the bard's play, but the replacement of daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia with sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo adds an epic quality to Hidetora's deterioration. If King Lear is an intimate study of old age, personal loss, and familial love and loyalty, Ran takes up all those things and adds to them the violence and death (on an epic scale) that result from the assertion of male power and dominance. Where Lear uses thunderstorms to represent the king's physical and psychological collapse, Ran uses war. The onscreen battles are some of the most visually stunning ever committed to film. Kurosawa's genius in shot composition and editing are fully utilized to create the illusion of vast forces of samurai combating on grimy, bloody battlegrounds. Yet he's simultaneously able to imbue the sequences with an intimacy that's astounding considering the foot soldiers are nameless to us. There's a visceral impact to their suffering, as though these are real men truly dying. In the central setpiece in which Jiro's army clashes with Taro's, Kurosawa uses Tôru Takemitsu's eerie score to great effect, dropping the rest of the soundtrack for the first half of the conflict so that the violent images and chilly music combine, unimpeded, to shape our emotional response to a turning point in the narrative, the events which will drive Hidetora literally and psychologically into the wilderness. It's a tour de force segment from a master filmmaker in total control of both the technical and aesthetic components of his art.
In another fascinating departure from Lear, Kurosawa adds the character Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams), the manipulative wife of first Taro then Jiro. She evokes Lady Macbeth as well as Lady Asaji Washizu from Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's loose adaptation of Macbeth. She's a brilliant addition, a sharply intelligent woman whose female power both drives and undermines the power of the men around her. Her machinations add narrative complexity and flesh out the character of Hidetora. Unlike Lear, Hidetora has a past that is defined for us, his ascension to power filled with violence, death, betrayal, and ruthless subjugation of his enemies. Kaede's family were among those enemies and now she's out for revenge. These insights into how Hidetora become a powerful warlord add a tragic justice to the chaos that ensues at the end of his life, yet are handled so delicately we don't lose sympathy for him. In addition, the irony of this man with a mercilessly violent past believing he can somehow mandate peace at the end of his life adds an almost sad naïveté to the character.
Just as he'd done with Lord and Lady Washizu in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa uses exaggerated make-up on some of the characters (Lady Kaede and Hidetora in particular) in the style of the masks used in Noh dramas of the Japanese feudal period. It's an interesting and wholly appropriate stylistic element because of its power to evoke not only Noh but Kurosawa's previous films. Ran, in many ways, is a remake of some of his greatest work, but filtered through the eyes of an older more careworn director. Ran shares with Throne of Blood a focus on the destructiveness of man's lust for power. The earlier film is more conceptual, its lead, Lord Washizu (played in an iconic performance by Toshiro Mifune), a man of strutting bravado in the prime of his power whose ultimate defeat is a just return for his arrogance and willingness to exploit others for his own ends. Ran adds to those themes the contemplativeness of Kurosawa's later period. It's easy to imagine Hidetora as Washizu grown old, regretful of the sins of his youth but unable to undo them. This gives Ran a tragic quality not present in Throne of Blood.
Ran also has interesting connections to Kurosawa's most famous film among Western audiences, Seven Samurai. Both are sengoku-jidai, period pieces set during the civil wars that created upheaval in feudal Japan from 1490 until the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1600. Kambei, the wizened samurai leader in Seven Samurai, so regretful of the loss of a social order that had provided his life with value and meaning, is the survivor of a decimated clan very much like the Ichimonjis in Ran. The insight that Ran and Seven Samurai view the same world from the perspectives of different social strata (the former the aristocracy, the latter the common retainer) adds texture to both. While Seven Samurai retains its place as Kurosawa's most impressive distillation of technical brilliance, narrative pacing, and character development (nearly a dozen characters evolve personally over the course of the film), Ran is on a grander scale and yet somehow also more personal. At the end of the earlier film, the surviving samurai realize they have no role in the world in which they find themselves, and the world for which they long is lost forever. In Ran, that lost world is personified in Hidetora. The film ends with the warlord having lost himself entirely, body, mind, and soul. And not to historical circumstances, but to the consequences of his own life.
Ran: The Masterworks Edition is Wellspring's second release of the film on DVD. The first, released when Wellspring was called Fox Lorber, has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst DVD transfers I've ever seen. The Masterworks Edition's "new hi-def transfer" is a marked improvement (the disc contains a four-minute restoration demonstration featurette with side-by-side comparisons so those fortunate enough not to be subjected to the original release can marvel at the improvement, too). Colors are accurately rendered, which is important since the visual hallmark of the film is Kurosawa's deliberate use of vibrant, stylized color. The film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is maintained and the transfer is 16:9 enhanced. While I'd like to report the transfer is perfect, the definitive presentation of the film on DVD, I can't. Fine-line detail sometimes shimmers intrusively, and there's some noticeable edge-enhancement haloing.
The disc has two soundtrack options: the original mono and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Both are in Japanese. The 5.1 track is as immersive and dynamic as the source allows, which is not very. Lows never rumble and use of the rear soundstage is minimal.
Extras include two audio commentaries, one by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince (author of The Warrior's Camera), the other by Peter Grilli, the producer of PBS's excellent documentary, Kurosawa. Prince's track is as scholarly as one would expect. He talks about everything from the narrative structure of the film and the actors' performances to Kurosawa's use of multiple cameras in shooting specific scenes and some of the technical specifics of his editing style. If you like film school-style commentaries, you'll love it. Grilli's covers some of the same ground from a different angle, but also offers up more personal insights as he spent a couple days on location during the film's shoot.
Along with the restoration featurette, the extras are rounded out by a trailer and Kurosawa filmography.
Wellspring recently teamed with Criterion to produce the box set of François Truffaut films, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. It'd be a dream come true if they teamed again in the future to produce a final, definitive version of Ran on DVD (and maybe include A.K., Chris Marker's documentary on the making of the masterpiece as one of the extras). Still, fans who've waited for Ran to receive respectable treatment in our favorite digital format won't be (much) disappointed by The Masterworks Edition. Wellspring should be commended. Minor flaws aside, this new transfer is a pleasure to watch.
Not guilty on all counts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Commentary with Stephen Prince
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