Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa is no stranger to the darker themes of life. From the existential struggle of mortality in Ikiru to the troubling tale of personal betrayals in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa has crafted brash, full-on depictions of many of the most dark and disturbing moments any human being can go through, all of which are felt in full impact, deeply personalized and unflinchingly portrayed in all their harrowing truth.
In many ways, Ran is a hybrid of various themes Kurosawa explored in his previous films. As Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) enters the last years of his life, he decides to pass on the reign of his kingdom to his sons. He imagines the rest of his days will pass him by peacefully, able to live with ease among the castles of his three sons, but his sons are quickly pitted against him and each other, launching a political battle that destroys the family from within.
As the battle rages between the three brothers, echoes of Kurosawa’s samurai films emerge, especially Seven Samurai as large sword battles take place between small forces faced against insurmountable foes. The feudal setting also hearkens back to a lot of those old Kurosawa classics. But there’s something missing from the old high-adventure tales of previous Kurosawa films.
The difference is that the battle is no longer as exciting, entertaining and thrilling as it once was. Much like the protagonist, Kurosawa is reached the age beyond the time when the battle is thrilling. Instead, it’s a waking nightmare, an onslaught of destruction. The battlefield becomes deathly silent, surrounded in an eerie fog, a harrowing score underpinning the horror.
The images, like almost every Kurosawa film, are fantastic. The Japanese countryside makes for some fantastic vistas, whether it’s the lush, green hills or the rough, volcanic valleys. The colorful period costume design also adds to the richness of the image. Yet it’s the cinematography of Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô and Shôji Ueda that bind it altogether into a series of astounding and well composed shots.
It’s quite possibly one of Kurosawa’s most visually rich films as not only are the images astounding to look at, but they are often used to convey key elements of the story, express ideas and communicate emotional states. In other words, the visuals are just as integral to the story as the dialogue, acting and storytelling.
All this allows Kurosawa to craft one of his most epic and personal stories. He’s able to both capture the grand scale, but able to make it emotionally resonant film, crafting a connection with the Lord Hidetora character. The two inform each other, the epic of the narrative creating an even more emotionally devastating arc for the protagonist.
Therefore, in many ways, Ran is the best of Kurosawa rolled into one film. The epic battles, alluring visuals and human drama are all wrapped up into one of his most impressive works. It takes the best of so many of Kurosawa’s films and wraps it up in one of his most engrossing, epic and memorable films, making it the most definitive entry in his filmography.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing