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RAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Raiu, Mieko Hirada, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Masayuki Yui, Peter
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  160 Minutes
Release Date:  November 22, 2005

"Such are the vagaries of war."

Film ****

For William Shakespeare, the play was the thing.  For Akira Kurosawa, it was all film.  Each artist earned fame for being a master storyteller within his medium, and when the two came together, the results were absorbing and astonishing.

Kurosawa tackled the Bard once before, turning Macbeth into the samurai tale Throne of Blood.  In Ran, his last great epic picture, he did a similar turn with King Lear.  Instead of a king, we have a once great samurai lord, and instead of daughters, we have sons, and instead of a flat stage, we have sweeping action and spectacle.  But the core story remains intact:  a leader who places faith in the wrong children and lives to see a lifetime of work reduced to ashes.

Lord Hidetora (Nakadai) has spent his life waging war, spreading his influence, and mercilessly vanquishing his enemies.  Now aging, he decides to turn his domain over to his sons.  The eldest Taro (Terao) will become Lord, while his second son Jiro (Nezu) is second in line.  Only his third son Saburo (Raiu) rejects the flattery of his brothers.  He is the one who really cares for his father above himself, but Hidetora doesn't see it that way.  He banishes his youngest, along with his one advisor faithful enough to be honest with him, Tango (Yui).

The transfer of power seems less than smooth.  Hidetora's life was one of violence, pride and ruthlessness, and as the Bible warns, he will reap what he sowed.  With the Lady Macbeth-like influence of Taro's wife Lady Kaede (Hirada), whose designs of power lay siege to first Taro and then Jiro, soon the sons turn against the father, as well as one another.

The central battle scene is one of the landmark triumphs in a filmmaking career that is decorated with triumphs.  It is an astounding display of color, horrific violence and brazen emotion, and much of it is done without natural sound, only the Mahler-like stirrings of the score.  Kurosawa stated he intended the scene to be indicative of nothing less than hell itself, and save for the river scene in Apocalypse Now, hell as battle has never been so startlingly depicted.

The carnage and destruction doesn't claim Hidetora, but it leaves him mad.  With only Tango and his fool (Peter), he ends up seeking kindness in a place that alerts both him and us to just how cruel he has been in his life. 

Tango wants to reunite his Lord with his last son in a last effort to make things right in the land, but we get the feeling that the stones have already begun to roll and there will be no stopping them until they reach the bottom.  There is one last great battle to witness that will set all things equal, one way or another.  And I absolutely challenge anybody not to be completely haunted by the last image Kurosawa has to show us.

The Japanese master had been planning this film for a solid decade, but he spent most of his career as a prophet without honor in his own country.  Though western audiences proclaimed his genius and influence far and wide, in his native land, he was largely rejected and shunned by those who felt he tampered too much with tradition.  He was 75 when he made Ran, and one can sense in the work the same kind of reflection and regret as well as pride and gusto that drove Hidetora. 

It is also appropriate that for his last epic scaled film he chose Lear as a subject.  While many consider Hamlet to be the Bard's quintessential work, it's been said that for the elderly, it's King Lear that stands out.  The primary theme is the inevitability of death, especially for the old who know they have fewer years ahead than behind, and how tragic it is when one can only look back on the mistakes and sins of youth and feel them beginning to gain ground.

Visually, it's another masterpiece for Kurosawa...his use of colors, especially to keep the narrative straight as far as which son's army is on screen, is striking and memorable.  But he has a few other stylistic choices that are noticeable.  He serves the film to us without close-ups.  His cameras, which often moved at great speed and tracked massive action shots, now remains on axes.  It pans, it tilts, but it rarely if ever moves from left to right or vice versa.  Many of his action shots were actually staged circularly, so the camera could swivel to follow the scene instead of tracking them.  His use of deep focus lenses to flatten the action and command attention on certain planes within the screen has never been more astute.  No director was better at staging scenes for depth as well as scope. 

The resulting effect is a movie that isn't intimate...we are kept as somewhat distant observers, perhaps like the gods so frequently referenced in the film.  We watch events unfold with a clinical detachment, helpless to intervene but unable to look away.  Kurosawa himself commented that unlike Kagemusha, where the point of view of the imposter made the story very earthbound, Ran was more from a heavenly point of view, where even Hidetora is not so much a focal point as a figure being swept along by the tide of his own tragedy.  It was a bold concept that few directors would have undertaken.

But to me, the greatness of Kurosawa was that he was both master filmmaker and master storyteller.  One could watch his movies simply for entertainment value, and walk away satisfied without paying any attention to the aesthetics or technique.  But for the true cinema lover, the director offers style, grace, and technical prowess that has rarely been equaled but has been often imitated.  To watch a movie like Ran is to see an artist who was more viable in his 70s than most are in the 20s.  It is to see a master who has spent his lifetime perfecting and advancing his craft, and brought all of his accumulative knowledge together for one unqualified moment of triumph.  Only for Kurosawa, it was also merely just another triumph in a long string of them.

He would make three more pictures after Ran, but never again would he attempt to realize so grand a vision.  He didn't need to.  With this picture, Kurosawa said everything that needed to be said about epic filmmaking.  I know that as long as people sit enraptured by flickering images on a screen, they will always be captivated by Ran, and be astonished by one of the last great directors who made his epics the old fashioned way: without computers, without effects, and without fear.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The title roughly translates to "chaos".

Video ***1/2

I've waited for years hoping for a Criterion release of this title, and it was worth the wait.  Kurosawa's film is a cornucopia of colors, and at long last, they've been rendered the way they should on DVD.  Images are sharp and striking, detail level is strong throughout.  Occasionally, there is a touch of noticeable grain, but it's very slight...I almost feel bad not giving this a full four star rating.  The overall effect is truly stunning.  If I had my way, no studio but Criterion would touch Kurosawa's films on disc.

Audio ***1/2

Though only a stereo mix, I have to say the audio was most impressive.  Dynamic range is potent throughout, and the panning effects keep the action lively.  Dialogue is strong, and though I don't speak Japanese, I'm certain that if I did I'd have no clarity issues.  The music is great and the overall presentation is clean.  You might just find this the most enveloping stereo mix you've ever heard on DVD.

Features ****

Criterion's double disc offering is a generous trove of treasures for film fans.  The first disc includes a terrific commentary by Kurosawa author Stephen Prince, whose analysis and knowledge will help old and new fans of the director learn even more about his life, craft and legacy.  There are also 4 trailers and a very nice video introduction by director Sidney Lumet.

The second disc offers plenty more, starting with "A.K.", a full length documentary by Chris Marker, who was allowed extraordinary access to Kurosawa during the making of his movie.  It's a very intimate portrait of the master at work and how exacting his style of directing was.  There is also the 30 minute segment on Ran from the Kurosawa series "It Is Wonderful To Create", featuring interviews with Kurosawa and some of his actors and collaborators.

There's a 35 minute video piece reconstructing the film through Kurosawa's own preliminary artwork, and a new video interview with star Tatsuya Nakadai.  Rounding out is another great Criterion booklet containing photos, interviews and essays.

Summary:

Pride, lust, jealousy and cruelty have driven most of the world's misery since time began, and there may be no better reflection on it than Akira Kurosawa's Ran.  He took King Lear to an astonishing cinematic height, and offered for his last epic an absorbing, thrilling and haunting treatise on age, regret and manmade tragedy.  If you're like me and waited for Criterion to get their hands on this classic, you'll find this great looking and well-packaged double disc release was well worth the wait.

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