Akira Kurosawa is one of the most respected and influential film directors in the history of cinema. In the West, many have come to his films via remakes of such as The Magnificent Seven, based on The Seven Samurai, and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, which was a remake of Yojimbo.
His most popular film is undoubtedly The Seven Samurai – a work of outstanding artistry, despite the format restrictions and being severely cut for video release.
It was during the making of this film that Kurosawa developed his multi-camera filming technique. He also earned the nickname “world’s greatest editor” from the crew due to his practice of working late into the night editing during the shoot, rather than the usual practice of spending months in an editing suit after filming.
However, if Seven Samurai is his most popular work, then Ran is undoubtedly his great masterpiece, utilising those techniques and skills painstakingly built up over a lifetime of practice and experimentation.
StudioCanal’s new 4K restoration is both a welcome and timely release – coinciding with the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, as well as 30 years since the film’s original UK premier.
Ran is variously translated as meaning “chaos”, “rebellion”, “disturbed”, or “confused”. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the lead role of ageing warlord, Hidetora Ichimonji, who decides to abdicate in favour of his three sons. The story here departs form Shakespeare’s telling in many ways, not least in the gender of the warlord’s siblings.
Kurosawa was co-writer on the film, not just its director, and claimed inspiration for Ran from a warring states period tale about the warlord Mori Motonari. Only later did he realise the similarities with King Lear. Clearly it’s a classic plot; Shakespeare was reusing the story himself. And Ran is not Kurosawa’s only film to be influenced by the Bard. 1957’s Throne Of Blood was his take on Macbeth.
At the time, Ran was the most expensive film ever made in Japan with a budget of $11 million that allowed Kurosawa to bring some dazzling cinematic sweeps to the screen. The flow and movement of colour in the battle scenes are almost like a moving abstract painting. A ballet of shapes and vivid pigments. The brutality of the conflict, depicted with heart-aching beauty, makes a stark contrast, perhaps echoing the obsession of medieval Japanese Samurai culture with both beauty and death.
Kurosawa himself is on record as describing the film as a metaphor for post Hiroshima anxiety and this is a theme that runs through his work. The idea that technological advances have not enriched mankind but only brought more efficient ways of killing.
In Ran, this is starkly illustrated when the field arquebuses destroy the traditional mounted knights and Saburo is assassinated by a sniper, showing that the old ways of honour and man-at-arms skills are to be swept away by the dispassionate and impartial march of the new. A new age is coming, and it’s one lacking in traditional values or, indeed, any values at all.
Similar scenes can be seen in some of Kurosawa’s other movies, notably Kagemusha, and most poignantly in The Seven Samurai when Seiji Miyaguchi – the embodiment of Samurai code – is unceremoniously shot by a bandit. In his dying breath he throws his sword at the bandit; a symbolically futile act.
Noh theatre, the traditional Japanese form of stage performance, is also subtle evident in Kurosawa’s work, especially in the way he uses cuts to move through a scene in layers, like a stage set. In Ran, Tatsuya Nakadai’s, whole performance is Noh style. His body language is upright and statuesque and in the later stages of the film, where he becomes wild and deranged, his make up has the mask-like look of traditional Noh theatre.
These qualities of mask and stance are also evident in the performance of Lady Kaede. This treatment heightens the monomaniacal zeal and polarity of these characters and their lust and obsession with power.
This is a film worthy of many thousands of words in praise and analysis. There are, indeed, a shortage of superlatives to do it justice. Put simply: this is an essential addition to any serious film fan’s collection.