“Ran” – A.J. Hakari

Like the work of Stanley Kubrick, a large chunk of Akira Kurosawa’s films have been adaptations, both official and unofficial. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for such an approach gave us Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, and numerous other masterpieces. Kurosawa had a knack for choosing the right source material, standing to reason that if you’re going to borrow from someone, you borrow from the best. Ran wasn’t the first time the man turned to Shakespeare for inspiration, but the film, arriving near the end of an illustrious career, proved to be the most ambitious exploration of the Bard’s themes he’d ever create.

Drawing simultaneously from King Lear and Japanese lore, Ran focuses on the final days of Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai). A man who pillaged his way to a position of power, Hidetora has decided to step down as ruler of his domain, preferring to spend his remaining years in peace. Hidetora places eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) in charge, with the remainder of the kingdom split between younger sons Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). But almost instantly, rifts form between Hidetora and his children, the house of Ichimonji finding itself quickly divided. With Saburo shirking his share of the kingdom, Jiro and Taro become embroiled in a vicious struggle for power. Caught in the middle is Hidetora, who witnesses firsthand the treachery that a life of constant bloodshed has spawned, these very events pushing him closer and closer to the brink of madness.

Ran is proof positive that no one made an epic quite like Kurosawa. The man had a penchant for high drama, tackling rather simple themes in the most bombastic of ways. Kurosawa really had the saying “go big or go home” in mind when he made Ran, for no stone is unturned, every element of the film amplified for maximum “wow” effect. This is not a work that will soon be forgotten, the production’s sheer size and scope being enough to impress the hell out of the most cynical cinephiles. The cinematography is sweeping, emotions run high, and the film’s entire design is absolutely impeccable. The striking costuming alone is extremely detailed, enough so that head fashionista Emi Wada earned a well-deserved Oscar for her efforts. All of this is done in the name of making Ran as immersive of an experience as possible. This is no mere samurai tale, as the film’s grandiose dressings are a reflection of the very theatrical manner in which the story is presented.

At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but imagine if Ran came across as more restrained. Kurosawa’s proven he can make humanistic dramas (i.e. Drunken Angel) as successfully as his burlier opuses, so it’s curious that he decided to go for broke here. That’s not to say I’m complaining, for no one can watch Ran and say it was directed by someone who had no clue what he was doing. It’s just that all the heightened melodrama and expansive battle scenes, as entertaining as they are, seem a bit too much. At its core, Ran is about one man’s history of violence catching up to him, how the sins of the past have made it impossible for the future to retain any hints of peace. It becomes a big load to handle when it comes to the plot’s subtleties, especially in how Hidetora’s cruel past is inferred and never shown.

But it goes without saying that Ran is a compelling show regardless, its scant shortcomings easily forgiven by how well Kurosawa’s blood, sweat, and tears come through on the screen. However, credit must also go to the players who give their all towards helping this heaping slice of epic pie spring to vivid life. Nakadai is himself a veteran of the samurai genre, and he plays Hidetora almost as a combination of his roles from Kill! and The Sword of Doom. I’m sure in his younger days, Hidetora was as big a bastard as the latter film’s Ryunosuke, but it’s the worldliness of the former’s Genta that does Nakadai the greatest service here. Hidetora’s spiral into insanity is the story’s focus, and Nakadai’s powerful performance ensures that viewers are hooked every step of the way. Not to be outdone, Mieko Harada is unforgettable as Jiro’s conniving wife, and the actors playing Hidetora’s brood each play their part in this most passionate of tragedies brilliantly.

After the release of Ran, Kurosawa would go on to make just three more films before his death in 1998. These were relatively quiet fables and well-acclaimed on their own, but it was due to his epics that Kurosawa earned a reputation for making films like no other. Ran is no exception, a chance for Kurosawa to go out with some style and a chance for fans to witness themselves why he’ll go down in history as one of filmmaking’s greatest masters.

Rating: ★★★½

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s Ran review here.
Read Betty Jo Tucker’s Ran review here.

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