Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai
by Jon Cvack
Check out Part 1 of the essay...
Returning to Ebert’s famous declaration and Ran’s making-of history, seeing Hidetora as an extension of Kurosawa and his fame, you can’t help wanting to revisit the film (although I’m glad that the first two times I’ve seen it were without knowing this fact). To think that the story is as much about the old filmmaker, reflecting on a lifetime of his work and how he was treated in his later years all makes complete sense. The obvious comparison is to Hitchcock, however, while Hitch gradually drifted into mediocre productions, Kurosawa’s descent was swift, and it was only after being provided the opportunity to direct these epic masterpieces that audiences and studios discovered that Ran was to be his magnum opus. And yet, to think that Ran dips heavily into the idea of retribution, with Hidetora believing his tragic fate was based on a lifetime of warfare, murder, and greed, it makes you wonder what Kurosawa had thought he’d done. Did he live a dishonorable life, leading him to believe his cinematic fall was based on a coup de grace? Or as Ebert keenly observes, “Did [Kurosawa] reflect that while the West was happy to buy, gut and remake his work, he had lost all power and respect in the country whose films he once ruled?”
As numerous articles have mentioned, the film offers a distinctly nihilistic view of the world, which operates according the Hobbesian state of nature, in which without the state or social contract, the world falls into chaos and disorder. One of the greatest features of Ran is how the story operates within a nebulous empire, where there is nothing beyond the three castles; a type of expansive chamber drama, where we get to witness the complete destruction of the world, which takes on apocalyptic proportions as we watch Hidetora and Kyoami (Pîtâ) navigate the barren landscape, which Kurosawa shot at the base of Mount Aso, an active volcano. Allegedly, Kurosawa saw the story as a metaphor for Nuclear Warfare told within a post-Hiroshima age, stating that, “All the technological progress of these last years has only taught human beings how to kill more of each other faster. It's very difficult for me to retain a sanguine outlook on life under such circumstances.” Fingers have pointed to the arquebus, a muzzle based firearm, which essentially phased out the art and practicality of samurai warfare, and was used in one of the film’s most tragic scenes where the samurai cavalry is mowed down like fish in a barrel. It’s highlighted as the beginning of the end, when hundreds of soldiers could be wiped out without ever engaging one another. In the age of drone warfare and the associated ethical problems, where a device floating thousands of feet in the sky can wipe out targets with an operator hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, demonstrates how the issue remains relevant. It has become easier to kill, and the more an individual is removed from the person he is destroying, the easier it is to destroy life.
Of course, it’s the film's photography, set design, and costumes that allow it to soar above and beyond most films ever made. The story was the most expensive Japanese production of all time, with the costumes taking three to four months to produce, extending over a period of three years, for 1,400 individuals to wear. The costume designer Emi Wada rightfully won an Oscar, as it’s what stands out most, as though we are going into the past, instead of trying to recreate it. Kurosawa had planned out every single shot of the production across a decade, from the mid-1970s when he first got the idea. What I love most about the film is the slow burn, where it takes about forty five minutes for much to happen both on screen or between characters, until suddenly erupting, as though we’ve fallen asleep, having our dreams transport us back in time. The cinematography is so brilliant and beautiful, with gorgeous, David Lean-wide shots, produced on real, true to size sets, and others utilizing longer lenses, set up hundreds of feet away, static, objectively observing the action. But it’s the blocking of these sequences that's burned so heavily in my mind; where Kurosawa has three planes of action, the foreground, middle, and background, each with a different kind of troop, moving at a different pace, with their colorful flags held eye, creating a threatening and chaotic movement in the frame that has yet to ever be replicated, living up to the Japanese meaning of ‘Ran’, which is chaos. There is so much to unpack in this film - from the political motivations to how individual scenes were constructed to the pacing - it would require a book’s length to do it justice. What you see is craft at the highest level, where you can feel the meticulous planning that went into one of the greatest works of cinema ever created.
BELOW: A.O. Scott's video essay on the film
Thoughts on films, old and new
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