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Ran

I will admit right up front that I know very little about Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa is virtually the only Japanese director that I've been reasonably exposed to, but what an exposure it has been! Over the last few years he has easily become one of my favorite filmmakers from anywhere. His films are generally considered to have the most "western" (hemisphere, not film genre) feel of the major Japanese directors, contributing largely to his international appeal. For awhile, I wondered if I might get kicked out of the film geek club because I latched onto the easiest of Japanese filmmakers for a westerner to appreciate, but I've since overcome that silly spark of shame. Great cinema is great cinema and Kurosawa has created some of the best I've ever experienced.

In Ran, Kurosawa reinterprets Shakespeare's King Lear in a feudal Japanese setting. Tatsuya Nakadai gives a memorable performance as Hidetora, a Japanese lord who misjudges the loyalties of his three sons and unwisely abdicates his kingdom to the eldest. His decision sets off a tragic storm of infighting, betrayal, revenge, and war, leading to his own descent into madness and grave regret.

Kurosawa paints an ugly, but poignant picture of humanity, expressed most powerfully in a striking sequence near the middle of the film. Hidetora, banished from his own kindgom, is holed up in one of his former castles. The armies of Hidetora's two oldest sons attack the stronghold in order to push their father out completely. Kurosawa depicts the battle with an extended montage showing the bloody deaths of Hidetora's personal guard while Hidetora retreats to the top of the main tower, slowly losing all hope. The only sound throughout the entire montage is the orchestral swelling of sorrowful, yet militant strings. Kurosawa's use of color here is powerful, as the dark and hazy battlefield is splashed with the bright yellow and red banners worn by each attacking soldier. The juxtaposition of beautifully sad music and splashes of bright color set against violently extreme imagery reflects what is in every human's heart: goodness and beauty, horribly distorted by utter depravity.

Unfortunately, Kurosawa's Ran offers little redemption in this tragic vision of human existence. Near the end of the film, two characters share an exchange that is as thematically explicit as dialogue can be. One cries out to the gods, questioning their existence and cursing them for their cruelty. The other replies, "Stop it! Do not curse the gods! It is they who weep. In every age they've watched us tread the path of evil, unable to live without killing each other. They can't save us from ourselves." This is certainly a grim conclusion, but thankfully, one that falls just short of the truth. What Ran does not depict is the hope that does exist for salvation from ourselves: a God who does indeed weep watching us tread the path of evil, but offers another path full of grace and light. In all of its epic, cinematic poetry, Ran gives us the bad news, but ends before giving us the good news. Even so, it remains a gripping, powerful film and is certainly the masterwork of the late period in Kurosawa's long career.

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