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June 30, 2011: Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran”

June 30, 2011

Here’s a premise: take an ancient Celtic legend of a semi-mythical King of Britain (“King Leir”), then have this rewritten 500 years later by the bard William Shakespeare (“King Lear”), then let this steep in literary consciousness for almost 400 years, then have one of the greatest directors of the 20thC. rewrite the story, mixing in a real life 16thC. Japanese historical figure and a “Noh” theatric style. THIS is “Ran” (1985) directed by Akira Kurosawa, as his last truly epic film.

Much like “Saving Private Ryan” “Ran” is a film about a war, but focusing on the ultimate futility of war. Unlike the character of King Lear in Shakespeare’s play, who is basically innocent but gets caught up in the machinations of those around him, the King Hidetora in “Ran” is guilty of horrible crimes against his enemies. He  has built up a karmic debt for all the misery that befalls him and is eventually forced to revisit all of his past violent deeds. Also, unlike “King Lear” in “Ran” instead of daughters showing filial honor/dishonor, it is sons, neatly color-coded to be able to track their armies. Taro (yellow) is the oldest and is first bequeathed the kingdom by Hidetora. Second oldest is Jiro (red) becomes a contender to Taro’s inheritance. Both these older sons pretend devotion to their father, but the minute he relinquishes power, they try to totally exclude him from his own kingdom. Hidetora’s youngest son, Saburo (blue) is truly respectful and  loyal to his father, but is not perceived so by Hidetora, because Saburo tells his father the truth, not what he wants to hear.

Much like the Shakespeare play, “Ran” is full of delicious minor characters that flesh out the play. There is the clown, Kyomi, who has both funny and poignant moments. Lady  Kaede is truly Machiavellian: a physically and mentally worthy villain, and one of the strongest woman characters in cinema. As evil as she is, Kaede acts not without reason as Hidetora has destroyed her family. Kaede is offset by Lady Sue, while suffering the same loss at Hidetora’s hands, has adopted Buddhist ways and is a truly good and forgiving person. My favorite is Kurogare, Jiro’s vassal, who constantly gives the best advice (that Jiro foolishly never takes)  and pits himself against the evils of Lady Kaede.

“Ran” which means “chaos” or “revolt” has some of the best battle scenes in cinema. Grand in scale, it’s hard to believe Kurosawa could pull a film of this magnitude off in a pre-digital era, like: building a $1.5 million castle just to burn it to the ground! 1500 extras, 250 horses, beautiful costumes, gorgeous sets, “Ran” is huge!!! If you want to see a film the way they used to make them (and really never will again) see Kurosawa’s “Ran!”

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