#153 Ran

(1985, Akira Kurosawa)

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane”

Japanese cinema these days is known primarily for two things: anime and horror. In both cases, it tends to be stereotyped as either heavily sexualised or incredibly violent, sometimes even both at the same time. But there is one name that endures to remind the world that this isn’t true of all Japanese cinema: Akira Kurosawa, the king of the samurai epic. And the movie we’re looking at today is possibly his most ambitious work, Ran.

Based loosely on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran depicts the downfall of the powerful Ichimonji clan. The Great Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to give up his power to his three sons. The eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao), will become the leader, with support from his brothers, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When Saburo suggests that the sons aren’t as loyal to their father as he believes, Hidetora banishes him from the kingdom. However, Saburo’s predictions prove correct, as Taro’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) begins to push her husband to take full control of the clan, leading to a series of betrayals and battles that begin to tear the family apart.

First of all, Ran is a visual feast. There a grand scale to the movie that shows in almost every single shot. If it’s not a rolling landscape of hills, it’s an impressively sized castle or a huge army marching. Even the small scenes seem to have been pieced together with intricate detail. It’s not hard to see why this was deemed such an ambitious project. In one particularly standout scene, we witness a gruesome, bloody battle as a castle gets raided and its inhabitants slaughtered. During this scene, there is no sound other than a solemn score, which really brings out the horror of the attack.

It’s such a shame, then, that Ran, for its technical marvel, feels a little too heavy-handed in every other aspect, as if the movie seems determined to remind us of its own importance. A lot of the dialogue feels determined to teach the audience a lesson through philosophical quotes, and as a result, certain plot points feel they’re being hammered in way too much.

It doesn’t help that everything is delivered in overly theatrical tones most of the time. Movements are exaggerated and voice tone is overly stilted and stern. There are so few moments where interactions between characters feel natural and believable. It’s hard to be shocked by the horrors of war when it rarely feels like the characters are anything other than actors in a work of fiction.

It doesn’t help that there are several instances where things seem to be dragged out in an obvious attempt to highlight some of the melodrama. There are only so many times you can watch troops standing still while facing each other on a battlefield or watching people wordlessly travelling across a barren land before you contemplate committing seppuku.

There are some good things in Ran besides its visuals, mind. A few scenes are very well-made. The slow deterioration of Hidetora’s mental state actually suits the theatrical acting, while Mieko Harada’s performance of Lady Kaede is extremely chilling and really brings the character to life. A scene where she is given the head of a fox statue instead of her intended target is especially effective, since the performance of the servant Kurogane is perfect when he compares her to a trickster kitsune.

But ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel that Ran tried far too hard to be an important cinematic event rather than just being a good film. The theatrics and the visuals only serve to make the film a little bit of a chore rather than something genuinely entertaining. Give me Princess Mononoke any day.

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada, Yoshiko Miyazaki & Peter
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni & Masato Ide
Produced by Katsumi Furukawa, Serge Silberman, Masato Hara & Hisao Kurosawa
Music by Toru Takemitsu
Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito & Masaharu Ueda
Edited by Akira Kurosawa

Favourite Scene: Either Kurogane comparing Lady Kaede to a kitsune or the mentioned battle scene with only a sad score for background noise.
Scene That Bugged Me: The final battle of the movie seems to take about half an hour to actually start, and it can be a little tiresome waiting for something to happen.

Watch it if: You like samurais and Shakespeare
Avoid it if: You like hyper-violent animated horror movies

Posted on January 31, 2013, in 1980s, Drama, Japan, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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