Aug. 31, 2009
Ran (1985)
Grade: 86/100

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Peter, Akira Terao

What it's about. At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made in Japan. Set in medieval Japan, as in everyone's favorite Kurosawa movie, The Seven Samurai. Aged Hidetoro (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the lord of a large realm that includes three castles. He decides to relinquish power to his three grown sons, with leadership awarded to the oldest, Taro (Akira Terao). Hidetoro's decision is immediately criticized by the youngest son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), who states that the sons will inevitably wage war against each other for control of the empire. Hidetoro's chief consul, Tango (Masayuki Yui), agrees with Saburo.

Hidetoro banishes them both, but Saburo is soon proven correct. Taro's consolidation of power, encouraged by his malevolent wife Kaede (Mieko Harada), humiliates Hidetoro. Meanwhile, middle son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) plots with his right hand man, Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa), to murder Taro. Saburo, sheltered nearby by Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), seeks only custody of Hidetoro, who has been driven mad by his older sons' betrayal.

How others will see it. For those who associate Kurosawa with his 1950s Samurai films, especially Throne of Blood, Ran is as comfortable as an old shoe. It is filmed in color, unlike most Kurosawa's classics, but it covers familiar ground.

There are some who would never watch movies with subtitles, and others cannot imagine a movie that lacks close-ups of faces. They might as well have dubbed it. Practically every shot is distant, yet the film was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar. I doubt that will ever happen again.

The user ratings are extremely high, and Ran is ranked on that website's Top 250. However, there is an extraordinary gender gap. Women don't care that much for it, perhaps because of all the senseless murder and violence, and perhaps because the only consequential female character is completely detestable.

How I felt about it. Since we don't get to see faces, the color scheme allows us to distinguish the major players. Hidetora wears white, Taro favors yellow, Jiro prefers red, and Saburo dresses in blue. The colors generally extend to their soldiers.

Ran is a tragedy, based loosely on Shakespeare's "King Lear." That explains the presence of Kyoami, since court jesters have no equivalent in medieval Japan. Kyoami, of course, is much more than a jester. He also serves as an oracle, although his masters seldom heed his prophecies. When a decision for war is taken, Kyoami interjects, "Hell is ever at hand, which you cannot say of heaven." In other words, to die in an avoidable battle of your own choosing is the quick path to hell.

Kyoami, the one character that doesn't belong here, is nonetheless my favorite character. No one takes him seriously. After all, he's such a sissy. But he always does the right thing, and has no thirst for power. Hence, he lives, unlike everyone else save for Tango, the loyal but hapless servant.

Like Throne of Blood, another Shakespeare-steeped story, the moral is clear. Pride cometh before a fall. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Look before you leap. Don't become a day trader. Actually, I threw that last one in there. It seemed appropriate.

Ran manages to make Hidetora sympathetic, despite his many past atrocities. This is because the alternative is even worse: Taro and Jiro are petty and weak rulers, easily manipulated by Kaede, who is motivated only by revenge. Saburo claims peaceful motives, but he arrives with his full army, which makes war inevitable. The presence of the armies of neighbor lords Ayabe and Fujimaki proves that power seeks a vacuum. If the Ichimonji dynasty is over, someone else's troops will fill the castles.