RAN, directed in 1985, was the last film that Akira Kurosawa directed that approached greatness.Based loosely on Shakespeare’s King Lear, RAN tells the story of an aging lord in 16th Century Japan who divides up his kingdom evenly to his three sons and gives sole power to his eldest son who, in a short time, totally screws up the kingdom. What ensues is a heedless series of familial strife, unrepentant warfare, bloodshed and death. In short it leads to ‘chaos,’ which is roughly what RAN translates to in English.
The most striking thing about RAN is the way it looks. Few films have ever had such a delectable palate of luminous colors. RAN was Kurosawa’s 27th film but only his fourth in color so it is as if he decided to go for broke and create a colorful dreamlike world.
The editing and the shot selection too are specific to Kurosawa. He brilliantly uses stillness and silence in many scenes and the edits are quick and precise but not in the way that an American war picture are.
The new print looks fabulous letting us clearly see the stunning shots that Kurosawa and his two great cinematographers, Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda, achieved. Stylistically, they often use a telephoto lens to bring the background closer and make it part of the scene. And the camera rarely moves, instead – in the battle scenes especially – Kurosawa holds a still shot and has characters, horses, arrows and other objects-of-war zooming by in a blur. In this way he gets the speed of war down to an aesthetic blur.
He too uses music in an ironic way. During the first battle scene -- when almost everyone dies a horrible bloody death – the only sound on the soundtrack is Mahler’s first symphony. A symphony that is so mellow it virtually subverts what would normally be a brutal scene; instead making it poignant.
The actors – especially Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the eldest son’s scheming wife – are effective even if they do overact a bit. Kurosawa directed his actors in RAN to either move around awkwardly and quickly thus making them look really comical or he directed them to be completely still as if they are Buddhist monks in prayer. The dichotomy of their movement and non-movement really adds something to the instability.What is Kurosawa’s message? Perhaps he in emphasizing the melancholy of the end of an empire and an era. Most likely though his main message has more to do with human nature. His message seems to say that if you’re the ruler of a country, no matter how old you are, as long as you can still walk, talk, think and take care of yourself -- never give your power over to your sons.-- Matt Langdon