review by Joe Barlow, 25 August 2000

Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, the crowning gem in a career dedicated to the creation of cinematic art, is his 1985 epic, Ran. It is a film whose merits are difficult to communicate with words, for these units of language are unable to express the overwhelming beauty of the movie's visual style -- its grand sweep, its haunting performances, and its masterful choreography, which is so precise and graceful that the film's battle sequences play out like a glorious ballet. More than anything, Ran reveals a confident auteur at the peak of his abilities, helming the production he'd been building toward his whole life.

Much of Ran's storyline is lifted straight from William Shakespeare's King Lear, although many critics have been tempted to interpret the film as an allegory to Kurosawa's own life. The tale's main character, the Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nadakai), is, like Kurosawa at the time he made the movie, a man entering his sunset years. Believing his death to be at hand, the ruler abdicates the throne and splits his kingdom into thirds, giving a portion to each of his sons. The hierarchy is thus set: the eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao), will be the new ruler of the land, while the second and third sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), are given lesser castles over which to preside. In one of the film's most famous scenes, Hidetora demonstrates the power of unity to his offspring: taking an arrow from his pack, he breaks it across his knee. He then repeats the process using two arrows; again they snap, but it is much more difficult. Finally, with three arrows held together, the bundle cannot be broken. "Three individuals are weak and can easily snap," warns the father. "Three together, however, are strong, and will withstand any amount of stress."

The lesson is a good one, and Ichmonji hopes that his sons will unite their provinces, forming an invincible ruling class. But unfortunately, the optimistic leader has underestimated the power of jealousy -- the younger brothers immediately begin to resent Taro, while Taro grows so paranoid that he spends all his time guarding himself and no time ruling. Soon the formerly peaceful country is plunged deep into civil war, with the siblings using their newfound power to attack each other's territories. Ichmonji, aghast at his sons' behavior, tries to smooth things over, but is told that leadership matters are no longer his concern. Alienated from his family and having nowhere to go, Ichmonji finds himself homeless, forced to spend his days wandering the countryside. Very few images in cinematic history are as heartwrenchingly pathetic as the sight of the nearly catatonic Ichmonji shuffling aimlessly through the bloody battlefields, driven to the brink of insanity by the horror he has unwittingly unleashed upon his country.

If the film's protagonist has it tough, Kurosawa himself had an equally hard time making the movie; indeed, the name Ran translates into English as Chaos, and a more apt name for the production is difficult to imagine. The filming of Ran was interrupted numerous times by a string of catastrophes, including a multitude of financial setbacks (including a reluctance of Japanese investors to put money into such an ambitious production, coupled with both unforeseen cost overruns and severe misbudgeting on Kurosawa's behalf). Combined, these problems made Ran -- ten years in the making -- the most expensive Japanese film ever produced, a title it still holds to this day. Nor were matters helped by the seventy-five-year-old director's failing eyesight, which deteriorated to almost complete blindness by the time the movie was released. As if these weren't enough complications, Kurosawa's wife died midway through the shoot; although grief-stricken, the director was so pressured to complete the film that he halted production for only a single day to mourn. But despite all this -- or perhaps because of it -- Kurosawa weathered the storm and created one of the finest works ever to grace a theater screen.

Ran is not just a great film; it's a triumph of cinematic style. Every image on the screen breathes with life and color; it comes as no surprise that the movie won the 1986 Oscar for Best Costume Design (even if -- incredibly! -- it didn't bring home the Best Cinematography or Best Director trophies, for which it was also nominated). But don't be fooled by the somewhat morbid description I've given; despite its frequently bleak tone, Ran is a celebration of life and beauty. Much of the plot centers around happier thoughts than those discussed above, including the joy of reconciliation, a call for group unity, and the power of forgiveness and remorse -- three arrows which are strong together indeed.

In celebration of the film's fifteenth anniversary, Ran has just been theatrically reissued, and you owe it to yourself to catch it on the big screen if at all possible. If it's not playing in your town, Fox-Lorber also offers Ran in a terrific letterboxed DVD edition. (A widescreen VHS version is also available.) Look for it in the Foreign section of your favorite video store.

Directed by:
Akira Krosawa

Tatsuya Nakadai
Akira Terao
Jinpachi Nezu
Daisuke Ryu
Mieko Harada
Yoshiko Miyazaki
Masayuki Yuri
Kazuo Kato

Written by:
Masato Ide
Akira Kurosawa
Hideo Oguni







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