Akira Kurosawa made more masterpieces in his career than many other directors made films in total. RAN, his last masterwork, was made when he was in his seventies, when he had lost most of his eyesight and was well into the autumn of his life. It was not the age, but the mileage, that allowed Kurosawa to make RAN one of the very greatest films ever made. And, I think, devotion of the right sort: RAN lived in Kurosawa's mind's eye for a decade before it was financed, and the resulting film wasn't warmed-over or dated the way too many long-nursed passion projects turn out. "Much like Kurosawa at this point, RAN, a masterpiece, stands outside time," wrote Vincent Canby when the film debuted to English-speaking audiences in 1985, and now thirty-six years later it's as though time never touched it at all.
Lord of all he surveys, master of none
RAN ("chaos") is provisionally a samurai re-spin of King Lear, but only provisionally. Its Lear is Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a warlord who conquered the kingdoms around him. "Conquered" is such a bland, unevocative word, and the movie knows it: we learn in time that he was not above such barbarisms as the murder of women and children. We see at first only this proud old man, clad in his royal yellows, entertaining the lords he conquered and enjoying the company of his three songs and his page.
With nothing more around him to conquer, Hidetora has decided to retire. He will retain his title and his presumed authority, and will allow his sons to rule in his stead. The eldest, Taro (Akira Terao), will be de facto ruler; the other sons, the ambitious Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and the unpretentious Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), are to support him. All are surprised by the decision, but only Saburo refuses to engage in flattery. He knows full well what kind of men his brothers are. When Hidetora presents them with single arrows easily broken, as opposed to a bundle of them that are stronger, Saburo rebukes his father by breaking the sheaf across his knee. For this Saburo's banished, and takes refuge with a rival warlord.
What Hidetora fails to understand, or maybe chooses not to, is how everyone around him has been shaped by the world he himself created, a world of war-waging and predatory violence. So deep is his arrogance that he believes he can still keep power even after giving it away, because he believes no one else around him will actually have the nerve to take it. But take it they will, and all they need is an excuse. Many of them have been harboring excuses for a long time: Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), Taro's wife, can never forget the way Hidetora had her family killed in front of her eyes, and now she goads Taro into taking all he can reach for.
The center cannot hold
Each step of Hidetora's downfall, and everyone else's around him, takes place with the brutal elegance of a chess game. When Taro presents Hidetora with a "pledge" to sign, the old man is furious — doubly so when he's confronted with the fact that there's nothing there Hidetora himself didn't declare. When Hidetora tries to seek refuge with Jiro, he finds Jiro is only interested in the old man as a means to further his own power. With nowhere else to turn, he takes up residence in the little castle where his warlord's life began. The next morning he awakens to the sounds of battle in a scene of stupefying, hallucinatory brutality, as the armies of his two sons invade, kill, burn, and leave the father to stumble out into the wilderness.
The second half of the film shunts Hidetora aside, but only to underscore that the movie has been less about him specifically than the world he created and the people in it. Hidetora's violence shaped them, and now their violence will return the favor. Jiro, ambitious but always on the leash of his father's power, becomes even more unchained when his general Kurogane assassinates his brother in the middle of the castle siege: after all, who will say it was anything but a stray bullet? Why countenance any competition? Likewise, when Lady Kaede confronts Jiro about his mendacity, she uses that as blackmail to have her moved into the seat of power next to her, to have Kurogane murder his wife Sué, to strike first against another army when everyone knows that will only lead to his downfall, and everyone else's as well.
The man responsible for all this, a hollowed shell, stumbles through the countryside he unified with blood. His only companion is his page-cum-court-jester, Kyoami (Peter). In better times Kyoami mocked Hidetora's excesses the better to awaken his conscience, or at least to amuse him; now, he does it to try and bring the man back to reality, knowing full well maybe madness is better. But wherever Hidetora goes, he's haunted by his past, and shocked back into madness. On taking refuge in the remains of a castle, he realizes it's one he himself burned down in the name of conquest.
What irony there is in knowing that even before Hidetora went mad, he never saw the world as anything but cruelty anyway. When he meets the Buddha-praising Lady Sué, he's infuriated that her faith allows her to bear no worldly ill will against Hidetora (he who blinded her son Tsurumaru in exchange for his life). "Buddha is gone from this miserable world!" he thunders. "Look upon me with hatred!" At least that would embody the respect he believes he deserves, instead of love. And when Saburo, the one figure in his life who has anything like real love for him comes for him at last, it's only before the greater darkness Hidetora himself created closes over them all.
Old enough for Lear
It takes an older actor to play Lear properly, according to Shakespeare buffs. Tatsuya Nakadai was in his early fifties when he was cast as Hidetora, maybe on the cusp of the correct age. Three years earlier he played another kingly sort who struggles to control his empire, a yakuza boss named Onimasa (in the film of the same name). Nothing of the Nakadai who played that man can be seen here. Yes, it took an hours-long makeup job to give him the face of an older man, but the rest of his demeanor is all Nakadai's acting. Look at the way he dodders and flinches, how he tries to hold himself upright in a way his body will no longer permit, or how he visibly shrinks when his second son spurns him. Look at the way he stares down the soldiers invading his castle, many of whom back off when he approaches: he knows he still commands respect, even if he can do nothing with it. And Kurosawa (and the makeup designers) wisely make the most of Nakadai's chief physical attribute, his piercing and haunted eyes. They have the weight of decades to begin with; by the time Hidetora's a madman in the wilds, they have the weight of centuries.
The other role that emblemizes the movie is Mieko Harada as Lady Kaede, a character that's as much Lady Macbeth as it is Edmund. With her Noh-mask face and her icy, metallic-looking kimono, she seems not so much regal or even villainous as post-human, beyond good and evil. The scene where she confronts Jiro about his duplicity is fearsome in its emotional intensity: she draws blood from Jiro's neck with a knife, laughs at his weakness, spitefully slashes to shreds the sleeve of her mourning robe — and then, after securing from him his promises, licks his wounds and ravishes him. It works because Harada holds herself back so completely the rest of the time — yes, even during those few seconds before, in another of the movie's bullseye moments, she's beheaded for her treachery. (Harada would reappear in another of Kurosawa's movies, Dreams, to embody a new kind of unquenchable thirst, this time as a malevolent snow spirit.)
All the best performances in the movie are physical. Peter, as Kyoami, has the most physical role of them all, both because of the character he plays and because of how his energy and body language has to contrast with Nakadai's. In early scenes his character's sprightly, inspired, uninhibited; later, when he becomes Hidetora's only companion in the wasteland and the two play off each other as if in a Beckett piece, he's frustrated, pent-up, writhing with despair. Peter's other great acting moment, Funeral Parade of Roses (also recently reissued) had him in what now strikes me as a similar role, a superficially merry character fording up deep reserves of sorrow.
The dream deferred, then realized
RAN was Kurosawa's second return to form after nearly two decades of cinematic and personal exile. After his contract with Toho expired, his career foundered. His time as co-director of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) lasted a mere few weeks. Dodes'ka-den (1971), despite in retrospect being one of his best films, landed with a thud. Unable to find financing for his projects, his eyesight failing, struggling with depression, he attempted suicide. But he survived, and garnered financing from Russia to make another splendid movie, Dersu Uzala (1975), even if that one also did nothing for his standing in Japan.
Then none other than George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola paid forward their creative debts to Kurosawa by co-financing Kagemusha (1980), a dream project that ended up becoming a great hit. But RAN was Kurosawa's true dream project, decades in the maturation, designed almost frame-by-frame. His hand-painted storyboards for the film, all the more amazing for being created when his eyesight was so feeble, were collected and published in a book along with his screenplay. One imagines a world where RAN never existed except in this form but for the grace of Serge Silberman, the producer who'd backed Luis Buñuel (The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, et al) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva).
Silberman poured $11 million into the film, and every dime of it is on screen. The scope of the battle scenes is staggering: for the attack on Hidetora's castle, the crew built an actual castle and burned it down, forcing the climax of that scene to be done in one take. Fabled designer Emi Wada oversaw the construction of thousands of hand-sewn kimonos, a job that took three years to finish even with dozens of expert seamstresses working in parallel. But none of it feels like a tedious self-indulgence, as it might in some Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic.
By the time filming commenced, Kurosawa's eyesight had almost completely failed, and he needed help framing each camera lineup. Nothing of the finished film suggests this: every shot is magnificently placed and considered. He uses the same tactic he employed in Kagemusha, where he sets his cameras fairly far back from the action, uses zoom lenses on some of them for closer shots, and cuts between all of them to create the movie's surface. In a lesser director's hands this would look stagy and static, but every cut brings us something important to consider. It also means Kurosawa avoids the tiresome stock visual language of film, the matching eyelines and such that make most movies so fundamentally uninteresting to watch.
Many prominent "serious" composers in Japan had notable careers writing film scores. Toru Takemitsu, easily the best of them to date, had no fewer than 100 such credits to his name (The Face Of Another, Hara-Kiri, Kwaidan, Woman In The Dunes). Kurosawa employed Takemitsu previously for Dodes'ka-den, which veers between the charmingly lyrical and the elegiac. RAN is all elegy, with music used sparingly and to deadly effect. The best moment is the cue titled "Hell's Picture Scroll", the attack on Hidetora's castle, a ghastly montage of death with only Takemitsu's wailing score as the accompaniment, ending with the gunshot tearing open Taro's back.
Ecclesiastes and Buddha
Kurosawa based his original story on an inversion of an existing samurai chronicle, but realized while writing it that King Lear was in fact his text, and so reshaped more of the story around it. And like Lear itself, the movie rises above any particular moment in time. It's not something that comes from a feudal worldview, where the divine right of kings was a given, but from something greater and more remote. We're all prisoners of history, the movie seems to be saying, and even Hidetora, someone we would think of as an engine of history, is in fact nothing more than its slave too.
Kurosawa never shied away from bleakness or ambiguity when it presented itself. Rashōmon doubted whether or not truth was possible in the human world, especially when human beings are too easily motivated to lie to protect themselves from dangers real or imagined. RAN is even bleaker: it doubts we can have lives anywhere outside the spheres of perpetuated human cruelty. It offers the possibility that love exists, but not the certainty that it can redeem, let alone deliver, those who love or are loved. Its worldview is emblemized in its last shots: blind Tsurumaru, standing in the ruins of the castle he once lived in, unable to see the smile of the Buddha beaming up from the scroll he dropped in the rubble below. A tragic view, but not a petty one: Kurosawa shows us all this as god might see it, as Roger Ebert noted, and my thought is that this is done so that we might find our own empathy where we can.
I credit RAN for awakening my curiosity about Japan and never letting it slumber again. Two years after George Lucas's Return Of The Jedi, RAN debuted in American cinemas with notes to the effect that it came from one of Lucas's grandmaster influences. And while Star Wars had been a colossal influence on me in the years before, I sensed even at the age of twelve it was time to widen my appreciation. By the time I walked out of RAN, playing on one of the biggest screens in Manhattan (as it deserved to be seen), I felt intimidated by the scope of what I'd seen, so much so that it was years before I felt equipped to follow up properly on my new fascination. But follow up I did. And here we are.
Postscript: For decades RAN suffered from being presented in one dismal home video version after another, in part because of the protracted fight over the movie's ownership that made it difficult to deliver a properly mastered version. Criterion Collection put out an excellent two-DVD set with a remaster that for the time was top-notch. The company was on the verge of releasing a Blu-ray Disc upgrade when the rights for the film outside of Japan were assigned unilaterally to Studio Canal, who chose to release it themselves rather than let Criterion sublicense it. Studio Canal's first BD was an unwatchable atrocity, but their latest edition, from a 4K remaster with an UHD-BD that shows it off to the best effect, is only available as a UK import. But it's still a tremendous improvement, and absolutely worth it for any lover of the film.