Monday, April 21, 2008

Ran (1985)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was brilliant, one of the great directors - of that there is little doubt. The only film of his that I've seen that wasn't great (admittedly, I haven't seen nearly enough of them) was 'The Hidden Fortress' , but even that had plenty of redeeming attributes. 'Ran', which translates to something along the lines of chaos, was his last epic film. Loosely based on Shakespeare's 'King Lear', it's a period film set in Japan that tells the story of the aging Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who gives up his power to his three sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Saburo defies him and warns him that this will lead to trouble when the brothers start jostling for power; angered, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo. Despite being passionate and abrasive, Saburo is right and both Taro and Jiro waste no time in asserting their authority by ignoring their father's wishes and basically kicking him out of his own fortress. Taro's vindictive wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), who was the daughter of a clan conquered (and mostly slaughtered) by Hidetora, is the real schemer behind the scenes, manipulating her husband to assert his authority and take full control of the clan. Events quickly spiral out of control as battles erupt and outside factions, sensing an opportunity for a quick power grab, amass their armies along the clan's borders. Driven half mad by events and his shame for banishing his only noble son, Hidetora finds himself abandoned with only two loyal companions beside him, his androgynous 'Fool' Kyoami (Peter), and his former retainer Tango (Masayuki Yui).

An epic film, 'Ran' features lush production values, stunning visuals, and some incredible battle sequences. It also tells a riveting story, and being based on Shakespeare it's tragic and (surprise!) a load of people die by the time the credits roll. There's a streak of hopelessness in the film, which presents a world that is indeed filled with chaos and devoid of happy endings. It's full of scheming, treachery, and familial strife, with honour and loyalty occasionally making an appearance but ultimately failing to balance the scales. The decent, good intentioned people in the story always end up paying the price for their ways, and the seemingly wisest character who often sees things as they truly are - the Fool - is always ignored as the tragedy unfolds. Hidetora is the central character and the key tragic figure, the one who is brought down to his knees both physically and mentally by betrayal and forced to confront the shameful actions from his past. It all sounds quite morose - and it is - but the film is often quite entertaining and holds your attention from start to finish. Visually it's also surprisingly colourful and bright, though this does have a habit of highlighting quite effectively all the blood that is spilled. Speaking of blood, the action sequences really do deliver in spades; they're massive and awe inspiring, and of course completely devoid of any digital trickery.

While sometimes very theatrical, the performances are great, especially that of Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora, who transforms from a powerful and commanding presence to a broken man who virtually loses his mind. Peter (that's the guy's credited name!) is irritating but effective as the 'Fool'. Mieko Harada's Lady Kaede is perhaps the best of all, a woman who is intelligent, cold, and calculating, and seething with hatred - she veers between stoic and formal, deadly, and seductive as the situation demands, even within the same scene. Last but not least is Saburo as played by Daisuke Ryu, a charming roguish hothead who could have easily been played by Toshiro Mifune. But Ryu is great in the role and it's a shame his character disappears for such a prolonged stretch of the film.

'Ran' is a magnificent film by any standard. It's a huge epic brimming with action, but one that has a thematically rich and involving story and complex characters, a combination that makes for great drama. It might not be as great as 'Seven Samurai' or 'Rashomon', but those are admittedly tough acts to follow. It's a classic in its own right, and definitely worth checking out.

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