Ran (1985)

reviewed by
Dragan Antulov

RAN (1985)
(CHAOS) (1985)
A Film Review 
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2003

In 1985, following the success of his film WHEN FATHER WAS AWAY ON BUSINESS, former Yugoslav (Bosnian) director Emir Kusturica has publicly speculated on his next big project. The best idea was the adaptation of Ivo Andric's novel BRIDGE ON RIVER DRINA and Kusturica has expressed his desire to turn it into grand epic in the style of Kurosawa's RAN. Kusturica never had opportunity to make this dream come true, but in some sinister way his words were prophetic. Spectacle in many ways similar to Kurosawa's 1985 samurai epic was indeed made in former Yugoslavia, but, unfortunately, it was something more real than film.

RAN is widely considered to be among the best known of Kurosawa's films. Great Japanese director made it in the last stages of his career, after careful preparations that had lasted for years. RAN was in its time known as the most expensive film in the history of Japanese cinema and for many young viewers around the world this film was the introduction to the Kurosawa's opus and the way in which it tried to create bridges between Japanese and Western cultures. RAN is the best known example of such bridges, because the script by Kurosawa, Masato Ide and Hideo Oguni is partly inspired by ancient Japanese legends and partly by Shakespeare's play KING LEAR. The plot takes place in 16th Century Japan. 70-year old Lord Hidetora (played by Tatsua Nakadai), powerful leader of Ichimonji clan, wants to retire and divide power among his three sons. One of them is Saburo (played by Daisuke Rye) who opposes the scheme, fearing the potentially fratricidal quarrels. Hidetora is angered by Saburo's opposition and has him banished, while the other two brothers - Taro (played by Akira Terao) and Jiro (played by Jinpachi Nezu) - go along with the scheme. At first everything go as planned, but the brothers' ambition, in case of Taro fuelled by his scheming wife Lady Kaede (played by Mieko Harada), gradually make them turn against their father. Once powerful lord is gradually deprived of his privileges, symbols of power, castles only to see his entire entourage slaughtered by Taro's and Jiro's troops. Hidetora survives only because his mind is gone and he starts wandering the wastelands of his former empire, accompanied only by loyal court jester Kyoami (played by Peter). But the violence doesn't end with elimination of Hidetora - Taro has perished in that battle and his widow Kaede seduces Jiro in order to pursue his own sinister agenda.

RAN is very good piece of filmmaking, but its status of masterpiece could be explained with the reputation of its maker rather than with its own quality. Kurosawa has obviously spent a lot of energy into this project and wasn't discouraged even by his failing eyesight. Because of that RAN contains some memorable images and Kurosawa's use of colour, so brilliantly displayed in KAGEMUSHA five years earlier, leaves a lasting impression. On the other hand, some problems that had plagued KAGEMUSHA are also present here. The pacing is glacial, especially in the beginning and the viewers, at least those who grew up on MTV-style of filmmaking, would need some time to accustom themselves to this film. The make-up is bad, especially in the case of Tatsua Nakadai who looks more like a stage actor than like Japanese feudal lord. Even the battle scenes - the best known part of the film - have their own problems. The first one, depicting the fall of Hidetora's castle, is truly magnificent (and was later used as introduction sequence for PC game SHOGUN: TOTAL WAR). The other, which takes part at the end, is too confusing and not very realistic (some observers have noticed that horses, unlike their riders, happen to be immune to the effects of musket volleys). The music by Toru Takemitsu also leaves much to be desired.

But those flaws are minor compared with the qualities of RAN. The acting is very good. Even the bad make-up can't hide the great talent of Tatsua Nakadai (who had co-operated with Kurosawa in KAGEMUSHA) who masters the role of Japanese King Lear very well. Japanese artist known by his nickname "Peter" is also very good in the role that serves as the closest thing to comic relief in this sombre and grim tale. But the best impression is left by Mieko Harada who plays one of the most despicable characters in the history of cinema, yet she gives her human dimension and understandable motives.

However, all this would have been in vain without Kurosawa approaching RAN with the desire to make the point. This point is depressive - chaos represents the normal state of human affairs. Humans are imperfect, consciously or unconsciously guided with irrational desires, prone to self-delusion and bound to make wrong decisions, even when their intentions are best. The protagonist of this film has built the empire on treachery and violence, yet he deludes himself that the empire could survive in peace and that he could rely on the love of people who used to fear him only short while ago. Even the most rational considerations are powerless against the forces of ambition, jealousy and mistrust. People of former Yugoslavia, at least those who remember the years of Tito, could relate very well to the events depicted in RAN. Kurosawa's pessimistic view of the mankind is underlined with the ending that doesn't spare or gives comfort even to those who try to transcend their violent nature through forgiveness and religion. The last image in the film is one of the most disturbing in the history of cinema. Because of that, RAN is one of the most downbeat films in the history of cinema and therefore can't be recommended to the viewers prone to depression. This is the biggest flaw of RAN, but those viewers who can handle difficult material are going to be rewarded with the brilliant display of movie master at his best.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)
Review written on March 26th 2003

Dragan Antulov a.k.a. Drax http://film.purger.com - Filmske recenzije na hrvatskom/Movie Reviews in Croatian http://www.purger.com/users/drax/reviews.htm - Movie Reviews in English http://www.ofcs.org - Online Film Critics Society

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