Akira Kurosawa 1985 Japan 160 minutes
My interests lie nowhere near 16th century feudal Japan, epic war films or Shakespeare. So far, they lie nowhere near Akira Kurosawa either. After Ran, my interests pretty much stay where they have always been.
This is not to say Ran is not epic in scope, well photographed and all those other overstated superlatives given to most films showcasing bloodshed on a grand scale. Ran is all of those things. Yet after laboring to sit tight for nearly three hours and keep my mind from wandering to what was going on pop culturally in the world in 1985, I cannot help but assess Kurosawa’s Ran as, well... trite.
Sure, I get the somewhat profound message that human beings are responsible for our own hell on Earth. Sure, I can see the complex familial relationships that come boiling to the surface once Lord Hidetora gives his thrown away. I can even see why this film is considered an aging director’s final pessimistic assessment of human nature since no one of any importance survives and its final portrait is of a world obliterated by war. Yet I do not get anything from Ran other than a small satisfaction that I have put another Kurosawa movie behind me.
Everything about Ran comes across as artificial: the acting, the cinematography, the music, you name it. I cannot take anyone seriously who shouts with the utmost conviction the simplest lines: “There goes so-and-so!” or “Have some rice!” need not be played all the way to the back row. This is something I’ve noticed throughout Kurosawa’s work: exaggerated performances, the worst of which lie in Rashomon. It always feels one is watching a play instead of a film due to a massive vein protruding from the player’s foreheads akin to a Shakespearean actor. I also fail to see what is so remarkable about the cinematography. To me it looks fake, overly composed and full of primary colors that have little to do with the thematic concerns primary colors introduce (Raoul Coutard’s photography in Contempt is a much better example of primary color use).
Battle scenes fail to really impress me, especially nowadays after our bombardment of historical war recreations and glorified Greek mythology. I have quickly become desensitized to such pyrotechnic displays and cannot help but yawn when someone harps on how difficult it was to pull off a battle scene like that. However, to its credit the production design and value of Ran can be seen as a precursor to future extravagant war films, such as Platoon, Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, even though Ran is a Japanese/French co-production. It is Kurosawa’s influence on the Western aesthetic that matters most. I’m certain Ran did rather well in a 1980’s America; how could it not? He is without a doubt the most Western of all Japanese filmmakers, all the more apparent in this film due to the odd decision to use Hollywood-esque orchestral music over battle scenes (for me, it does not work but only makes these scenes look that much cheaper).
Ran tastes a little overdone, similar to Scorsese’s Gangs of New York or Coppola’s The Godfather III. Like those films in relation to their creators, Ran gives the sense of an artist trying to recapture the days of his youth and the thematic concerns he once flourished in. For my money and willfully limited knowledge of Kurosawa, Seven Samurai is still the smartest, most efficient of his samurai films.