DVD Review Of Ran
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/24/10
Critical cribbing is a term I coined re: the tendency of critics, in all fields, to not engage a work of art directly, but rather fall back on lazily repeating claims about the thing they are reviewing, that have been made by others. Sometimes these are positive blurbs, and other times these are bits of misinformation repeated endlessly- such as the claim of character name in films like Last Year In Marienbad or Blowup. A typical example of critical cribbing comes in reviews of Akira Kurosawa’s 27th (of 30) films, 1985’s Ran. The 160 minute long, color film is certainly a very good one, possibly rising to near greatness. Its major flaws are that its characters are never fully developed, and it is laced with some mediocre acting of the sort not found in earlier great films (see, most notably, the actors in all three sons’ roles). That said, arguments can and have been made for its greatness, and I will address those later on. But, the critical cribbing comes from the almost offhanded way most reviews of the film claim the film is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. This is simply not so. Yes, there certainly is an influence, but a retelling implies a certain fidelity to the source. Kurosawa, as he often did, improved the source material with his own touches- mostly adding background, depth, contrast, and historical ties to Japanese culture. In short, Shakespeare’s play is a parable filled with caricatures. Ran is not. And, aside from the fact that these supplements vastly improve Shakespeare’s overrated play, I seriously doubt most of the critics who nonchalantly toss about that fact have even read or seen an adaptation of the source play, lest the film’s many divergences from, and expansions of, the plot, would be apparent.
The film’s title means chaos, and that’s not a bad description of the action. But, the film’s lack of developing its characters in realistic ways, unlike Kurosawa’s other late epic, Kagemusha, is a serious impediment to claims for the film’s greatness. In fact, Kagemusha’s strength is its realistic characters and historical fidelity- things that may make it a better overall film than Ran, even if, like Ran, it is a bit too long. This film never plumbs within the human psyche the way Seven Samurai, Ikiru, or The Bad Sleep Well do.
Its plot, like Lear’s, on the surface, is simple enough. An aging warlord, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), decides to split his fiefdom in three, giving equal shares to his three sons. This is done at a mountain ceremony ostensibly to find a wife for one of his sons, with the followers of the warlord, and his son’s followers, as well as rival warlords. Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryn) are the sons, in chronological order. They are to get the first, second, and third family castles. Taro is to be head of the clan while Hidetora remains warlord emeritus. The two younger brothers are to support Taro, and an ancient Japanese metaphor is used to demonstrate this- Hidetora shows that a single arrow is easily broken, but three together are not. But, while he cannot break it with his bare hands, Saburo shows he can break the trio across his knee. While Taro and Jiro flatter their father, Saburo says he is foolish for trusting his sons with power- a thing they have all learned from his own ascent, comes only through brutality and duplicity. Hidetora sees his youngest son, and his servant Tango (who defends Saburo) as traitors, and banishes them.
Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, who was a prize won when Hidetora vanquished her own clan and seized their family castle, now unfurls her plan for revenge, and pushes her husband to castrate her father’s power. Suddenly, the old man senses he made an error. He expected gratitude from Taro, not a lust to take it all so quickly. When Hidetora kills one of Taro’s men who was threatening his court fool Kyoami (Peter), he is forced to leave the castle, and head toward the castle of Jiro, his second son. But Jiro already is planning to war with Taro, even as he pretends to listen to taro’s edict about not letting Hidetora’s men into his castle. The old man then sees Jiro’s wife, Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki)- another woman who married one of his sons, due to her family’s deaths at his hands. Unlike Kaede, she seeks no revenge, and through her Buddhism, only pities her father-in-law. Her brother, Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), was blinded by Hidetora’s men, and is trying to follow in his sister’s footsteps, even though he finds it difficult to help the old man when he later is wandering insanely about the countryside
Seeing his error with his sons (one which he had a premonitory dream on in the film’s opening), however, the old man still wanders about with his men, even as his sons forbid peasants to feed them, on penalty of death. Tango (Masayuki Yui), who has been in his master’s corps, in disguise, then tells him Saburo will help him, but Hidetora is embarrassed to see his youngest son and admit he was wrong, while Saburo was right. Nonetheless, Hidetora and his men take the Third Castle, which was left when Saburo’s men followed their master into exile. Taro’s and Jiro’s forces then assail the castle, and all of Hidetora’s men and concubines die, except the old man, who goes insane, thus beginning his insane wandering. Jiros’ top aide, Kurogane, then kills Taro. Kaede then threatens and seduces Jiro, and orders him to kill his wife, Sue, and marry her. Jiro orders Kurogane to do it, but he refuses. Sue goes into exile and finds her blind brother. She and her brother discover Kyoami and Hidetora in her family castle’s ruins, and the old man believes he is in hell. Tango has left them to get Saburo, who has taken refuge with the rival warlord, Fujimaki, who appreciated the youngest son’s honesty at the ceremony where power was passed on. Saburo, meanwhile, has massed his forces, as well as those of Fukimaki and Ayabe, the other warlord at the film’s opening ritual, against Jiro, demanding he turn over their father, whom he wrongly believes is in Jiro’s aegis. Saburo rides to find his father when Kyoami arrives to tell them he has lost Hidetora in the ruins. Jiro senses a plot, then his forces fall into battle with Saburo’s and Fujimaki’s, as Ayabe’s storm the First Castle. Ayabe’s forces decimate Jiro’s, Kaede has Sue beheaded, then is beheaded by Kurogane. Saburo finds Hidetora, and they reunite briefly, until Saburo is killed by Jiro’s assassin. Hidetora expires in grief, while Tango leads Saburo’s army to bury the son and father. The final shots are of the blind Tsurumaru standing on top of a ruined castle at twilight. He drops the Buddhist devotionals his sister gave him, and cannot find them. The blind man is alone with nowhere to go, and death is all about him.
Where Ran differs most notably from King Lear is in its depth of background. The film is based upon a real life warlord who had three loyal sons he wanted to bestow his empire to- an inversion of the Lear mythos. Curiously, Kurosawa claimed he only became aware of King Lear midway through the filmmaking process, when others mentioned it to him. He also did not like the fact that Lear’s characters had no credible backstory, and that the three daughters in Lear (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) were rather one dimensional. While Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, respectively, could have been fleshed out more, especially since nearly twenty-five minutes pass in the opening ritual scenes, they are certainly more realistic and well sketched out characters than Shakespeare’s siblings. Also, like Lear, all in the clan end up dead. But, there are some major differences, aside from the depth and realism that Kurosawa’s film has. Lear’s past is an unknown. When we observe his suffering, we are apt to feel pity for him, as a character- even in scenes that are not well wrought. Hidetora, on the other hand, we slowly find out, is (or was) a monster whose life entailed almost daily murder for fifty plus years. Thus, the film we see is an example of karma, not life’s randomness and folly. This also vitiates another of the most cribbed points of criticism about the film (one repeated in Stephen Prince’s audio commentary)- that it is somehow a meditation on war and violence, asking why it exists. There simply is no evidence of this. Yes, Hidetora asks these queries, but HE is not the FILM. Ran does not glory in needless and masturbatory violence. As example, when Kurogane beheads Lady Kaede, we do not see the act, only the resultant arterial spray of blood on the wall behind her. Never does the film question, explicitly or implicitly, its world. Violence just is. Even Saburo, the noblest character in the film, is resigned to the world of violence and treachery he inhabits. He simply makes no illusions of the fact. Even Lady Sue, in her retreat into Buddhism, has accepted the world and its evils. Never does a character contemplate deeply nor existentially on their world, the way, say, the soldiers in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line do. The few times Hidetora does, it is not in an existential way, but in a selfish way, as he regrets his own evil, and that which has befallen his family. One might argue this is the only way in which King Lear is superior to Ran, but that presupposes that merely questioning, itself, is an endpoint. The characters in Ran, if they are less introspective (and I do not fully accept that interpretation) than those in Shakespeare’s work, are certainly more realistically engaged in their worlds. There is no poseur moment wherein a soliloquy will break out, no matter how inapt.
Then there is Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), and much is made of her adaptation from Noh dramas. This may be so, but hers is also the character that is the least believable, historically. This is because Noh drama was not reality. No female wielded such power in medieval societies in the Orient. It was even more sexist than the West. And, her desires for revenge are so one dimensional that she seems even less real than the male characters; in fact, she rivals some of the wackier versions of the female character portrayed, in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, by Machiko Kyo. The scene where she dominates then seduces Jiro, is a masterpiece of balletic drama, but as a piece of realism it is laughable. She would have been struck dead in an instant. It’s almost a precursor to the silly scenes that appear in virtually every Hollywood action flick now, wherein a sexy, buxom young female of 120 pounds or less somehow physically overwhelms a musclebound male over twice her size, and does so with ease. It’s become a cliché of modern action films (insert the name/idea of your favorite screen siren here) that it is interesting to see where it first began. But, once that interest fades, we are left with a hollow character very wanting for expansion. This may, indeed, put her character in the Noh tradition, but since it does not serve the film well, that fact is just a bit of trivia.
Another error the film makes (although it is a well conceived and wrought error) is the distance the film maintains from the main characters of the film. While Kurosawa wanted to portray human war and familial squabbles as petty (hence the film’s title refers to the generic situation, not the particulars), and did so by taking the view from on high, by doing so, he made all the characters look like insects, and it is hard to sympathize with such.
The DVD, put out by Wellspring, as The Masterworks Edition, actually offers some different features than the later two disk The Criterion Collection of the DVD. Both DVDs offer enhanced versions of the film. The Wellspring DVD still has some dirt and splotchiness, although the colors are well restored. And unlike Criterion, Wellspring uses gold subtitles, which are easier to read than the white subtitles Criterion uses. The DVD I saw has production notes, the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a restoration demonstration, and two film trailers. The chief difference lies in the commentaries. The Criterion version has only one commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, and has a documentary on Kurosawa called AK, by French filmmaker Chris Marker, as well as Toho Studios It Is Wonderful To Create series of documentaries on Kurosawa. By contrast, Wellspring has no featurettes, but a second film commentary, by film producer Peter Grilli. Grilli’s commentary is flat and uninvolving, filled with sweeping generalities about film, in general, and this one specifically,; as well delivering few specifics on Ran, much less individual scenes and moments- either within the diegetic reality, or in the making of the film. It is also punctuated by several minutes long periods of silences. It begs the question of why was this person hired to do the commentary? The second commentary is also by Stephen Prince, and it is reportedly similar, but not exactly the same, as the later commentary he did for Criterion. Prince is a very hit and miss commentarian. This offering is one of his better ones. While he always trends to over-prepare and come across as bland and reading notes, this commentary is quite scene specific, and Prince seems to have loosened up a bit.
Overall, the screenplay by Kurosawa, Masato Ide, and Hideo Oguni is a good one, although, as mentioned before, a better fleshing out of the characters was needed. The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitō, Masaharu Ueda shows that good scenery alone does not make for great cinematography. One need only look at films like Sean Penn’s Into The Wild or Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries to see that beautiful mountainscapes do not equal great art. Kurosawa’s men, by contrast, show how framing and flattening out imagery with telephoto lenses can render reality into a sort of Japanese flat art depiction of the world. This also illustrates the superfluity and flat out wrongheadedness of most critical writing on the use of certain types of cameras or lenses to get certain effects, in this film and in general. Why? Because the flattening of images (such as in the openings ceremonial scenes in the mountains, or in certain interior ceremonial shots, especially when the frame is crowded) is not important for how it is achieved, but for what it imparts to the viewer. In these cases, the flattening of images into an almost Classical Oriental illustration makes the objects and characters in the frame seem to be closer to each other (sometimes almost on top of each other) than they really are in the internal reality of the film’s narrative, which, in turn, makes the scenes seem and feel almost claustrophobic. This, then, makes the viewer feel what the characters do emotionally, as they are uneased by the internal circumstances and crowding, just as the viewer is by the external composition onscreen. Thus, viewers understand the aggression onscreen viscerally, cued by what amounts to a subliminal visual testosterone (think of the effect crowding has on male interactions at sporting events, or in cases of road rage). That these effects are achieved via a certain lens or camera technique are, again, far less important than what they impart into the viewer. That so few critics understand this about art, in general, and cinema, in particular, is typical of just why so much art and criticism is so bad, repetitive, and dependent upon the seeking out of artistic intent, rather than artistic effect. Why? Because intent is rather a simplistic declaration, whereas effect is a multifarious cogitation. There are also several jumpcuts in the film that depict emotional fragility of characters and moments. These all work well, and are employed so well that one often does not notice them, except subliminally, or upon rewatch. The score by Tôru Takemitsu has an otherworldly feel that really meshes beautifully with the images. It also is obviously influenced- at least emotionally- by Jerry Goldsmith’s landmark score for The Planet Of The Apes.
I began this essay commenting on critical cribbing, and one of the most annoying examples of such are when films that are not epic are lauded as such, as if scale had anything to do with quality. Ran is a great example of an epic film that is not a great film. But, it is also an example of a work of art that is essentially cinematic. The totality of the work could simply not be represented in any other form of drama. The visuality of it is essential, and something no bit of epopee, painting, nor even a novel, could replicate the experience of. Yet, mainly its lack of a higher meaning or insight dooms it from the greatness some of the previously mentioned earlier Kurosawa films had. Also, it suffers from a bit of predictability; not only to anyone in on the derivations from Lear, but also in the sense The Godfather, Part III did. When one understands that Hidetora is more of a Mob chieftain than king, one can almost sense, with each betrayal by his two oldest sons, that he senses, like Michael Corleone does, that ‘Just when I thought I was out....they pull me back in.’ But, as a motto for the works of Kurosawa, is such a pull a bad thing? I think not. Oftentimes, when an artist has been as consistently great as Kurosawa was, his bar is set so high in expectation of ineffably great things that when one gets merely demonstrably terrific stuff from him, well, it seems wanting, although from lesser lights it would be praised sky high. Ran is a film that falls just shy of Kurosawa’s greatest works, but stands leagues above the vast majority of the films we all watch. If that praise seems faint, then catch it when it falls onto you.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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