J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Kurosawa’s Ran

It was a triumph interrupted by tragedy. Shooting was halted three times on Akira Kurosawa’s monumental fusion of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the legend of feudal lord Mōri Motonari, due to the deaths of his regular fight choreographer Ryu Kuze, his soundman since Stray Dog, Fumio Yanoguchi, and his wife and sounding board, Yôko Yaguchi. Nevertheless, Kurosawa still finished the film that would forever cement his reputation as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Still as overwhelming as ever, the 4K restoration of Kurosawa’s final straight-up masterpiece Ran (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York, at Film Forum.

During the Sengoku Era, daughters were not allowed to inherit—hence, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji’s three sons. His son Saburo loves him best, but the Daimyo cannot see past the young man’s rash, impetuous behavior. Technically, Jiro is the most Machiavellian of the brothers, but even he is no match for Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede. She harbors a deeply-burning grudge against Lord Hidetora for slaughtering her family after their arranged marriage. Ichimonji caught the clan of Jiro’s wife Lady Sué similarly unaware, yet her profound Buddhist faith prevented her suffering from corroding her spirit. Consequently, she is the only person who inspires guilt in the old warlord.

Like Lear, Ichimonji concludes he must abdicate and name his successor to insure long-term stability. Of course, it will have the exact opposite effect. Although Saburo is the most talented and worthy, Lord Hidetora names Taro instead. Understanding the possible ramifications only too well, Lady Kaede spurs Taro to consolidate and codify his new power. This deeply disappoints his father, who finds himself essentially stripped of the emeritus status he had envisioned for himself. War is inevitable and the carnage will be spectacular.

It is almost impossible to recognize the iconically handsome Tatsuya Nakadai (the all business cop in High and Low and Mifune’s very different adversaries in Yojimbo and Sanjuro) under all the make-up transforming him into Ichimonji. Nevertheless, he vividly and poignantly expresses Ichimonji’s increasingly erratic mental state. However, Mieko Harada upstages everyone and everything as the ferocious Lady Kaede (an original character with no analog in Lear or the tales of Mōri). It is a huge ensemble, most of whom labor under dehumanizing circumstances, obscured by rain, smoke, and helmets. However, Hisashi Igawa adds intriguing heft and nuance as Jiro’s general, Kurogane, perhaps one of the film’s few characters with principals.

Frankly, there will probably never be another motion picture that devotes so much time and resources to filming battle scenes that is not first and foremost a war movie. Ran is high classical tragedy several times over, but it also features some absolutely stunning scenes of Sixteenth Century warfighting. It is one of the few films that lives up to and even surpasses its reputation as a career-capping masterpiece. It is sort of incredible that Kurosawa was able look through a camera lens again following the epic production of Ran, but did indeed make three more quite nice, but considerably smaller films (including a contribution to a multi-director anthology). Very highly recommended, the 4K restoration, in all its dazzling color, opens this Friday (2/26) at Film Forum.

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