With our attention more divided than ever by ubiquitous media, it’s easy to understand why some film critics feel the need to hyperbolize their positive, but by no means ecstatic, reactions so as to convince readers that the arduous journey to the theater might actually be worth it. However, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, screening twice this week at the Cornell Cinema, requires no embellishment; while other Kurosawa films such Seven Samurai and Rashomon occupy a higher perch on the Sight & Sound rankings, make no mistake, Ran is still among the greatest films ever made. Charged with the virtuosic kineticism evident throughout the Japanese director’s oeuvre, Ran, an appropriation of King Lear, skillfully combines the pathetic nihilism of its Shakespearean source with the violent feudalism of Japanese legend. As a contemporary appropriation of medieval tales, Ran is an enrapturing example of the immersive, spectacular possibilities of cinema.
After decades amassing a large empire, 70-year-old Lord Hidetora Ichimonji abdicates his throne in favor of the eldest of his three sons, but not without providing the younger two with their own castles by which to support their older brother. Disloyalty, bitter infighting and large-scale battles instead result. While the plot mostly follows that of King Lear, Lady Kaede, the wife of Hidetora’s eldest son, is among the most relentlessly fascinating characters. As the last surviving member of her own clan after the rest were killed by Hidetora years ago, she’s a steely, vengeful figure who capitalizes on the resulting tension between the three sons in the wake of their father’s abdication to ruin the Inchimonji clan. Hidetora, once among the most ruthless and feared warlords in Japan, suddenly finds himself armed with nothing but a small contingent of loyal guards, antagonized by each of his three sons and their much larger armies.
It’s also impossible to overlook the sheer technical brilliance of Ran. The production and costume design are vibrant, memorable examples of the beautiful potency of primary colors, especially when your eyes are glued to cinematic set-pieces where red, yellow and blue banners collapse into one another in a violent, yet legible, maelstrom. The melodramatic anguish displayed by Hidetora incorporates elements of Kabuki theater: Ran indeed sits at the fulcrum of contemporary cinema and Japanese legend. Kurosawa’s editorial patience, especially in scenes of silent tenseness where a handful of characters are either deliberating or negotiating, co-exists with an editorial virtuosity that furiously cuts between static camera angles meant to embody the detached perspective of the gods to conjure a sense of immersive action rarely matched to this day. Among the most impressive series of editing decisions ever made, both with reference to scenes on a battlefield and in a throne room, are found in Ran.
Among the many ethical questions raised is whether Hidetora in any way deserves the torment he goes through as Kurosawa’s Lear. Questions about retribution and whether it serves a purpose entirely divorced from rehabilitation remain at the forefront of Kurosawa’s interrogations of the banality of evil. But more importantly, as noted years ago by Roger Ebert, Hidetora’s pathetic anagnorisis of the inexorability of mortality, whether it be wrought by humanity upon itself through war or wrought by the inescapable march of time, neatly parallels the director’s own life. Originally written by Kurosawa to be his final film (he went on to direct a few more before passing away), we can notice considerations that would have probably been on the mind of an aging, highly-regarded filmmaker retrospectively assessing the significance of his legacy. The film’s beautiful final scene, which situates one of the last “survivors” of the carnage as a lone figure against a vast landscape, is not just an elating reminder of Kurosawa’s gifted background as a former painter, but an apt visualization of humanity’s cosmic insignificance.
One of my high school English teachers would semi-flippantly remark that at the end of the day that all works of art boil down to a binary between order and chaos. Whether it’s in Werner Herzog’s attitude toward “our true nature” or in Shakespeare’s work, it’s supposedly possible to reduce every thematic arc into a simple dichotomy between man’s authoritarian desire to control his destiny, and the indifference of a hostile, omnipotent universe. However, rarely do we encounter a work that so viscerally encapsulates the fierceness of this conflict, sending us out of the theater in a state of light-headed nihilism. Indeed, the word “Ran” is actually Japanese for “chaos” or “rebellion,” suggesting that perhaps my high school teacher may have been somewhat correct. Ultimately, as a stirring account that purports conflict to inhere in the human condition, Ran deservedly occupies a place of tremendous importance in the annals of film history. If you’re going to catch only one film at the cinema this semester, make it this one.
Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.