Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Running Time: 164 mins
Ran is a Japanese film about an elderly warlord who hands down power to his three sons, however chaos ensues when they turn on each other as well as him.
Power struggles always make for absolutely fascinating stories, but Ran is a totally different animal. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear that also takes from Japanese legends and the history of the Warring States Period, legendary director Akira Kurosawa does an incredible job at bringing the story to life with spectacular visuals and drama from start to finish, and although the film may not be the world’s most rapid-fire and wholly engrossing, it’s an incredible experience that sums up everything that made Kurosawa such a great.
Let’s start there, with the director himself. Largely famed for his movies of the 1950s and early 60s, Kurosawa’s later career was one filled with complex, abstract and incredibly artistic productions. However, Ran is the coming together of every single one of his greatest genres. Utilising his incredible hold on pre-modern Japan and the samurai to excellent effect, all the while bringing in an epic and powerfully tragic atmosphere that is completely absent in the likes of Seven Samurai, Kurosawa makes for a spectacular experience from start to finish, as we witness betrayal, seduction, infighting and utter chaos throughout.
Above all, Ran is an absolute feast for the eyes. As strong and powerful a tragedy it is, the way in which Kurosawa gives the film such a striking visual style at every moment is without a doubt the most memorable element of the film. Whether it be the beautiful and elegant shots of the countryside and castles in the film’s opening sequence, or the total madness of war and chaos as the film goes on, Kurosawa does an incredible job at making it all seem so spectacular.
What’s most striking about Ran in comparison to the likes of Seven Samurai, however, is just how violent and brutal it is. With barely a breath of hope at any moment, Kurosawa never relents in showing the true horror that can arise when absolute power corrupts, stretching to incredible lengths as we see characters brutally slain right before our eyes, the desperation of a once powerful man thrust into total shock and despair, or the blood red horror of war that takes a once peaceful region to its knees.
In fact, the colours of the film play such a significant role in creating the film’s spectacular atmosphere, and it’s not just Kurosawa that makes that happen. While he does an exceptional job at using two main colours of red and grey throughout the film to mark chaos and desperation respectively, those visual themes are reinforced wherever you look. Above all, the costume design and make-up is absolutely amazing, as the film features arguably cinema’s most visually striking character of all time, the increasingly desperate and shocked Great Lord who is thrown out of power far more brutally than he could have ever imagined when relinquishing control to his heirs.
The performance by Tatsuya Nakadai is amazing at every moment, and his transformation from a strong samurai to a man suffering from the guilt of his own past as well as the absolute horror that has been created by the men he left power to is so powerful. However, it’s his physical appearance, and the way it changes throughout, that makes the character so memorable. With his chiseled and strong demeanour at first, the Great Lord is a force to be reckoned with, but the way in which his character then undergoes such a stunning physical transformation, suffering from starvation and eventually emotional trauma is an exceptional element of the film.
From a once strong feudal lord to the bare bones of a human being, and the grey, absent appearance of nothing more than a ghost, the costume designers and make-up team do an incredible job to make the man look like something we’ve never seen so vividly on screen before, and in tandem with Nakadai’s fantastic performance, it makes for a spectacular experience from start to finish.
However, there is one thing that looms over this film at every moment, its length. Given that its premise is so beautifully simple, it seems strange that the story would take nearly three hours to tell. However, that’s not entirely to its detriment. While the film may be tiring and extremely long, occasionally a little too much so at times, the genius of taking things so slowly is that the deeper, more emotional themes of the movie have time to come to the forefront.
While the thrill of the action and the brutal political manoeuvres is incredible to watch, the slower and quieter sequences in which we see the Great Lord begin to question his own actions, and watch on in horror as his life is turned more upside down than he could ever imagine, the tragic elements of the story really shine through, making this film so much more than just a spectacular visual masterpiece, but a film that has real depth and drama to it. It may take a lot of effort at times to keep fully engaged in some of the slowest sequences, but believe me, it’s all very much worth it, as Ran is an absolutely spectacular achievement by Akira Kurosawa, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.9.