They don’t make movies like this anymore.
Well, they try to, but it is hard to imagine a movie production like this one ever coming our way again. If only the big-budget pixelated, battle-worn films churned out in the last decade or so could contain even a little of the spirit that brims in this film.
In this most epic of all his films, Akira Kurosawa looks both backwards and forwards, invoking the film “Intolerance” and even the colorfully swashbuckling “Adventures of Robin Hood” while also bringing the thematic gravity of Shakespeare’s stories to the big screen (that’s bigmovie screen, not big flat-screen monitor). Like much of the acting of the silent film era, Ran’s characters emote loudly – displays of emotion overwhelm almost every scene (which has a lot to do with Japanese acting traditions but which also echoes how silent actors overcompensated for the lack of aural expression).
The central battle set piece plays like a long silent film scene. Most of this central battle is accompanied only by a sparse orchestral soundtrack. The battle takes place in a stark, colorless landscape that becomes overwhelmed by bold splashes of color: flags and banners, blood pouring through the floorboards of the castle, vivid reddish flashes from shotguns, bright orange flames.
Ran loosely recreates the Story of King Lear, with a few plot twists from Macbeth thrown into the mix. Lear’s 3 daughters are traded in for 3 sons intent on seizing power from their aging father as he attempts to pass his dynasty on to the next generation. Saburo, one of his disrespectful sons, has a change of heart, becoming the Cordelia figure that the story desperately needs. The father/king spends the second half of the film in an overwhelmed state of madness, and is accompanied by a faithful court fool. The fool becomes the wise man, who, no longer able to hover cynically on the sidelines, begins to accompany his master as a kind of caretaker.
This film is epic in its tragedy, its sense of justice, and its grief. Large on the outside and large on the inside. All the elements of this work of art line up perfectly. Its form and its function echo one another. The staging and choreography and sweeping camera shots match the film’s large themes of love, hatred, betrayal, deception, ambition, and forgiveness that is offered too late. Characters curse God, and Buddha, questioning the tragedies that are allowed to occur in the world. But the film also invokes the sorrow of a God who looks on and grieves the choices that are made within his creation. About this, Kurosawa stated “What I was trying to get at in Ran, and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings’ behavior.”
Ran both celebrates and laments mankind’s capacity for free will. Even while it laments the horror that its characters bring upon themselves, it elevates grief as an alternative to madness, bitterness, bloodlust, and unbridled ambition so that grief becomes a selfless, God-like form of expression. Many of the characters go back and forth between grieving for themselves and grieving for others. Emotional displays of anguish range from passionate arrogance to passionate selflessness. In the final moments of the film, even the court jester–who in the opening sequence offers entertainment to comfort and distract the court from the soberness of the occasion–has nothing left to offer those who are left except for his grief over the whole array of tragedies we have witnessed.
A raw, loud, deep–and even comforting–grief.