Akira Kurosawa’s last great masterpiece, Ran, was released in 1985 as the most expensive Japanese film ever made. Blending the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear with the Japanese legend of Mori Motonari, it’s the tale of an aging warlord in sixteenth century Japan, tired and weary from decades on the throne. When he abdicates in favour of his eldest son, the warlord inadvertently sets into motion a chain of violent betrayal and bloody civil war. As jealously, ambition, and madness begin to cloud the minds of each ruler, the warlord’s sons gradually turn their armies against both their father and each other.
“Ran is a star that has continued to burn brightly”
Receiving critical acclaim but only moderate box office success upon release in its home territory, the picture received a solitary academy award, presented to Emi Wada for Achievement in Costume Design. Nevertheless, Ran is a star that has continued to burn brightly, and more than thirty years on it still packs one hell of a punch.
Following an extensive 4K restoration, Ran is back in selected UK cinemas this month for a limited time only. Despite being a long-time fan of Kurosawa’s work and well aware of its iconic status, Ran is a film that had always eluded me in the past. Naturally, when given the opportunity see the film projected at the BFI Southbank, I didn’t hesitate. If you can find a screening near you, it’s a chance not to be missed.
Having visited the BFI numerous times in the past, I knew broadly what to expect of the experience – it’s well worth a look if you ever find yourself on the right side of the Thames, only try to avoid the absurdly overpriced gift shop and café. The centre’s numerous screens are comfortable and luxuriously adorned with red velvet, while the eclectic mix of films on show usually begin without trailers or advertisements. It’s a cinema for film lovers first and foremost, a great place to catch classics from the past projected on the big screen; or more modern, independent fare you otherwise might have missed.
As for Ran, it’s easy to see why the film enjoys such a prestigious reputation. Kurosawa’s flair for action and scale is allowed to run rampant across the screen, with the Shakespearean tragedy playing out in epic proportions. Kurosawa’s crisp photography finds immense beauty within the horrors of war, while a superb cast led by Tatsuya Nakadai grounds the spectacle in believable and highly sympathetic drama. Above all, Ran is a study on human failure and the fallibility of leadership. Violence, death, and suffering are presented with impressive detail, but it all feels like the sad conclusion of human folly, rather than something to be celebrated or glorified.
Comparisons may of course be drawn with Kurosawa’s earlier work, notably his 1957 Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. However, it is more illuminating to appraise Ran next to modern examples of the epic genre, such as Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, or, perhaps most obviously, The Last Samurai. Among these films, it’s difficult to find anything that truly compares to the immense sense of scale in Ran, all accomplished without the aid of computer generated images that have since become standard. The result is battle scenes that feel far more visceral than anything you’ve likely seen recently, and this gives the action a clear feeling of weight and significance – amongst the cavalry charges, arrow salvoes, and burning castles, every death marks a tragedy and every sword is irreversibly bloodied.
“if you find yourself with the opportunity and means to see Ran in a cinema this month; do it!”
Despite it’s dark and weighty themes, Ran never feels like a slog; a clear effort is made to tell the story artfully, dispensing of the limitations of a realist style. During the first and most explosive battle sequence, the sounds drops out and is replaced by Toru Takemitsu’s melancholic score, transforming the scene into an operatic montage of destruction. Such artistic flairs are common throughout, as Kurosawa elevates his source material into something cinematically masterful.
If you find yourself with the opportunity and the means to see Ran in a cinema this month; do it! The ongoing re-release is being followed by a blu-ray in early May, but Ran is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen, in all its newly-restored 4K glory; not only to be enjoyed, but experienced. For the uninitiated, it’s a spectacular introduction to the immense catalogue of Akira Kurosawa. For long term fans, or even cynical nay-sayers, now is the perfect chance to reacquaint yourself with this late masterpiece from a visionary maestro.