Ran (1985)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (5/5)
October 9, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Ran is a reflection of the state of human affairs, an accurate tale of the perpetual balance between action and repercussion which occurs in the midst of those who kill and those who are killed. It is a story about two brothers and their machiavellian approach to their acquisition of power, about a rogue brother led by truth and rejected for speaking that which would ultimately and ironically come to pass, about one woman and her desire for vengeance against all those who shattered her youth, about one father blinded to truth who pays for the sins of his past with the blood of his sons both loyal and treacherous, and finally it is a story about all those caught in the twisted web of Ran, which translates aptly into "chaos".

An elderly, hardened ruler: the Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, suddenly begins to soften following a strange dream. Showing affection, he makes his sons uncomfortable, as he prepares to break some astonishing news. Hidetora has decided to cede his vast sprawl of land to his beloved sons. His son Taro would rule absolutely over the land, while Hidetora would continue to reign as Great Lord by name only, escorted by thirty loyal warriors. His other sons, Jiro and Saburo, would receive tracts of land in conjunction with the second and third castles respectively. Taro and Jiro accepted with great glee, but Saburo rejected his father's wishes. Blinded by his own fury, unable to see the forest through the trees, Hidetora banished Saburo into exile. Tango Hirayama rushed to Saburo's defense, but his pleas were met with a banishment of his own. Nobuhiro Fujimaki, in private, approached Saburo and offered his daughter in marriage, and his land as sanctuary. Meanwhile, Tango re-infiltrated the land of the Ichimonji, adopting a guise and continuing to offer his allegiance in secret.

Hidetora was quick to realize that the error in his conduct was not listening to the son who challenged him, for he was the one whose presentiment was key. Lady Kaede was always at Taro's right ear, and she filled his heart with pride. Taro grew arrogant with his new standing, and soon began to treat his father with conduct unbecoming of he who still retained the title of "Great Lord". Kyoami, somewhat of a jester in Hidetora's camp, was nearly killed for his biting, satirical chant against Taro. Hidetora, in response, murdered the official who pulled a sword against Kyoami, and Taro, furious, forced his father to sign a contract and seal it in blood, officially stabilizing Taro as the supreme authority in his land. Insulted and dishonored, Hidetora and his escort marched off toward he whom he believed to be a more respectful host...

Jiro received a letter from his ruling brother, warning that their father was coming, and that his senility and instability were a liability. In the second castle, Jiro schemed with his men, for his arrogance and thirst for power had also swelled. They plotted their own bid for domination as Hidetora arrived. Alas, his escort was denied entry into the castle, and insulted by yet another betrayal, Hidetora was forced to move on to the third castle, where he took residency shortly after Taro's men had taken command of this particular stronghold.

Suddenly, Jiro and his army staged an assault on the third castle, as Taro and his army stormed the keep. Brother fought brother, and in the chaos, dozens of men lost their lives in a gruesome display of horror. Taro was shot dead, and Hidetora's escort was all but eliminated. Hidetora's once benevolent gesture to his sons had erupted into a consuming fire, and the land of Ichimonji was being swept up in the flames. Emerging from a conflagrant tower, Hidetora resembled a ghost, as the parting crowd of soldiers watched in silent awe as the Great Lord, now a barely sane shell of his former self, escaped into the plains. Tango and Kyoami, still loyal, managed to rescue Hidetora, and they fled into the wilderness...

Jiro Ichimonji was now the supreme ruler of the land, but Lady Kaede, mad with a thirst for vengeance, not for her fallen husband but instead for her tragic past, seduced the new Great Lord and regained her position in the new court of Ichimonji. Jiro, however, was married to Lady Sue. Lady Kaede would not have it, and demanded to see her severed head. Shuri Kurogane, understanding the motives and manipulations of Lady Kaede, disobeyed, stalled, and attempted to reverse the order. For a great while, he succeeded...

Tango, Kyoami, and a crazed Hidetora returned to the wilderness, where the former Great Lord began to come across the darker side of his legacy, that which had been for years hidden under honored victory. They came to the impoverished home of the brother of Lady Sue: Tsurumaru, whose family's castle was burned and whose eyes Hidetora had gouged from their sockets. He spoke to the Great Lord with contempt, as Hidetora recoiled in horror at the hidden evils he had wrought upon the people. Once they had continued on, Hidetora came to that castle which he had burned, and his wits began to return. He remembered that which he had done; he had remembered the vain and senseless destruction. Fleeing into the desert, he escaped Kyoami's watchful eye and disappeared...

While Hidetora's location was still a mystery, Tango had summoned Saburo and requested his assistance. Hidetora, in his pride, could never face Saburo, for his son was right all along; however, if Saburo could come to his father's aid, wounds would heal and the former Great Lord would finally find sanctuary. Jiro's men met Saburo's small rescue force with belligerence, as Fujimaki's men stood ominously on the ridge. Despite the gravity of the confrontation, the new ruler gave permission to his brother to simply fetch his father. It was not long after Saburo sped to his father's rescue however, that war erupted. Jiro's forces were outmatched by guerilla tactics, as word suddenly reached the battlefield... Fujimaki's men had staged an assault against Jiro's stronghold! Looking in disbelief at the men on the ridge, it was soon discovered that their presence was merely a means of decoy. Lady Kaede, proud that through her manipulations she had avenged her family (who were slain by Hidetora when she was a child) was murdered in the castle shortly after she successfully ordered Lady Sue's demise. As Jiro met his end in battle, the Ichimonjis' web of betrayal and deceit was finally dissolved, and Fujimaki had, as Tango had earlier predicted, procured the land.

Saburo, meanwhile, finally discovered Hidetora, and he had returned to his senses completely, begging forgiveness and looking forward to peace. Hidetora, however, was not yet paid in full for his past, for a rogue archer downed his last remaining son, the only one who, in his dissent, proved to be the most loyal of all. Hidetora finally departed from this world, as an embittered and lonely Tsurumaru lingered on... standing alone atop a steep ledge.

Dissent. That was the key thematic element which drove the plot. Were it not for the dissent of the character of Saburo early on, there would be no development. It was dissent that first defined Saburo, not as a rebel, but as one of the only characters that understood the gravity of the request. Taro's and Jiro's unwillingness to dissent against the offer of their father also, conversely, defined their characters as more arrogant, greedy, and easily coerced. These aspects would be even further enhanced by the vengeful Lady Kaede.

Vengeance. Though basically a main support beam in many of Kurosawa's samurai films to one degree or another, it becomes the driving force to the eruption of chaos. It is Lady Kaede who represents vengeance, for it is through her wish to avenge her fallen family that she sends an entire land into disarray, using her manipulation and seduction. Without her lust for retribution, her seduction would not have led Taro to cut his own father with betrayal and shame. Without her lust for vengeance, her seduction would not have led Jiro into an all-out war. Without her lust for comeuppance, many would have lived peacefully, and Lady Sue would not have met her tragic end.

Consequence. Although dissent and vengeance drove the movie, consequence was the effect that resolved the cause. Several deaths were the direct consequence of the actions of those who experienced this fate. Taro had swelled with pride and usurped his father's honor. He grew powerful and arrogant, and in the process, became a target for his brother's envy. In the midst of battle he was gunned down by Jiro's forces. Jiro too had swelled with pride, drew his sword against his brother, and under Lady Kaede's influence, attempted the murder of his wife. In the end, his belligerence led to war, and he was ultimately murdered in battle. Lady Kaede sought to send the land of Ichimonji into pure chaos to avenge her family, many were killed, and in revenge, she too was slain. Hidetora ignored Saburo's warning, banished him, ceded his lands to his reckless children, and the ensuing bloodshed of his ill-planned actions led to the capture of his lands, the death of his sons, and his own bitter demise.

Of course, the thematic elements and deliberate development were brought to life by the respective roles of the dignified actors. Of every performer, there was not one poor performance. Even Shin'nosuke Ikehata's portrayal of Kyoami, though a comical character, is simply brilliant, and his range of emotions not only brings humor to his role when his character is summoned to foreshadow or symbolize the transpiring events, but also tragedy and sadness to the scenes where his character is forced to deal with interpersonal relationships, which are often stained in sorrow, like that which he shares with Tatsuya Nakadai's character. Nakadai lent his performance the entire range of human drama, from blissful ignorance, to blind indifference, to unmitigated anger, to painful loneliness, and tragic loss, like that experienced with the death of Daisuke Ryu's character. Daisuke Ryu gave his character exactly what he needed, a roguish demeanor, but an underlying dimension of love and understanding. It was in his body language and line delivery that he managed to separate himself and show that he was truly a diamond in the rough, as opposed to Akira Terao and Jinpachi Nezu's characters. Their roles required, quite simply, a constant, gradient swell of ego. Arrogance, contempt, and succumbing to seduction of both power and passion beamed from their performance. Mieko Harada bestowed bitterness, a lust for vengeance, and a passion for attaining these goals to the tone of her character, and she became Lady Kaede. Yoshiko Miyazaki (whose character was killed by Lady Kaede) brought to her character a sense of tranquility, but it was merely a thin veil that held back her underlying hostility. It was this that so angered Tatsuya Nakadai's character, who upon seeing her, could not help but feel remorse for having destroyed her character's past. But, she still had her brother, and that bond of love was clearly shown to Mansai Nomura's character. Mansai Nomura managed to make his character as embittered as Mieko Harada's character, but as passive as Yoshiko Miyazaki's. The tone of his lines and his words of contempt for Nakadai's character are truly chilling.

The complexity of the events, and the fine weaving of the story complimented and enhanced the cinematic elements of the film, but on their own accord, the brilliance of the execution is breathtaking. The full details of war, that which is normally not extant in a Kurosawa film, is here in its full revulsion. Bloodshed, gore, and agony envelope all the characters in at least one respect, and from simply a visual standpoint, the social commentary is quite clear, especially when the sound is muted during the first battle. The realism is uncanny, and peaks with the conflagration of a castle, an effect of visually stunning proportions due to the size of the actual structure constructed specifically for this scene. It became a vivid climax to the horrors of the early conflict, and a truly ghastly scene as Nakadai's character emerged like a ghost from the doomed architecture. The atmosphere, an eerie tone with an underlying feeling of doom, was enhanced by the score, which draws attention from the ears while the eyes are entranced. The more traditional themes, such as the opening music, add to both a level of mystery and a dimension of dignity, while those such as the eerie and ominous theme that accompanies the battle at the third castle, maintains a haunting air. Both large-scale conflicts, the former and the latter, were emphasized in size and gravity by the sheer volume of people and horses utilized. In all, the number of extras surpassed one thousand, and the accuracy of the scenes was enhanced by this epic proportion. The costumes, each individually crafted, took two years of concentrated effort to finish. The volume and size of the battles, all reflective of human vice and the human condition, were completely and perfectly placed into perspective.

Ran is simply among the most artistic and intriguing of Kurosawa's long list of films. One's eyes and ears are attuned to the violence, chaos, and consequence… the dignity and the drama. Among Kurosawa's films (and many films) judged solely by their caliber, Ran is a step ahead of most. It is the culmination of a life's work. The elements of such movies as Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1957) are clearly visible throughout... and the Shakespearean influence cannot be missed. Ran is one of Kurosawa's golden masterpieces, created in his golden years. It is a must see for not only the fan of the genre, but for the fan of cinema as a whole.