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Kurosawa's final epic film is just a master class , a truly incredible piece of cinema. The opening shots of the horsemen, with a huge landscape behind them, clue's you into what the director is trying to achieve in making a version of King Lear. This play is regarded as a tour de force in theatre and one which only experienced actors attempt, so Kurosawa was making a brave choice in making this film, which was his last.
He made an incredible version of Macbeth in 'Throne of Blood', itself regarded at the time as the best film to capture Shakespeare. Amazingly, I would argue that Kurosawa managed to better himself.
Its majestic, in its cinematography, characterisation, even changing Lear's daughters into Son's, but still retaining the plays essential story of the corruption of power and its destructive effect on a dynasty. The battle scenes are almost beautiful to watch, Kurosawa obviously using Japanese paintings from the period as an inspiration.
I judge how good a film on how it keeps me enthralled, and I can say that RAN did that easily. In fact I watched the whole thing, never moving from my seat once. Its a magnificent film, a true classic of cinema from any country and equal to any of the great directors such as Kubrick or Lean. Kurosawa manages to take one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays and makes it easily accessible, which is helped by his choice of an excellent cast.
Its a film that is still resonating in my mind and I watched it two weeks ago. If you are a true film lover, RAN has to be in your collection, its an incredible swan song, from a director even in his own lifetime, was a huge influence on so many others.
***spoiler alert*** I assume the reader knows the story already.
The story takes place in the 16C or so, a time of upheaval and disorder worldwide. An old war lord has spent his life ruthlessly crushing enemies nearby, stopping at nothing in his striving to dominate. Perhaps as a result of his deteriorating mind, perhaps out of guilt at the terrible things he has done, he makes a catastrophically stupid decision - to divide the power of his armies between his sons in order to retire. Only one son opposes this course of action, which his father finds violently offensive. The son is banished, along with a faithful aide.
Almost immediately, the two remaining sons begin to flex their muscles, first by humiliating their father - denying him access to their castles with his reduced entourage - and then by besieging him. This is one of the most horribly graphic war scenes I have ever seen, hiding nothing of the blood and meaningless deaths. The father begins to lose his mind, paralyzed in despair and appearing like a popular demon with his ashen face. Once his forces are annihilated and his concubines have committed suicide, he stumbles out of the burning palace. Having been rejoined by the faithful servant and the eunuch court jester, the only refuge he finds is in a filthy shack that houses a boy he blinded years before. This is just one of the past crimes that revisits the war lord, who sees the irony through his psychotic despair.
As soon as the sons are rid of him, they turn on eachother. Here, there is a scheming wife, whose family we learn was murdered by war lord soon after his son married her for the purposes of alliance. She is a Shakespearean character, waiting years for revenge and then executing it at exactly the right time to perfection. She sows destruction on an unimaginable scale. As the war lord his last son, the faithful one, the tragedy is complete.
This is one of the best films I have ever seen, by far the most intense war film. Its psychology is also realistic, with the self-destructive decision of a father full of guilt. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
PRECISION: this is the review of double disc special edition DVD from 2006. I found the technical quality of image and sound satisfying - but as I don't own any other versions, I can not compare it with Blu-ray, etc. Therefore this is just a review of the film itself.
In 1957 Kurosawa surprised and impressed the whole world with "Throne of Blood", an extraordinary adaptation of "Macbeth" transposed to feudal Japan. In 1985, for what was to be his last major film, he recidived, this time with "King Lear". But with the progress of technology this time he was able to produce not only a great tragedy but also a great show!
The story is initially quite similar with that of "King Lear". The main character's name is Lord Hidetora, the head of clan Ichimonji. He is played by the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai. Hidetora was born as first son of a samurai lord who owned a little castle. From the age of 17 he fought many wars and he finally conquered a large domain, controlled by three powerful fortresses. But Hidetora is now aged 70 and he is weary of wars - therefore he decides to abdicate in favor if his oldest son, Taro Takatora Ichimonji.
Taro will therefore become the leader of the clan and master of the First Castle. His younger brothers, Jiro Masatora Ichimonji and Saburo Naotora Ichimonji, will support him as masters respectively of Second and Third castles. Hidetora will keep 30 samurai as his escort and the honorific title of Great Lord - he will reside successively with his sons. Hidetora orders his sons to always remain united against all adversities. Two neigboring daimyos, Nobuhiro Fujimaki and Seiji Ayabe, are witnesses of this arrangement.
But the youngest brother, Saburo, as well as one of main retainers, Tango Hirayama, both object and ask Hidetora to reconsider and stay in power. Enraged by the rude language and defiance of his son, the old leader banishes them both. That covers about 15 first minutes and from there the story really begins...
It is hardly a spoiler to say that the story is a horrible tragedy - after all, it is a piece of Shakespeare transposed in the world of the samurai and directed by Kurosawa... But, unlike some "professional" critics, I absolutely don't consider this film as nihilistic! Withour revealing too much, I think that here the main message is the punishment for sins: the greater is the sin, the most terrifying is the punishment. And as we will quickly learn, old Hidetora and his vassals accumulated quite a lot of deadly sins in the last 50 years...
The heavenly retribution against the Ichimonji clan will come mostly through the iron will and determination of an exceptional woman, Lady Kaede, played impressively by Mieko Harada... Indeed, it could be said in this case, "hell hath no fury as a woman wronged..." Many reviewers considered her character as "evil" and that certainly is one way to see the things - but what I saw was first and before anything else a woman hurt and harmed as cruelly as it is possible, who with patience, intelligence and absolute determination will avenge her loved ones by bringing ruin to all her enemies in such a comprehensive way, that they will not only be destroyed in this world but also damned in the next one! And honestly, once I realised all the evil crimes the Ichimonji clan perpetrated in 50 years, her revenge is also a case of justice served! In this point Kurosawa changed very significantly the whole sense of the story, because in the original Shakespeare piece King Lear is mostly an innocent wronged - well, here it is NOT the case...
Two other impressive characters are Hidetora's fool, played by Japanese actor and dancer Peter and Shuri Kurogane, the most capable of Ichinoji clan retainers - a ruthless, brutal and cunning character, but not devoided of at least some human feelings. On the other hand, Saburo, the third son of Hidetora, who as equivalent of Cordelia character is supposedly "the good guy", well, notwithstanding his devotion to his father, I didn't care much for him, considering that by his sheer stupidity he kept making bad things worse...
Another messages of this film are basically the repetition of some well known truths:
- there is no fool as an old fool
- quem Deus vult perdere, dementat prius
- pride is the greatest and WORST of all deadly sins
- anger is a bad advisor
- most men can think only with what they have between legs - not with what they have inside their skulls...
- when you are on the run, RUN! Even if you are Bruce Willis, DON'T come back to your place for your dad's watch - because Vincent Vega will not stay in this toilet forever...
- when travelling through hostile lands with your soldiers, NEVER forget to send a vanguard, even if it is only one guy; it REALLY helps...
The samurai battles in "Ran" are absolutely impressive, even if you should not expect too much realism about tactics - in many scenes there is a lot people running around absolutely nowhere and doing nothing useful. In fact Kurosawa used samurai armies as impressionists used colors and shapes - taken separately and looked upon closely the picture seems to be chaotic. Seen from a certain distance and as a whole, the effect is much, much more interesting.
Bottom line, this is an excellent film, a masterpiece, providing both a matter for reflection and a feast for eyes. I loved it when I saw it in cinema long time ago and it was a delight to re-discover it again. To buy, watch and keep. Enjoy!
But of course it is much more than this.
Apparently it is based on King Lear - I've not read this so can't comment. This is a long film but it never feels ponderous. The battle scenes are shot with an impressive sense of scale and movement although I think that the musketry seems a bit rapid-fire at times and the blood a bit 'red-paint'. The court-room/inside scenes are measured and exact and the idea of developing madness or senility is very believable.
Akiro Kurosawa rocks.
Kurosawa last Samurai film, and what
a masterpiece it is...
Just buy it... like 7 Samurai, a film you
have to watch once in your life...