Kurosawa famously said later that he regarded Kagemusha, despite all its acclaim, as a mere warm-up to Ran and, truth be told, Kagemusha fails in fundamental ways that Ran does not. Grievously miscast after the sudden firing of Shintaro Katsu, for whom the picture was written, it suffered from notably bad acting on the part of last-minute replacement Tatsuya Nakadai (made all the more painful when one considers how great Toshiro Mifune might have been), an awful score, and overbearing desire to hammer home its Theme at the expense of all else.
After Kagemusha, Ran then is a revelation. Freely adapting King Lear to Japan's bloody civil wars, the screenplay follows septuagenarian warlord Hidetora's (Tatsuya Nakadai) ruin after a lifetime of violent rule comes back to haunt him in his old age. Experiencing nightmares and creeping senility, he abruptly abdicates his kingdom, dividing it among his sons (Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, and Daisuke Ryu), but years of bloody leadership have had their effect, and very quickly alliances break apart, familial ties crumble, and greed and vengeance come out into the open.
All this unfolds as if viewed from the heavens, whose cloud formations seem to reflect sadly on man's unending determination to destroy himself.
Japanese cinema scholar Donald Richie rightly called Ran "a tragedy with little hope but much understanding." It's infused with the same humanism found in all of Kurosawa's best work, but told from the point of view of a much more pessimistic 75-year-old man. The emphasis on Hidetora's past and its consequences is one the film's greatest achievements, one that goes beyond Shakespeare's play, and a concern Kurosawa rightly felt vital to understanding his main character. Hidetora's backstory drives nearly everything that happens in the film, from the brother and sister who respond to Hidetora's slaughter of their family with him retreating into Buddhism and she learning to release her hatred, to Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada in a superb, widely-acclaimed performance), whose very different reaction races to a kind of infernal bliss at the destruction of the Hidetora clan, ending with a spectacularly bloody bang.
As wrong as Nakadai was for Kagemusha, his performance in Ran is absolutely right. Indeed, the ensemble work across the board is splendid. For various reasons Kurosawa at this time enjoyed making surprising casting choices, and here all of them work, from transgender entertainer Peter as Hidetora's jester, to Crazy Cats comedian Hitoshi Ueki as an allied warlord.
From a production standpoint, Ran is flawless, a technical achievement of monumental proportions, from Kurosawa's electrifying battle scenes -- filmed as seas of bright red, yellow, and blue flags with horrifying splendor blur as horses charge into waves of ultra-violence -- to Emi Wada's Oscar-winning Costume Design and Tameyuki Aimi's Noh-based makeup. Unlike Shinichiro Ikebe's utterly inadequate score for Kagemusha, Toru Takemitsu's Mahler-esque cues for Ran complement the film marvelously.
All of this comes together in an extraordinary seven-minute battle sequence early in the film, one of ghastly, beautiful chaos without sound effects or dialogue of any kind. Instead, we hear only Takemitsu's music amid flying arrows, pouring blood, dismembered limbs, flapping banners and, finally, leaping flames and billowing smoke.
Video & Audio
Third time's the charm. First released to DVD with an atrocious, flat transfer by Fox Lorber, then in a bizarre, much over-tweaked if enhanced one by Wellspring, Criterion's DVD finally gets it right, rendering these earlier travesties worthless by comparison. Though the 1.85:1 image (apparently sourced from Japan as they include the Japanese distributor's credit) still suffers a bit from the limitations of mid-1980s processing technologies - Would Kurosawa have liked to have gone back to digitally-enhance his color design and remove printing flaws, I wonder? - visually this is far sharper with better color than it has been in years. Even in 35mm on big screens, Ran rarely looked this good. Criterion's booklet helpfully notes the dual-layer DVD-9 "was encoded at the highest possible bit rate for the quantity of the material included." It shows. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix suffered much less in earlier incarnations, and sounds splendid here. The English subtitles are removable.
Extras are spread across two discs. The disc accompanying the feature includes Sidney Lumet on Ran, which runs 11 minutes and is 16:9 enhanced. The director of 12 Angry Men and The Verdict calls Kurosawa "the Beethoven of movie directors" then explains why. He lauds him for trusting his material and compares Kurosawa's use of color to Matisse ("so wrong yet so right," he says). Curiously, neither Lumet nor Criterion's menu introduction to the segment mention that, beyond vigorously campaigning for Kurosawa's Oscar nomination on Ran (after a series of mix-ups resulted in the picture not being nominated as Best Foreign Film), Lumet's credits include two remakes of Kurosawa's Rashomon, first as a live television drama, then as the feature The Outrage (1964). Note: The segment is filled with spoilers and should not be viewed until after the film.
Disc 1 continues with an Audio Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera; The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This is apparently the same commentary track Prince recorded for the Wellspring "Masterworks" edition with some new content edited in. Peter Grilli's second audio commentary track from the Wellspring edition does not appear here. The commentary track is helpfully indexed.
The supplements on this disc conclude with four Trailers. The first is a virtually useless American or international trailer in English and in poor condition. This is followed by three Japanese ones, much more interesting as Kurosawa, both in footage and in stills, is featured more prominently than even Hidetora. ("A full year of filming comes to an end!") The fourth trailer emphasizes the notably eclectic cast. All are letterboxed but none, unfortunately, are 16:9 enhanced.
Disc 2's features include a fair amount of repetition of footage and anecdotes, but together paint a fuller picture of Ran's production. A.K. is a 74-minute documentary from 1985 directed by Chris Marker (La Jetee) and produced to promote the film. Presented in 16:9 format, Marker's camera mostly observes the crew at work on location. What it lacks in glossiness and on-camera interviews is more than compensated by simply soaking in the atmosphere of Ran's artists and artisans hard at work.
Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create is yet another mini-documentary carried over from Toho Video's DVD in Japan, a 30-minute, 4:3 format overview of Ran's production and its impact, loaded with behind-the-scenes footage and recent interviews with, among others, producer Masato Hara; actors Tatsuya Nakadai, Mieko Harada, and Hisashi Igawa; longtime script supervisor Teruyo Nogami and art director Yoshiro Muraki (wearing a Guns n' Roses t-shirt!); and look-alike daughter Kazuko. The documentary is a nice summary of the production, despite completely side-stepping the problems Kurosawa had with one-time financier Toho, and with A.K. nicely balances Stephen Prince's almost exclusively literary analysis on the commentary track.
Next is an interesting but not terribly watchable film put together by Ran co-star Masayuki Yui, Image: Ran's Continuity. Running 36 minutes, this short film attempts to marry Kurosawa's conceptual artwork with soundtrack excerpts, all in an effort to help audiences better visualize Kurosawa's original intent for the film. Kurosawa's artwork is great to look at but the gimmick doesn't quite work, and few will want to watch it all the way through.
Finally, a charming if somewhat redundant interview with Tatsuya Nakadai, 10 minutes and 16:9, features the actor discussing his approach to the character and his collaboration to this end with Kurosawa.
Included also with the DVD is a full-color 30-page booklet, which includes an essay by Michael Wilmington and interviews with Kurosawa and Toru Takemitsu.
Ran was a climatic, though by no means final, achievement from an artist who stubbornly refused to compromise his vision, and one of the very few to get away doing it almost his entire professional life. Since its release 20 years ago, Ran has been a frustrating home video experience that never approached seeing it on a big screen when it was new. But Criterion's DVD has at last made it possible to see Ran as it was meant to be seen, and the DVDs extra features will help viewers in their understanding of the picture.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes his own biography of Japan's greatest filmmaker, The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.