Director Akira Kurosawa made many films about generational conflict, many films about Japanese history and many films about violence and war, but none of them tied all these subjects together with as much power and sophistication as his 1985 masterpiece, Ran. Loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the film tells the story of Hidetora, an elderly ruler in feudal Japan who abdicates his leadership to his three sons — Taro, Jiro and Saburo. Unfortunately, this “gift” quickly leads to the disintegration of the family as the sons fight Hidetora and each other in a bloodthirsty struggle for power. Kurosawa dramatizes the shifting loyalties and betrayals on a canvas that is both intimate and epic; theatrical-dialogue scenes alternate with massive battle sequences that build to an emotionally devastating and pessimistic climax.
The core question asks why mankind is continually driven to violence and war, and although the film has echoes of Kurosawa’s earlier action films (particularly Seven Samurai), it lacks their visceral sense of exhilaration. By the time he got to this, his 27th film, Kurosawa clearly no longer saw violence as anything but brutal and ugly, and his point of view had hardened on other topics as well. Whereas the 1952 Ikiru envisioned a dying man finding peace in his legacy, Ran offers no hope of redemption; its final shot of a blind character stranded on a precipice is as bleak and haunting as any image in the director’s career. Yet Ran remains an inspiring rather than a depressing work, thanks to the depth of Kurosawa’s insight and the compositional beauty of his images (a beauty that serves as an ironic counterpoint to the characters’ ruthlessness). Although Kurosawa directed three films after Ran — Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991) and Madadayo (1993), one cannot help but feel this film is his final testament, the movie that sums up his feelings about the big themes that obsessed him for most of his life.
Appropriately for such a summation, Kurosawa reunited with many of his most trusted and frequent collaborators, including three of his favorite directors of photography: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda and Asakazu Nakai, each of whom was nominated for an Academy Award for work on Ran. Nakai’s relationship with Kurosawa stretched back the furthest (to the 1940s) and resulted in several classics, including Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) and Red Beard (1965). Saito’s first collaboration with Kurosawa as director of photography was on Sanjuro (1962), after which he shared duties with Nakai on High and Low (1963) and Red Beard before going on to shoot Kurosawa’s first color film, Dodes’ka-den (1970), as well as the 1980 Kagemusha, a sort of dry run for Ran. Ueda was the relative newcomer, having worked on only Kagemusha, but he and Saito would go on to share the cinematography credit on all of Kurosawa’s remaining films. (Ran was Nakai’s final film as a director of photography.)
The breadth of Ran’s content is matched by the breadth of the imagery, which progresses from lush, vivid greens and yellows in the opening scenes to barren, gray and brown, rocky landscapes in the film’s final moments. The cinematographers use color both emotionally (conveying Hidetora’s deterioration into madness by steadily desaturating the palette) and as an informational tool (assigning each of the sons a color, a device that allows the viewer to follow the large-scale action sequences without becoming confused or disoriented). Like most of Kurosawa’s films, the movie is photographed almost exclusively with long lenses that compress the space and keep the viewer at a distance. We observe the characters as Kurosawa does, with an almost godlike sense of detachment that places the audience in a more contemplative state than most action films.
The Blu-ray edition of Ran has a vivid transfer with bold colors and razor-sharp detail in the landscapes, costumes, makeup and sets; the tonal range is comparable to that of the Criterion standard-definition DVD, but the increased resolution of the Blu-ray format makes a considerable difference in terms of the more subtle nuances of Kurosawa’s mise-en-scène. The 5.1 surround track is solid as well, with clear dialogue balanced against the thundering action sequences.
The disc includes several fine supplements, the best of which is Chris Marker’s 71-minute film A.K. Marker was given extensive, on-set access to Kurosawa during the making of Ran, and his behind-the-scenes documentary provides an intimate look at the film’s production and an affectionate portrait of Kurosawa and his crew, including Saito and Nakai. (This documentary is also featured on the Criterion Ran.) The 41-minute featurette “Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate” consists of interviews with various Kurosawa collaborators and offers further insights into the director’s methods, and two additional supplements, a 52-minute documentary on samurai traditions and a 41-minute interview with warfare historian Jean-Christophe Charbonnier, provide historical context. A theatrical trailer completes the supplementary section of the disc, which is one of three Blu-rays Lionsgate has released to start its StudioCanal Collection. The other two are Contempt (1963) and The Ladykillers (1955), and, like Ran, they are presented with a bounty of special features that lead one to hope the StudioCanal series will add new titles on a regular basis.