Written by: John White on December 11th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Japan, 1985
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Hisashi Igawa, Peter, Masayuki Yui
DVD released: November 22nd, 2005
Approximate running time: 160 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital stereo
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.95
Lord Hideotora (Nakadai) decides to stand down as head of his clan due to his advancing age and announces it to his three sons and two allied clan leaders. Of his sons Jiro and Taro gracefully accept his decision, especially the new Lord Taro, but the third, Subaro, tells his father he has gone mad or senile. Hideotora disowns Subaru and prepares for his proposed life of ease alongside his other two sons. Meanwhile Taro’s wife, Lady Kaeda, is planning her revenge for Hideotora’s massacre of her family. Subaro’s warning proves right as Jiro and Taro plot against each other and vie for Kaeda’s affections and eventually Jiro and Taro attack their own father and destroy his whole retinue. Hideotara is driven mad by this betrayal and his own foolishness and escapes. Brothers fight, allies stab each other in the back and bodies pile up and up.
Described by Kurosawa as his “testament”, Ran is a traditional Jidai Geki with deliberate overtones to the modern world. It is hard not imagining Kurosawa’s empathy with a story about an old man being driven mad by the world he had created. Ran is without doubt, Kurosawa’s last masterpiece. It is a tale of man’s greed and ambition being driven beyond his ability to cope, an adaptation of King Lear that despite the change of culture becomes the most Shakespearean of tragedies. Where Shakespeare had witches, Kurosawa has She-Foxes like Lady Kaeda. Where Shakespeare has villains like Iago, Kurosawa has a villain here like Ikoma.
Kurosawa is often cited as the greatest of all action filmmakers and certainly the most influential. In Ran, the scenes of destruction and savagery in the battle for the Third Castle are unmatched in cinema. We see all of Hideotora’s loyal retinue butchered, we see one servant holding his own severed arm, we see walls that have become red because of butchery, we see chivalry silenced by a single shot. This brilliant sequence is finished by the famous shot of Nakadai leaving his tower with all his servants dead, fire around him and not even a knife to commit Harikiri. We see madness portrayed as a man who just can’t understand what has happened and how he has wrought this on himself.
Importantly, Ran isn’t a celebration of violence and the carnage above is merely part of the exaggerated style of expression. Colours, acting and events in Ran are never understated and characterisation is bold. Ran is not merely a power struggle but a story of human folly, a story of where Kurosawa believed the world was heading:
“Don’t curse the Gods, they weep for us….Man lives not for joy but for suffering”
The final scene of Ran involves a blind man standing on the edge of a castle ruins walking unawares towards the edge of a sheer drop. The man catches his fall but loses what he was holding to give him faith, a painting of the Amita Buddha. Ran is a dark, dark film and whether Kurosawa thinks all human endeavor leads to a loss of faith or that we must lose our faith to live is of no cheer to the viewer.
Ran is as good as it gets.
The film is presented in Original Aspect Ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen and has been 16:9 enhanced. The picture is very good throughout with the super saturated colours bright leading to an almost surreal visual tone. The transfer is spotless and well defined.
The audio is perfect with no pops or hiss and incredible definition in the stereo for a film that is 20 years old. The menus are well designed and easy to navigate on the main feature disc and the extras disc.
This is a two disc set and the extras would be worth buying on their own. There is the obligatory commentary from Stephen Prince on the film. Most importantly the extras include Chris Marker’s AK. AK is a documentary on the filming of Ran which is the best film about Kurosawa that I have seen. AK shows you Kurosawa filming and the familiar team he builds around him. It shows an incredible team ethic for “Sensei” and the most exacting professionalism unquestioned by anyone. In one section, Kurosawa gets his crew to paint a field gold for a sequence that does not even appear in the finished film! AK also has a memorable scene where a Samurai troop walks through a foggy car park.
The extras disc also includes another episode from the Japanese series “It is Wonderful to Create” which features on Ran and how Kagemusha was a dry run for it. A storyboard featurette is included which shows Kurosawa’s original storyboard with the audio from the film, and there is an interview with an affable Nakadai. On the main disc there is a long introduction from Sidney Lumet explaining why he feels Ran is Kurosawa’s best film and that Akira is the “Bach of movies”. Included in the set is a 28 page booklet with an appreciation from Michael Wilmington and interviews with Kurosawa and composer Toru Takemitsu.
Overall, this is a wonderful package and along with the R4 release probably the best version of this film out there. With a film like Ran, extras are useful but the important thing is the film and the transfer itself which is very good and well worth your money.
For more information about Ran and other titles released by Criterion visit their website.