Ran – Shakespeare week

Ran is currently available on instant Netflix

Ran (1985) – Rated R

“Legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa sets Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “King Lear” against a samurai backdrop, re-envisioning the timeless story through the eyes of a warlord who transfers his kingdom to his eldest son.”

“Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies. “

With the explosion of the video rental market in the early 80s, I was able to finally see Samurai films and I ate them up. I adored Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood, and The Hidden Fortress. Much like Westerns, Samurai movies are very much men’s films. Of course at my age I did not realize that.

In 1985, Ran was released at our local cinema. This was my first chance to see a Kurosawa film in the theater so I proudly took my girlfriend Laura. To say I was blown away by the film is both hyperbole and understatement. This is not really a Samurai film, it is a visual feast.

Dramatically Ran is a wonderful Shakespearean tragedy – specifically King Lear. Kurosawa changed the gender of some of the characters, presumably to fit within the male-dominated Japanese medieval society.

Ran won the Best Costume Design Oscar in 1986 and it was very well deserved. It was also nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Direction. It inexplicably lost all three of those to Out of Africa. Yes Out of Africa looked nice but it is not the masterpiece that Ran is.

All of the visual elements of Ran are not only gorgeous but reflect on the actions occurring onscreen. The use of color is simply amazing. Color was not as well used until the advent of Yimou Zhang (The Curse of the Golden Flower). Speaking no Japanese, I believe that I could turn off the subtitles and still take quite a bit away from the viewing. Some of the kabuki additions, particularly late in the film, occasionally make Ran a bit too theatrical but it is a minor quibble.

Back to 1985: I came out of the theater thinking that this was easily the best film that I had seen all year. Immensely satisfied, I asked Laura what she thought of it. She hated it. No, not because it was a period piece. No, not because she had to read subtitles. No, not because it was too violent.

Laura hated it because she found it misogynistic. She pointed out that all of the female characters were evil, mad, or ineffectual. Yes, of course that was a big downer. Have you ever gone to a film with someone whose opinion you value and you loved it and they didn’t? Laura did have quite a point. Even though Kurosawa changed some of the genders around, the complaints are equally valid for King Lear (and for many of Shakespeare’s plays).

After that, I have always tried to vet the films I take a date to (though I did err egregiously in taking my wife to Resident Evil for Valentine’s Day). It also made me a lot more sensitive to casual and active misogyny in storytelling. I’m surprised that I wasn’t very aware of it as growing up in Miami, I have always been sensitive to racial issues.

Please accept my apologies for the digression. Watch Ran on as large a screen as possible and just soak in the visuals. The costumes took two years to create, the castle is not a miniature but was built specifically for this movie, and Kurosawa spent a decade storyboarding every shot in the picture.

Although Kurosawa made several other masterpieces, Ran could rightly be referred to as the pinnacle of his life’s work. Sadly his wife of 39 years passed away during filming.