(Japanese, 1985, 160 minutes, color, 35 mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Kurosawa agonized over RAN for a decade, and with each passing year, his dream of filming this epic seemed to recede. His health was beginning to fail, and far worse, for one of the medium’s greatest pictorialists, his eyesight was weakening as well. For Kurosawa, whose storyboard paintings for the film are so exquisite that they were sold as fine art, this made getting his vision on the screen even more urgent, for time was running out. His bravest gesture was to expend much of the money raised for RAN on KAGEMUSHA, which he referred to as a "dress rehearsal" for RAN. Had KAGEMUSHA failed, Kurosawa’s opportunity to make RAN would have been lost forever. It was an inspired gamble, for KAGEMUSHA was a worldwide hit that convinced the distributor Nippon Herald to provide the money to make RAN.
When finally it went before the cameras, RAN took nine months to shoot and cost eleven million dollars, making it the most expensive film in Japanese history. The details were a publicist’s dream, and a producer’s nightmare: the 12 thousand detailed medieval costumes, some taking months to make; the perfect replica of an ancient castle, built of plastic and wood, in full-scale, the whole thing to be burned up in a fiery climax on the slopes of Mount Fuji; the 52 horses imported from Colorado; and the unheard of (and successful) campaign to film at two of Japan’s most revered shrines, the castles at Himeji and Kumamoto.
As he had with other period masterpieces like THE SEVEN SAMURAI and THRONE OF BLOOD, Kurosawa immersed his film in the world of Bushida, the medieval warrior code, and its obsessions with courage, atonement, and clan honor. War in Kurosawa’s films is perversely gory and courtly at the same time, and his explosive heroes manage, similarly, to be craggy and imposing on the one hand, and vastly emotional, even sentimental, on the other hand. In the world of paradoxes he creates, Kurosawa’s protagonists stalk about, glowering, wounded behemoths whose spirits are confused by subtle but profound changes in their terrarium-like kingdoms.
King Lear had always been among Kurosawa’s favorite works by Shakespeare; now, he set out to make a version of the tragedy that was fully inhabited by Japanese traditions and preoccupations.
It is the sixteenth century. Seventy year-old "Lord Hidetora Ichimonji" (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a ruthless feudal baron. He is ready to retire, and his three sons are candidates for his throne. But the youngest, "Saburo," (Daisuke Ryu) outrages his father, and is banished, while the two remaining sons contend for the riches of the crown. Joining forces, they range their armies against their father in an act of political patricide whose viciousness they have learned from him. Saburo’s loyalties then become the wheel on which the family fortunes turn.
Foreboding hangs over RAN like mist in the dank forests of Lord Hidetora’s estates, masking danger, and hiding true enemies from one another until they are within a sword’s length. The conflict over royal succession is set deep within natural symbols--scudding clouds, sunsets, panoramic landscapes--because, for the combatants, this conflict is as elemental as the winds and the rain.
Hidetora’s behavior on seeing his family’s disintegration and his son’s disloyalty is bizarre, and like other memorable Kurosawa protagonists, such as the brooding patriarch in RECORD OF A LIVING BEING who becomes so fearful of nuclear holocaust that he wants to flee with his mistress and their son to South America, irrationality is a thin veneer, covering truths which, for Kurosawa, are as basic as they are terrible for his characters. For these antiheroes, the news is always bad; a stable life is transformed from within by corrosion of the family, and of the state, corrosion brought on by the failure of the patriarch to listen and love well enough in the long years before the crisis. In RAN, Kurosawa graphically exteriorizes this insanity by sending Lord Hidetora into the wilderness accompanied only by his jester, "Kyoami" (Peter). In fact, all is insanity in RAN. Families are torn apart by greed, kingdoms are wastelands awash in rivers of blood, and armies are slaughtered over a royal family’s jealousies. Betrayal and bloodshed pile upon irony and reversals of fortune, as the spoils at the center of the struggle are destroyed in frantic, murderous conquest. Finally, atop a virtual mountain of corpses, Lord Hidetora must confront his responsibility for this epic of destruction. Loyalty without end, bottomless guilt. . .. Kurosawa, who had gotten his start working on "national policy films" in World War II, has spent his life on screen wondering at the extremes of commitment and attachment to ideals. His larger-than-life samurai and towering bloodthirsty princes mock the failings and limited ambitions of the tiny mortals who surround them. And indeed, in full battle array, feared and dreaded by all, Kurosawa’s protagonists speak like thunder and strike like lightning. But if the human frailty they deride is made up of little moments of hesitation in the face of total devotion, total dedication, total fanaticism, perhaps, Kurosawa seems to be saying in RAN, perhaps those moments of restraint are not weakness, but strength.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.