Saturday, November 11, 2000
The language of Shakespeare may be gone but the images and themes remain. Kurosawa had been contemplating an adaptation of Lear for ten years before finally bringing Ran to the screen. His idea was to set Lear against the backdrop of Japans 16th century civil wars and cross the story with the legend of Mori, a feudal warlord who had three good sons. Lears story prompted Kurosawa to think what would have happened if Moris sons had not been loyal. So Lears daughters are transformed into sons but the basic plot remains the same. In this case, Lord Hidetora wants to relieve himself of the burden of power but not the honor and ceremony that attends it. So he divides his lands amongst his sons. The two eldest flatter their father and then betray him whereas the youngest calls his father a fool and is cast aside. But soon Hidetora is humiliated and abused by his two false sons and this drives him to madness.
Kurosawa begins the film with a beautiful sense of symmetry and order. In these early images, he centers people in the frame and composes well balanced shots in which characters often move with great formality. But order soon descends into chaos. The formality of the betrayers is quickly revealed as a faade: they may observe surface ceremony but they ignore the moral beliefs that should underlie it. They disregard the giri, the complex system of interpersonal obligations that form the basis of their culture.
A sense of chaos arises from the cruel acts of these ungrateful children who do not fulfill their filial obligations. But unlike Macbeth, where nature took offense at the unnaturalness of Macbeths crime, Ran shows us a world in which nature remains unmoved by human suffering and evil doing. Kurosawa repeatedly shows us impressive skies and immense landscapes that remain serenely unchanged in the face of the heartless crimes committed. He also makes humans look pitifully small and insignificant against the immensity of nature.
Kurosawa gives us a film from gods eye as his camera records this epic drama with a serene sense of detachment. Yet as viewers we are never detached but rather find ourselves deeply moved by the human suffering and by Kurosawas plea that humankind cease its senseless self-destruction. In his Seven Samurai, Kurosawa placed the camera in the middle of the action but in Ran the camera seems physically and emotionally above the action. Bodies fall from horses and soldiers die but the camera gives the action no more notice than it does to the breeze rustling the grass. This casual recording of brutality prompts the viewer to react even more strongly to the anguish of these all too human characters.
Hidetoras loyal retainer suggests that the gods are not really indifferent but rather they are simply unable to change mans foolish nature. Kurosawa leaves us with the hauntingly simple image of a blind man standing on the edge of a precipice as the image of his god stares dispassionately at him. The image sums up the precarious nature of mans existence and implies how alone humans are.
Yet Ran is not relentlessly bleak. There are rays of light in this dark worldmost notably from the characters of the loyal retainer, the fool and a good wifeas well as unexpected humor. Plus it is one of the most visually striking, beautiful and horrific films ever made. Like Shakespeare before him, Kurosawa sees art and entertainment as two parts of a whole. Both artists appeal to the masses without sacrificing any of their depth or resonance as artists and that is the mark of a true genius. -----