An adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lord Hidetora Ichimoni, an old warlord, relinquishes the power of his kingdom to his three sons, only to have them all turn on each other and him.
I’ve seen a few Kurosawa films now, but not nearly as many as I’d like. Going into this movie, I figured I was in for an epic, but I was not prepared for what this movie was. About halfway through the film, I realized that I was enjoying this movie- dare I say it- more than “Seven Samurai”. And as the film continued to march towards the credits, a slow realization came over me that I was watching one of the best movies I’d ever seen in my entire life. That statement is in no way hyperbolic.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
The film starts with Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai, “Yojimbo”) calling a meeting amongst the mountains of Japan. Now old and tired, Hidetora has decided to divide his land amongst his three sons: his eldest, Taro (Akira Terao, “Half a Confession”) would receive the largest castle, while his other sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu, “Kagemusha”) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu, “Graveyard of Honor”) receive two smaller castles. Saburo is not satisfied however, and in his insolence he makes remarks that causes his father to send him into exile. The land is then divided between his two remaining sons, and Hidetora goes to live with Taro. After a squabble at the largest castle, Hidetora kills a man in the streets, and at the request of his wife, Taro tells his father he’s no longer welcome in the castle. Hidetora and his coterie leave, and after visiting another son, he realizes he’s not welcome there either. Eventually his sons begin to fight against each other, and while Hidetora watches his family tear itself apart, he descends into madness.
The first thing that caught my attention with this film was the cinematography. We begin the film in the mountains of Japan, and they’re filmed in beautifully saturated Technicolor. The film features a multitude of shots that could be printed out and hung on the wall as artwork. Kurosawa knows how to frame his shots and make statements with his camera, but this film seemed to revel in showing just how epic this picture could be. The castles are huge and beautifully detailed, and the people behind the cameras know how to make use of the sets they’re working with. Each shot makes the film feel that much bigger. I suppose it should be noted that this film received an Oscar nomination for cinematography, directing, and art direction, and it won the Oscar for best costumes.
I’m honestly surprised this film did not win for art direction (“Out of Africa” won that year, and I must confess I have yet to see that film). The sets here had incredible detail; everything from the rivets on the gates to the tassels on the horse’s saddles was beautifully ornamented. The costumes were exquisitely crafted, and the colors wore by the people in each of the scenes seemed to show insights into what they were feeling and what their intentions were. The sets, though, were the real show stealers. As I mentioned above, some of the castles were huge, and the way that they used them- particularly in the first battle scene- was marvelous. (SPOILER) Using the burning castle as a backdrop for many shots was breathtaking, and I have no idea how they were able to pull some of what they did off. (SPOILER ENDS)
This film is, of course, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear (so Kurosawa had some pretty decent source material to work with) but the characters that were created in this film were deep and interesting. The dialogue was eloquent and flowed easily- short of being written in iambic pentameter, it’s as if the bard himself scribed this. There are a number of people who descend into madness, or are slightly crazy from the beginning, and those characters are, in my opinion, the most interesting of the characters, but none of the populous of this film are boring or flat. There were scenes where revelations happened and I literally gasped out loud. I was totally enraptured by even the slowest of dramatic scenes in this film. Something was always happening- the pacing of this film was far faster than “Seven Samurai”- and we get to know the characters just as well. This film, however, is far more tragic than “Samurai”. While “Seven Samurai” would probably be PG-13 by today’s standards, “Ran” absolutely deserves its R rating. Blood flows freely in the first battle, soaking through floors and running down walls in rivulets of red.
I really have nothing bad to say about this film. It’s two hours and forty-two minutes long, but that time flies by. Kurosawa is a genius, and it’s easy to see why so many of his movies are still considered masterpieces today. I’d recommend this movie to everyone. It’s a film that I’d put up there with “The Godfather”, “Wild Strawberries”, and “Pan's Labyrinth”- it’s as close to perfect as a picture can be.
See this movie.
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