Thursday, September 16, 2010

Day Seventy-Six: Ran

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #141
Year: 1985
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai and Mieko Harada

Akira Kurosawa has five movies on the IMDb Top 250. Four of them were released between the years of 1950 and 1961, a period that could be seen as a sort of Golden Era for the director. But then, out of nowhere, his 1985 epic Ran also makes the list. Twenty-four years after his most recent masterpiece (according to IMDb users), Kurosawa struck again, releasing his nearly three-hour reinterpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. He reset the play in Sengoku-era Japan, and changed the plot significantly enough that it became his known but not so much that it became unrecognizable as a revision of the source material. The King Lear character is rechristened Hidetora, and rather than having three daughters to split his kingdom among, he has three sons: Taro, Jiro and Saburo. As in King Lear, the patriarch divides his kingdom among his children but leaves out his one loyal offspring. The plot progresses from there much like the original Shakespeare play, but with subtle yet notable differences that will probably only be picked up on by people very familiar with King Lear, or people who choose to look up the differences on the Internet – having only read King Lear once, I fall into the latter category.

I won't pretend to be some kind of expert on Akira Kurosawa's films. He had a very long career that touched on dozens of genres, and Ran is only the fourth movie of his that I've seen. However, with even my limited knowledge of his work, several things stand out about Ran. First of all, it's in color, and not only is it in color, it's extremely colorful. The costumes are brightly and garishly colored and earned a costume design Oscar for designer Emi Wada. When blood flows, it paints the entire frame red. Lush landscapes populate nearly every shot. It feels like Kurosawa is excited to be working in color and wants to show us everything he knows how to do. It never feels forced, and from strictly a cinematography standpoint, this might be the best of the four Kurosawa films I've watched this week. Beyond that, however, it was probably the worst.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Ran. I thought it was a solid adaptation of a great play with a wonderful visual identity. But the pacing of the plot and the way the script was written just made me think of how much better this would have worked as a miniseries. Stretched over five hour-long episodes, Ran could have been a masterpiece. But King Lear is Shakespeare's longest play, and trying to restage it while distinguishing yourself from it all in the span of two-and-a-half hours is a little bit ridiculous. In my opinion, Ran settles for being a very good movie instead of a great one partly because it tries to do too much. Lots of interesting ideas are presented, but they often disappear entirely within fifteen minutes of their introduction because Kurosawa had to fit something else in. Ran's greatest contribution to the Kurosawa collection is its gorgeous, colorful cinematography. From most other perspectives, I prefer the other films of his that I've seen this week. It's not that I didn't like Ran, because I did – it's just that it didn't come out as great as it should have.

The Good: Kurosawa works well in color. It's somewhat surprising that he didn't employ it much earlier in his career. Yes, I know that his first color feature came out in 1970, but his masterpieces primarily came out in the 1950s and '60s.

The Bad: I wasn't a fan of the pacing. Some things that seem insignificant take forever to happen; some things that seem crucial happen in the blink of an eye. Kurosawa did exactly what he meant to do, I'm sure, but it didn't work on me.

The Skinny: #141 is too high, honestly. Slap this somewhere around #240 and maybe I say it's fair.


  1. Wow, this is a surprise ^_^ Other then Ran, I have seen Seven Samurai and Rashomon from Kurosava, and this definetly is his best work in my opinion.
    And this is one of the few movies, about which you can say that the picture, colors and everything is just stunning. This movie is a pleasure to watch.

  2. I completely agree! Have you ever seen Throne of Blood?
    That's a fantastic film. Much better than Ran, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo in my opinion.

  3. I'm going to make Throne of Blood the next Kurosawa I see, probably. I love MacBeth (well, I love King Lear, but I don't love Ran) - hopefully it lives up to my expectations, and to that awesome title.