Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Five


#5 — Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
Sadly, it will happen no more, but everyone should have an Akira Kurosawa masterwork show up new in theaters at precisely the time when they’re crossing over from seeing movies as entertainment to viewing them as art. Like many of the revered Japanese directors previous cinematic achievements, Ran dazzles with its piercing emotions, thick storytelling and pinpoint command of all the many mechanics of filmmaking. Individual shots aren’t just beautiful and compelling; they provide decisive lessons in the enduring grammar of film narrative. There’s a reason some of the figures who emerged as masters of the form in the nineteen-seventies–Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg chief among them–routinely cited Kurosawa as a central figure in their respective self-education in how to frame a shot or edit a sequence, how to take a hefty pile of celluloid scraps and assemble them into a cogent, moving work. Kurosawa renders his films with such clarity of purpose, such certainty, such insight and care that it sometimes seems as though his craftsmanship could be captured through osmosis. Watching a Kurosawa film like Ran is like tasting haute cuisine after a lifetime of Snapple and Pringles. The other stuff may be good, but this–this–is something wondrous. As my friend Jon once observed about his own experience with the film, “Movies looked a little different to me after this.”

Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear as well as some 16th century Japanese legends, Ran tells the story of a warlord who steps down from his rule in order to cede power to his three sons. Naturally, things don’t proceed harmoniously and the most base of human sins begin to operate in ugly unison to upend the dynamics of this family of men who, after all, have been raised to crave and respect power above all else. Kurosawa, working with fellow credited screenwriters Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, shows the way morality can shift underfoot like the loosest of soil, and particularly hones in on the way the barest slights and simplest inklings of ire can escalate into storms that tear whole worlds apart. All of society, it seems, exists upon a treacherous fault line. There’s a shared capability among all people to shift into the darkest of places and arrows pierce skin with terrible ease.

Kurosawa doesn’t skimp on the fraught conversations between people playing games with fate, but what’s most stunning and memorable about Ran is its grand, epic scope. It was the most expensive Japanese film made up until that time and every last yen is up onscreen. This was before the epic could be created in pixels and contained in a hard drive. To have an army onscreen, a director actually had to assemble an army, and that’s exactly what Kurosawa did. By some estimates, Kurosawa used 1400 extras in the film, all of whom needed to be properly garbed for the films a period setting, an exhausting task that fell to costume designer Emi Wada, who won an Academy Award for her efforts. Overall, the film is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how a practiced, devoted filmmaker can make an entirely different time period emerge convincingly before the camera lens. Kurosawa’s film is so immersed in its proper details that it becomes mesmerizing, especially as the landscape is torn apart by the wars that have been stirred up. The whole world that was built can be ravaged to splinters, a lesson that applies as well to the outside reality as it does to the sets constructed for Kurosawa’s fiction.

I’ve seen Ran at multiple times in multiple ways over the years, and it hits me harder and deeper each time, like a drum that resonates more with each new strike of the baton. And now it seems like a truly bygone piece of art, the looming disappearance of cinematic world-building done with hammers and nails rather than strokes of keys mirroring the scattering of an empire up on the screen. I’m glad I can think back and personally remember the film as something that was once current and vital, instead as some distant, dusty example of how things used to be done. Let modern filmmakers gloat about the digitized hash they make to simulate grandness. I’ll remember how Kurosawa did it, with the rising clouds of dirt and smoke leaving stains on his own clothes, close enough to the roiling action to feel the heat it raised.

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