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Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.
With its powerful undercurrent of themes such as greed, power, religion, deception and revenge always at hand, breathtaking vistas captured which give the illusion of depth in the screen and the embodiment of a strange, barbaric beauty, Akira Kurosawa's Ran is a cinematic achievement unparalleled and incomparable. Ran is not a perfect film, but it is one that perfects particular components so powerfully and superlatively that all flaws are decimated, much like the measureless armies that Kurosawa presents and controls in his awesome battle sequences. With it's sweeping camera movements and sense of scope mastered, Ran is an experience that is provocative, haunting, educational and above all, enthralling.
As we enter an unfamiliar land but observe a familiar story unfold, we are reminded of the many narrative inspirations drawn from the Shakespeare classic King Lear. The powerful and ruthless Lord Hidetora Ichimonji has decided it is time for him to bestow his vast kingdom upon his three sons and retire. Foolishly, Hidetora expects his decision of who will gain the position of power to be digested without complaint, but one of his sons brings to light the unpreparedness and risk that will come with this abdication. Hidetora banishes this son, mistaking his comments for insult and defiance. It is with this newly-formed rift in the family relationship that sets in motion the downfall of the once prosperous and revered Ichimonji clan and kingdom. Over the course of its comprehensive 162 minutes, we witness the betrayal Hidetora experiences at the hands of his sons and the descent into lunacy and chaos the monarchy tumbles down into. Kurosawa asks an important question here -- Can our offspring be born deplorable, or is it due to our shaping of them?
A strange comparison, but much like The Elephant Man, the time and place in history of this story is so well realized and illustrated that I was astounded by the film's creation in the 80's, despite the fact that no other decade could achieve the technical mastery as shown here. The environment of feudal Japan pops with colour and culture that rings true, despite my lack of knowledge of such time in history. The speeches of men and women, the clothing, the traditions and rituals of Japanese culture and the design of the armies are all instruments that transports us back in time to this age. Sets are beyond astonishing, with the masterpiece of them being the iconic burning castle that represents the downfall of the Ichimonji kingdom more potently than words ever could. The cinematography is some of the best ever put in a film, and I say this with certainty despite the fact that I have not viewed all films. On a mechanical level, this film is a magnum opus that cements its spot as one, if not the apogee of practical effects.
The writing is clever, always instilling purpose in each scene that reflects the narratives overall goals. Scenes that may have seemed out of place upon first inspection, such as the strange dances performed by Kyoami or the sporadic gasps and reactions actors perform, are justifiable. Many poetic lines are spoken that stick with you long after the conclusion of its scene, and the various tangents in the film are all controlled meticulously and executed with clarity. Whilst characters are out of place in moments and almost descend into irritability, this never takes away from the bigger picture of the film and its success. Sequences of such major chaos and brutality are highlighted with one of the most chilling soundtracks I've heard in a film, and the costume design that accompanies the mind-blowing action sequences is absolutely magnificent.
A few performances are exaggerated and do tip-toe that line, occasionally stumbling, of being laughable and being dramatic. But, these hyperbolic actions, as aforementioned, can be justified. The centerpiece performance of Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora is one of facial movements and bodily attitude more than dialogue. The mental torment and madness Hidetora experiences throughout the film is reflected perfectly on the aged (with make-up) face of Nakadai. Intermittently laughing with glee and cowering with fear, his descent into abnormality is strangely gripping. The rest of the actors portray their respective characters as best as they possibly could. Characters and faces do become blurred and confusing at times, despite the smart idea of colour coding each son. It was a smart as well as risky choice to get a younger actor to portray the elderly Hidetora, and luckily with the recruitment of well versed make-up artists, the aged face of Hidetora is believable, even when his fast movements of a younger man are not, but again, this little fault is not even worth mentioning.
Ran is a piece of art that should be treasured long after our absence. Important morals and the artistry on display combine to create a colossal achievement that should be seen by all. Ran may have its quandaries, but ultimately these do not matter nor contribute to the films ending impact. It's a sweeping, soaring and ambitious gem that I relished every second of.
"Are there no gods... no Buddha? If you exist, hear me. You are mischievous and cruel! Are you so bored up there you must crush us like ants? Is it such fun to see men weep?"
This movie is wonderful in every way. It is wonderful for the costumes alone. You could turn off the subtitles, ignore the story (which is Shakespearean good), and enjoy an excellent evening, solely admiring the costumes.
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In 22 official lists
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This movie ranks #4 in Spike Lee's Essential Film List
This movie ranks #21 in Action
This movie ranks #23 in 1980s
This movie ranks #29 in 501 Must See Movies
This movie ranks #58 in Patrick Galloway's guide to samurai films
This movie ranks #65 in Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films
This movie ranks #66 in 101 War Movies You Must See Before You Die
This movie ranks #96 in Kinema Junpo Top Japanese Films
This movie ranks #102 in Asian Cinema: A Field Guide
This movie ranks #103 in The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema
This movie ranks #114 in Roger Ebert: the great movies
This movie ranks #135 in Top 250
This movie ranks #190 in They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
This movie ranks #235 in Halliwell's Top 1000: The Ultimate Movie Countdown
This movie ranks #267 in Sight and Sound 2012 - Combined List
This movie ranks #272 in Harvard University's Suggested Film Viewing List: Narrative Films (2012)
This movie ranks #283 in Empire 500
This movie ranks #338 in The Criterion Collection
This movie ranks #345 in Cahiers du cinéma - Yearly top 10s
This movie ranks #706 in The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made
This movie ranks #727 in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This movie ranks #735 in The Guardian's 1000 Films to See Before You Die