Thursday, April 24, 2008

Akira Kurosawa - Ran, 1985

Intense guy on horseback, wearing 16th century samurai garb, riding incredibly fast with a blurred, foreshortened background, moving in one long take, or perhaps cut into two slightly jarring shots by one off-angle edit. Must be an Akira Kurosawa film.

There are so many films to choose from when it's time to watch this cinematic genius. I decided to see Ran again after 20 years because it really speaks to our current war situation, and to all our war situations. A retelling of King Lear, Ran pits brother against brother against father in a big land grab gone awry. There's a wise fool, and one amazing female role, Lady Kaede. She is a very unusual woman in Kursosawa's large cast of characters, partially because she's featured at all in his usually male-dominated stories, but also he gives her vengence a back-story. Do not mess with Lady Kaede. Her attack/seduction scene with her brother-in-law puts me in mind of a war conference between Chenney and Bush. I know it goes down in the White House just like Kurosawa foresaw.

I originally saw Ran in the theater when it first came out in the U.S. This time I had to rent it on DVD but it's still very powerful--a poem and a lament about our inability to live peacefully with one another. Film historian and Kurosawa scholar, Stephen Prince provides commentary. If you can't afford film school, rent every Kurosawa DVD that has Stephen Prince commentary, and listen. You will learn a lot about filmmaking and it's cheap.

I didn't include any gore here, although there's plenty and none of it gratuitous. Blood would look exploitive and out of context in a still photo, plus it makes me queesy. In the film, the battle scenes are simply astounding and as Prince points out, all are shot with three cameras and with over a thousand extras--no visual effects. This is the last of its kind. You won't see an epic shot in this realistic mass scale without CGI--sorry fans of realism in film.

Prince calls Kurosawa a true epic filmmaker who excelled not just on the scale of his work, but for the movement within his shots. Kurosawa choreographs swirling masses of humanity, clashing and falling all over each other. In Ran this talent coexists with plenty of slow-paced Noh story-telling techniques to formally present this legend. It's a real masterpiece, made by a man in his 70s who knew he wouldn't get any more chances to film like this in his lifetime.

And if samurai epics that mirror out own world are not to your liking, see Ikiru (To Live); as life-affirming as any war lament, played out within the quiet existance of a Tokyo bureaucrat. Very epic on an emotional and philosophical level.

And now:

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