Noh Exit
Fernando F. Croce on Ran

There’s no shortage of reasons to watch Ran on a big screen. A chance to better appreciate the film’s striking use of color. An opportunity to be engulfed by the torrential sweep of its battle sequences. And, perhaps most importantly, the ability to see the characters. How massive the landscapes and castle chambers are in Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic, and how small the people in them seem. On a television set or a computer monitor, even the most forceful warrior appears ant-sized. On the vast theater screen, the characters are still dwarfed by the distanced set-ups, but the filmmaker’s unifying visual and thematic stratagem becomes crystal clear: in this twilight vision from the legendary Japanese auteur, the detached camera is the eye of an omnipresent and desolate deity, watching in Olympian dismay as a pastoral world is pockmarked by the gory footprints of fools and cutthroats. Mortality is never far from the autumnal works of artists, and, as with the late films of fellow art-house golden-age doyens Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa takes contemplative stock of lives nearing their end. Whereas Amarcord and Fanny and Alexander present calligraphic mosaics of affectionate remembrance, however, Ran literally paints the walls red with the blood of armies, its wintry, fatalistic growl contrasting sharply with those films’ tranquil sighs.

Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is an elderly feudal warlord in sixteenth-century Japan, still possessing some of his conquering vigor (we first see him on horseback during a boar hunt, about to deal the fatal blow to one unlucky beast) but nowadays prone to dozing off in the middle of an afternoon gathering with his underlings. Hungering for peaceful stability in old age, he decides to divide his realm between his three sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Taro, the oldest, flatters the patriarch’s decision, but the pragmatic Saburo scoffs at the idea that familial honor can trump greed and ambition. (When Hidetora attempts to illustrate the force of unity by binding three arrows together, Saburo challenges the worn parable by simply breaking them across his knee.) The son’s warning gets him banished, but, as Hidetora soon finds himself stripped of power and at the center of a chain of vicious betrayals, Saburo’s candid words seem to echo inside the old man’s increasingly addled mind. Turned out of one castle after another as his former empire goes up in flames, the bereft lord is reduced to wandering the wilderness with mordant jester Kyoami (one-named, cross-dressing pop star Peter) by his side.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is the obvious influence on the film’s narrative, and it’s no surprise that more than one writer has drawn autobiographical links between the filmmaker and his protagonist. Following a bleak period in his life dating back to the mid-1960s—financial and critical failures, depression, and a suicide attempt—Kurosawa enjoyed a robust rebirth in the 1980s with Kagemusha and Ran, international coproductions which blend large-scale pageantry with foreboding meditations on the human condition. Himself a septuagenarian blade with a tenuous place in the landscape he helped shape, Kurosawa could have easily slipped into sentimental alliance with the dazed old warrior at the center of his passion project. Instead, Hidetora is seen through consistently tough-minded lenses: the bloodlust shown by his heirs is depicted not as a perversion of his empire-building lessons but as a ruthless extension of them, and virtually every person he meets during his wandering, from Jiro’s Buddhist wife, Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), to Sue’s blind brother, Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), is revealed to be a victim of Hidetora’s conquering ways. Denied the tragic catharsis granted by Shakespeare, this Lear is less graying tiger than disintegrating wraith, and Nakadai, the sexy-cool smirk he once flashed in Yojimbo buried under layers of spectral makeup, heartbreakingly embodies the character’s grievous pride and skeletal majesty.

There’s a sense, however, that the character that most fascinates Kurosawa is not Hidetora but his daughter-in-law, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada). Like Sue and Tsurumaru, she has suffered as a result of the old man’s nation-unifying wars, and her marriage to Taro is shown to be part of a plan to avenge her slaughtered family. Gliding in and out of rooms in flowing white kimonos, her chalky visage punctuated by regally shaved eyebrows and framed by a cataract of sleek, inky-black hair, she orchestrates an apocalypse while scarcely raising her voice. After manipulating her husband and arranging for his killing, she next moves on to Jiro like a decorative blossom suddenly turning into a Venus flytrap—a literal vamp, she seduces him by nicking his neck with a dagger and excitedly licking the bleeding wound. Compared to the spiritually complex heroines of Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, or Mikio Naruse, Kurosawa’s female characters generally fell neatly into either whimpering or shrewish slots, their voices barely audible above the macho grunting of the samurai. Yet Lady Kaede’s wicked machinations push her beyond femme fatale status and into a fantastically pulverizing figure, outdoing even Isuzu Yamada’s unforgettable Lady Macbeth from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. As she seizes the “chaos” of the title and makes it her personal form of revolt, the filmmaker cannot help but look on in appalled awe: while Hidetora stumbles in the hell the world has become, Kaede luxuriates in it.

And hell is precisely where all the roads of Ran lead. In the film’s justly famous centerpiece, Kurosawa boldly envisions the storming of the fortress where Hidetora is taking shelter by Taro and Jiro’s armies as a stylized nightmare: the ghastly sounds of warfare give way to Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score, puddles of blood are illuminated by infernal fire, geishas stab each other and throw themselves before gunfire, soldiers stare and weep at their own severed limbs when not sprawled dead on the ground, studded with arrows. Alone up in the tower, Hidetora retreats into madness. “A failed mind better sees the heart’s failings,” Kyoami later jeers at him. Due to his failing eyesight, Kurosawa used his paintings to help him frame the film’s often symmetrical compositions, yet any threat of static ornamentation is dispelled by the annihilating fury that throbs through them, by the awareness of a very tenuous balance between order and tumult. From its opening tableau to the cosmic closing image of sightless humanity at the edge of the abyss, Ran is a work of cold anger and stark splendor. See it big, so you can see the horror in the eyes of the people rattling around in the midst of such monumental beauty.

Ran screened at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, June 15, at 2:00 p.m., with actor Tatsuya Nakadai in person, as part of the ongoing series See it Big, which is presented in collaboration with Reverse Shot.