Every great director hits a point where they look back. Rarely their greatest films, these career retrospectives say much more about the than perhaps any of their previous films. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest both play like this, but by far the best career culmination was Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
From the opening moments, the hallmarks of AK are present. His greatness in the presentation of action flows smoothly into human interactions and character. We meet Tatsuya Nakadai’s emperor, and with great economy establish the entire course of the film, from the feuding lords, his ungrateful children, excepting the loyal youngest son, and most importantly his decent into the madness that will grip his for most of the film are all laid out within the first minutes.
A free adaptation of King Lear, Ran works in the same vein as the greatest of the Shakespearean adaptations by pushing aside the staid staginess and moving the work into humanity and barbarity. The best Shakespearean translators, Kurosawa and Welles, stage Shakespeare as an animalistic, base instincts writer. It is ferocity of the acting, especially in the leads, that opens these overanalyzed texts into living films.
Ran’s greatest strengths lie in Nakadai’s performance. The direction of Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s transition from black and white to color was as accomplished as any director from the west, and his use of color here is masterful. And his staging of the epic battle scenes is more impressive than even the height of Peter Jackson’s computer driven hordes. Kurosawa moves his action beyond Shakespearean tragedy into the realm of Noh abstraction and back again. The battle at the center of the film exists in the sublime.
While not as great or flawless as Seven Samurai, Rashomon or Ikiru, Ran’s grandeur and the brilliance and joy in Kurosawa’s telling lends itself to a film that overwhelms the viewer and leaves them reeling.
Three times through and a company finally nails the transfer. After a failed pressing for Fox and a sub par Wellspring effort, the amazing crew at Criterion turns in another spot on effort. The colors look dead on and the inherent 80s grain have been reduced to their lowest possible level. In a film this virtuosic with imagery, it’s wonderful that a company finally took the time to get it right.