Akira Kurosawa's great autumnal Mount Fuji of a film, Ran (1985) shouldn't require an introduction — it landed with a popular ker-blam here in the otherwise fallow mid-'80s, and the hoopla was enough to make Kurosawa only the second Japanese filmmaker to ever be Oscar-nominated for Best Director (the other was Hiroshi Teshigahara, for Woman in the Dunes, in 1965). Time simply won't take the shine off its battle shield — here is a stylized re-creation of 16th-century warfare and feudal dramatics manufactured not by programming wonks and hard drives but out of real space, real chaos (the title's literal translation) and very real will, and we watch it roll out like the catastrophic folly of an actual war.
As I remember it, the weird fashion for Shakespeare adaptations in the '90s (everything from various Hamlets to fascist-styled Richard III) only gave weathered cinephiles reason to fondly remember both Ran and Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957), which trumped all other Bard films by jettisoning the Elizabethan texts without ado and focusing instead on the fablelike stories. Ran, famously, takes on King Lear (a lord abdicates and gives one of his three sons the keys to the kingdom, prompting the other two to wage war) and demonstrates how, on film, Shakespeare is best scrubbed free of its phlegmy iambs.
Just as famously, Kurosawa injected a Lady Macbeth (Meiko Harada) into the power struggle, and when Ran isn't exploding into mass warfare, you have Kurosawa's most judicious and effective use of Kabuki and Noh-style movie acting, employed with intimate grit when the family conflicts begin to really open and ooze, set against landscapes soaked in bright blood. In her ghostly period guise and spidery physicality, suggesting a self-acknowledging evil that could easily slip into parody but doesn't, Harada is a complete creep-out, and popular cross-dresser Peter scores as the court jester. But the movie belongs to industry stalwart Tatsuya Nakadai, under an exoskeleton of stylized makeup, as the beleaguered lord; it's from his bug-eyed perspective that we see the previously orderly, class-structured world literally collapse into fire, corpse stacks and madness. The shape of Kurosawa's story is less Shakespearean, in the end, than Homeric, making more than any image-maker has of Muromachi-period iconography and ending blindly on a cliff, where a family's fate is overshadowed by a sense of cosmic doom.
Not much in Kurosawa's ambitious filmography prepped viewers for the energetic assault of Ran; those who were suspicious of the filmmaker's unambiguous plotting (even Rashomon, a tale about uncertainty, is a fairly straightforward film) and Westernized approach had to admit to its daunting grandeur. It should be absorbed from a monster screen, not your living room plasma set, and so to the Nuart the straggling Kurosawa newbies should flock.
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RAN: March 5-11 at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.