Saturday, January 15, 2011

#76 - Ran

BACK-STORY: Some of the war movies in the 100 Greatest list are Japanese.  “Ran” was the last epic movie by the great Akira Kurosawa. It took ten years to make, partly because of trouble finding financing. It was released in 1985. Kurosawa, who was an accomplished artist, painted brilliantly colorful storyboards of all the scenes while he waited for funding. He was well into his seventies and going blind before the filming began. The movie is famously based on “King Lear”. The title word is translated into “chaos”. At $12 million it was the most expensive Japanese film at the time. It was critically acclaimed and won an Oscar for Costume Design ( the 1,400 handmade costumes took more than two years to make) and was nominated for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Director. It was not a box office success, however.

story board of one of the castles

OPENING: At a boar hunt, an aging warlord named Hidetora stuns his three sons by proclaiming that he is going into retirement and wants his oldest son to succeed him and get the “first castle”. He wants the three to remain loyal to each other and the family. He uses three arrows to show how individually the arrows can be easily broken, but together are strong. The youngest son, Saburo, is critical of the arrangement and breaks the arrows over his knee. He thinks his father is being naïve about the family dynamics. Hidetora is enraged and banishes Saburo and his right hand man Tango.

SUMMARY: Although Saburo comes off as a jerk, it turns out he is right and proves to be the most loyal son. Taro, the eldest, is under the sway of his Lady MacBeth-like wife named Kaede. Her family had been wiped out by Hidetora and she was forced to marry Tara. She is a ruthless schemer and very Machiavellian. She convinces her reluctant husband to demand that Hidetora sign a pledge that Taro now has all the power. Meanwhile, Jiro (the second brother) is plotting the overthrow of Taro. This is a very dysfunctional family.

Hidetora visits Jiro and his wife Sue ( he killed her family, too ) and begs her to hate him. Hidetora is having flashbacks of all the evils he has done. She refuses to hate him – she is a Buddhist and believes her fate was destined. Hidetora has a falling out with his son and is banished to the wilderness. He is going mad. He ends up at the abandoned castle of the banished Saburo. It is here that he is assaulted by the combined forces of Taro and Jiro.

What follows is one of the most remarkable scenes in war movie history. The first half has no sound other than the haunting score. The action is literally a swirl of colors and violence as the two armies storm the castle (which was built full scale for the movie) killing all of Hidetora’s body guard and concubines (not counting the ones that commit suicide). Blood literally runs through the floor boards. Hidetora sits as if in a trance as arrows swish by him. When he comes to and decides to commit seppuku, he finds his sword is broken. The sound suddenly shifts from just the score to just the noises of battle when Taro is assassinated by one of Jiro’s men. There are numerous volleys of musket fire and fire arrows. With the castle afire, Hidetora proceeds to walk down the stairs and out the castle. The two armies part for this obviously insane person who once was the major power in their lives. The castle burns in the background. It is an awesome visual.

Tango and the court jester Kyoami (noted transgender star mono-named Ikehata) find him picking flowers in a field. They take refuge in a castle he had earlier destroyed when he used to be the baddest ass in the area. The castle is occupied by a gentle soul named Tsurumaru (Sue’s brother) who had his eyes gouged out by guess who.

With her husband dead, Kaede is Cleopatra without Antony, but she is not the suicidal type. Not when there is Jiro to be manipulated. She visits him and in a tour de force of acting, first slashes him with a knife and then licks the blood so seductively that Jiro decides this is the woman for him. Later, she fakes tears to get him to kick Sue out. Did I mention she is evil?

While Hidetora goes madder, the plotting thickens. Kaede convinces Jiro’s number two man Kurogane to kill Sue and bring back her head in a box. Kurogane returns with a fox’s head (get the symbolism) which naturally enrages Kaede. Saburo arrives on the plain beside Jiro’s castle to demand his father’s safe return. Saburo does not come alone. He has made an alliance with another warlord who smells blood in the Ichimonji family problems. Jiro agrees to a truce while Saburo goes off to find their father, but Kaede has suggested he send assassins to follow Saburo.

While Saburo is gone the second great set piece battle takes place between Jiro and Saburo’s benefactor plus another vulture-like warlord who arrives on the scene. Jiro’s cavalry charge is decimated by the enemy arquebusiers like the French knights by longbowmen at Agincourt. The scene is Kurosawa’s way of showing the decline of the samurai style of war in the face of modern technology. The sound of the horses charging fills the screen. We see lots of men falling off horses. You wonder if Japan has strict regulations for protecting animals in filming (or thousands of extras, for that matter).

CLOSING: Saburo finds his regret-ridden father and is taking him back to civilization when one of Jiro’s stalking assassins shoots and kills him. Hidetora then dies from everything that he set off at the beginning of the movie. It is one of the hammiest death scenes in cinema history. Jiro retreats to his castle where the head of Sue is brought to him. Kurogane confronts Kaede who admits that all her plotting was to avenge her family. Kurogane wields his sword and we see a bucket of blood thrown onto the wall. Cool! The film ends with the blind Tsurumaru teetering on the edge of the castle wall where he lives.


Action - 8

Acting - 8

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 6

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on if they like Shakespeare. This is basically a Japanese Shakesperean drama. It is also something of a bloody soap opera. There are some strong female characters, especially Lady Kaede. She is one of the most remarkable females in cinema. Be careful that your significant other does not get any ideas from her! But then again, if she ever approaches you with a knife it could mean you are going to have the best sex of your life. If you have a dysfunctional family, this movie will make you feel better about your situation because it cannot possibly be as bad the Ichimonji family.

ACCURACY: The movie is set in the period of the “Warring States” in the 16th Century in Japan. This was the period when rival warlords called daimyos battled for control of regions of Japan. Kurosawa based Hidetora on the legendary daimyo Mori Motonari who had three sons and used the arrow analogy to explain to them how they needed to remain loyal to each other. That particular story had a happy ending. Kurosawa decided to imagine what would have happened if the sons were bad.

Mori Motonari

The warfare in “Ran” is fairly accurately depicted. The feudal Japanese armies did consist of foot soldiers and cavalry. The armor was accurate for that era. We do see the transition from the samurai with their bows and swords to the peasant levies with their new European style arquebuses. Kurosawa accurately foreshadows the death of the bushido code and its traditional ways of fighting. Modern is not always better.

Tactics in the final battle are off a bit. A competent general (perhaps Jiro was incompetent) would not have led off with a cavalry charge, especially if he could clearly see fire-armed men stationed in the woods to ambush them. Jiro would have led with his infantry, but then we might not have had the thundering hooves scene with the numerous dehorsings.

One other thing, I was not aware that an arquebus could be fired continuously without reloading. Not once in the battle scenes did I see anyone reloading.

CRITIQUE: This is a grand movie in every sense of the word. It is the closing argument for Kurosawa being one of the greatest movie directors. Everything is over the top – the acting, the dysfunctionality, the battle scenes, the visuals. Hell, they built a castle and then burned it to the ground! They spray painted an entire field gold and then did not use the shot in the film!

The themes are powerful. They include the ripple effect of a decision. At the opening, Hidetora decides to pass on his authority to his oldest son and look what happens. Second, the gods have abandoned us. There are several references to this by characters. Third, what you did in your past can literally and figuratively come back to haunt you. Fourth, a family can become a battleground that leads to actual battles.

The imagery is striking. The actor who portrays Hidetora wears traditional Noh makeup that sets his character apart and gives him a demonic look. Kurosawa uses clouds to symbolize the moods of the scenes. Storm clouds – watch out. Much of the film is shot from a distance, even the intimate scenes.

The acting is best described as Japanese. There is a lot of shouting and emoting. I did not particularly like Hidetora’s portrayer, Tatsuya Nakadai. He chewed the scenery even more than what you expect in a Japanese flick. His death scene was giggle-inducing. However, Meiko Hrada as Lady Kaede makes up for his faults. She is chillingly amazing. There is also the fool Kyoami who can be aggravating but serves the purpose of being the opposite of the typically macho male characters.

The battles are justifiably famous. They are messy as I would imagine a real battle would be. You see the fog of war depicted from the comfort of your home. If it were not for the colorful banners, you would not be able to tell which side is which. These scenes are also pretty graphic for a 1980s movie. One soldier takes an arrow in the eye and another holds his severed arm (note to Spielberg – that would work well in a D-Day movie). There are enough killings to sate even the most bloodthirsty war movie buff.

CONCLUSION: Even though you will have to read the subtitles, it’s well worth the watching. The battles within the family and on the battlefields are intense. It is not a standard war movie, but you cannot argue against combining Shakespeare with battles. As the British would appropriately say, it’s a bloody good show!

Next up:  #75 - Henry V

Below on the left is the trailer and on the right is one of the battle scenes.


  1. Great review. I haven't seen it yet although I sarted to watch it but was NOT in the mood at that precise moment. I also got Kagemusha which I haven't seen either, I s w other Kurosawas. The colors are always interesting and his choice of themes and topics. I will get to Ran one of these days but am afraid it is one of those movies one should watch on a really big screen. This has really been made for cinema.
    Bloody good show, lol... Bit oldfashioned, no Brit would say this nowadays...( You seriously need to watch some modern British movies).

  2. Thanks. I am going to have to watch Kagemusha (#34) on blue ray on my son's big TV. I wish I had done that with Ran. Hey, I'm a bloody history teacher, I live in the bloody past. Are there any modern British war movies that you would suggest? Cheerio. P.S. I got a comment the other day from a Brit who called me "old man", so I'm not the only one.

  3. I deliberately said "modern British movies" as I really didn't come up with new British war movies apart from Centurion if you want to call it a war movie. And have a feeling if the word was used then it it's literaly meani, else you'd have screamed "anachronism". "Old chap" would have been slightly more British...

  4. Ooops... typos.... gibberish... sorry..

  5. Tut, tut. Never mind the typos, I got your bleeding point, old boy. And I don't scream - I use bold face.

  6. "One soldier takes an arrow in the eye and another holds his severed arm (note to Spielberg – that would work well in a D-Day movie)"

    I think Spielberg got the idea from one of your least favourite movies - 'Beach Red', as there is a scene of a soldier on the beach holding his severed arm in this film.

  7. the war movie buffOctober 4, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    You may be right, but I think if you ask Spielberg he is more likely to credit Kurosawa as his inspiration than Wilde. LOL


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