Yesterday, esteemed British film magazine Sight & Sound announced the results of its once-in-a-decade poll of filmmakers and critics to decide the greatest movies ever made. Following a fifty year reign at the top, Citizen Kane was finally knocked off its perch by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with Ozu’s Tokyo Story placing third and La Règle Du Jeu (Renoir) and Sunshine: A Song For Two Humans (Murnau) rounding out the top five.
There’s no question that each represents a groundbreaking cinematic achievement, but it’s disappointing to see the movie I consider the greatest ever made continue to be overlooked. In honour of the Sight & Sound poll results, a feature from Flixist’s earliest days, Movies That Changed Us, returns to pay tribute to a masterpiece of world cinema, a movie both intensely personal to its director and grander in scope than any before or since. For me, as a young teenager sitting down to watch it on a cheap television in a boarding school common room reeking of various substances I didn’t want to think about, it opened my eyes and mind to the majestic heights cinema could achieve under the limitless artistry of an old man looking through his camera at a world so much darker than he remembered it from his youth.
That man was Akira Kurosawa. His movie, his magnum opus, is Ran.
Many people discover Kurosawa’s work via the great Seven Samurai, a movie rightfully considered one of the most influential ever made and a prototype for the modern action blockbuster. It has been remade in countless forms in the ensuing decades, and its inspiration is evident in any ensemble blockbuster you care to mention, including the recent The Dark Knight Rises. Much of its appeal comes from its ballsy, freewheeling tone, idolising its samurai heroes and their bloody retribution against villainous bandits. It’s a film by a young director at the height of his popularity, having a great time dreaming up the Japanese equivalent to a boy’s own adventure.
Some thirty years later, Ran is the work of an old man shunned by the film industry back home, which saw him as out of touch with contemporary Japanese audiences and his work too costly for the box office risks it presented, and horrified by the nuclear weapons developed in the wake of Hiroshima. Where Seven Samurai is about growth, honour and violence as noble endeavour, Ran sees a world contaminated with death and moral decay, where the human race has set itself down a path of self-destruction without thinking to look back. This contamination affects every facet of existence, from the son inheriting the cruelty and treachery of his father; a wife manipulating her husband into war out of her lust for power and vengeance; a once feared King driven to madness by the realisation of the irreparable damage his reign was responsible for; the suffering of the good people caught in the midst of feuds between the powerful nobility; last of all, the Gods watching the destruction from the heavens and doing nothing.
In a running time five minutes shorter than the aforementioned Dark Knight Rises, Kurosawa manages to give every character a story of their own, individually examining the movie’s central themes on a different social or spiritual level. As a piece of writing, it does not have a single unnecessary scene or character from beginning to end. Each storyline carries an equal share of the thematic and narrative work, with every action yielding a bigger picture consequence building towards humanity’s inevitable downfall.
The story shares much in common with Shakespeare’s most multi-faceted play, King Lear, in which an narcissistic monarch is humiliated and driven mad after handing his kingdom over to his two manipulative daughters and disinheriting the one who truly loved him. As his land is torn apart by war and political scavenging, Lear is forced to accept the depth of his folly. Ran‘s basic premise is similar, but where Lear’s undoing is the result of arrogance and short-sightedness, the fate of Kurosawa’s King Hidetora (played with raw, unhinged intensity from behind Noh makeup by Tatsuya Nakadai) is the result of his tyrannical past, values passed onto the sons, Taro and Jiro, to whom he bequeaths power. Where Shakespeare’s play is self-contained, Ran‘s plot is backed up by characters with long and ignoble histories.
When I watched Ran, my knowledge of Kurosawa was pretty basic: I had seen a couple of his movies (Seven Samurai, Throne Of Blood and Ikiru), but was ignorant of his personal history. One of the many things which makes the film so astonishing is how, the more you learn about the director and Japanese culture, the greater depths are revealed. Unlike Vertigo, which I contend is enjoyable but needlessly weird for anyone academically unfamiliar with Hitchcock’s personal neuroses and auteur stylings, Ran is magnificent no matter your entry level. Its pleasures merely grow in proportion to your knowledge.
In the movie’s most iconic scene, King Hidetora takes refuge in an abandoned castle. Taro and Jiro’s armies subsequently attack, slaughtering Hidetora’s personal bodyguard. Horrified by his sons’ actions and unable to commit seppuku due to a broken sword, Hidetora wanders out into the battlefield, his white robes and pale face contrasting with the blazing battlements behind him and scorched earth beneath his feet. Rather than murder him, the soldiers watch in silent awe as their former king wanders out into the wilderness. It’s an incredible scene, wordlessly conveying so much about the impermanence of status and the illusion of power, yet years later, a professor interviewing me at Cambridge University (if that sounds like an explanabrag, know that I didn’t get an offer afterwards) who shared a love of the film explained how, in Japanese mythology, it was believed a king’s ghost could be seen leaving his castle after death. A small detail in no way vital to feeling the scene’s impact, but adding so much to the psychology of how it plays out and the story’s nihilistic religious underpinnings.
The scene’s visual splendour is far from isolated: Ran has Kurosawa at his most artistically fearless, using colour and framing to inform his themes (setting in conflict the greens of nature, the whites of the spiritual and the divine, and the black and red of man’s violent nature) with a control over his craft not yet acquired by the brash young director behind his earlier pictures. Anyone who has seen the movie will not be surprised to learn Kurosawa spent a decade planning each shot in painted storyboards, swapping out the tightly shot realism of his black and white work for the bold composition and heightened colour of an Impressionist painting in motion. If the movie’s themes are bleak and harsh, the cinematography (accompanied by Tōru Takemitsu’s strikingly otherworldly score) both cushions the blow and reinforces it as a reminder of the beauty being torn apart by human madness.
The movie is so rich and densely textured that essays could be written about the meaning of individual shots or characters: Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada, in a performance as terrifyingly unhinged as her eyebrows) and Lady Sué as emblematic of the ruination of femininity in a male-dominated world; how the human race uses the assumed existence of gods to justify acts of savagery, adding another layer to the motif of moral corruption bleeding down hierarchies… talking of plots and subplots feels almost redundant. There are stories to be found everywhere, each as meaningful in its own way as the ones taking place directly in front of the camera. That’s why Ran, to me, is not only the greatest film ever made, but the greatest single work of art I have ever experienced. The power struggles shown on-screen represent barely an atom of the world and history Kurosawa creates, only to watch it go up in flames as per the Gods to the human race. The title translates into Japanese as ‘chaos’, and just as that describes the nature of the universe, so too does it describe the nature of Ran.