1985 / Best Director

Film #559: Ran (1985)

We leap now from Sweden of the 1950s to Japan of the Middle Ages as we find the only the film from the legendary Akira Kurosawa to be nominated for one of the ‘Big Five’ Oscars. It’s amazing to think that Kurosawa had to wait till he was seventy-five to receive a Best Director nod from the academy but that’s just how the Oscars operate sometimes. The film he received this recognition for was Ran; an alternative take on King Lear that was seen as the director’s last big epic and actually won an Oscar albeit in the Best Costume Design category.

The film’s version of King Lear is powerful Japanese warlord Hidetora Ichimonji who, early on in the film, divides his kingdom between his three sons. As his eldest son Taro garners the biggest castle, his other two sons act out with middle child Jiro plotting revenge and youngest of the brood Saburo being banished by Hidetora after speaking his mind. The film then shows the damage that this infighting presents whilst also looking at the power of the two primary female characters Taro’s wife Lady Kaede and Jiro’s wife Lady Sué both of whom had fathers who were killed by Hidetora. Lady Kaede is a particularly dominant character and manipulates both Taro and Jiro as she tries to oversee the downfall of the family of the man who destroyed her own family. Meanwhile Hidetora’s decisions have negative consequences as he finds himself cast out of all of his castles and is eventually driven mad by his two older sons’ rejection of him. The second half of the film features two major battles which are extremely well choreographed as Taro and Jiro initially try to control from their father before tribes who are loyal to Saburo ultimately end up conquering the kingdom. However Ran is a film without a happy ending as, after his decision at the beginning of the story, Hidetora is left without any of his sons whilst Lady Kaede is killed off in a rather shocking way. The final shot of the film is also incredibly poignant and I think perfectly sums up the overall tone of Ran.

For the first ten or so minutes I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through Ran’s two and a half hour running time due to the fact that the initial exchanges between Hidetora and his sons were quite dry. It was only once the sons had separated and Lady Kaede was introduced that Ran really got going and from there I was completely hooked. Firstly I think Ran is a well-designed film with the stark colours of the Oscar-winning costumes and the grandiose nature of the Oscar-nominated sets being just two of many examples. Even the little things, such as the colour of the blood when characters die, is made memorable by being crafted in a slightly different hue to the one we’re normally used to seeing on screen. As I already mentioned Ran’s battle scenes are some of its best but there are also many quieter moments that are as good if not better than these two epic confrontations. The majority of these quieter moments involve either Hidetora or Lady Kaede who to me are definitely Ran’s two most memorable characters. I believe part of the reason for this is due to the fine performances from Mieko Harada as Kaede and especially Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora who lit up the screen whenever he was on. Nakadai was especially impressive during the scenes in which his character when slowly mad with one of the most memorable examples being when Hidetora walks through the middle of a massive battle that’s going on in the castle that he’s currently occupying. Nakadai’s performance during this scene and throughout the entire film made Ran all the more watchable and made it more than just another perfectly crafted Kurosawa epic.

Ran had an interesting path to the Oscars primarily as it wasn’t even considered as the Japanese entry for that year’s foreign film after Kurosawa no-showed the premiere in his homeland. Instead Kurosawa’s Best Director nod came thanks to a campaign led by the wonderful Sidney Lumet which ultimately proved successful. As I haven’t seen a lot of Kurosawa’s films I can’t say whether or not Ran was the one that most deserved the attention it garnered from the Academy. What I can say is that it does feel like a film that would’ve struggled to fit in with some of the mediocre entries for that year’s Best Picture including the winning effort Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa. Although it is a period piece, I think Ran is so different to anything else Oscar was honouring at the time that it didn’t have a chance of a Best Picture nod and I don’t think Kurosawa would’ve been honoured either if it hadn’t been for Lumet’s campaign. However I’m glad that Kurosawa at least got some sort of recognition by the Academy for his years of producing masterpieces and with its brilliant script, performers and design Ran was a worthy film to demonstrate the many skills of the legendary Japanese director.

Next time we head back to Sweden with two more offerings from arguably that country’s most famous director.

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