Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Ran is either the most intimate of epics or most epic of chamber pieces: even more than its source, King Lear, the entire natural world plays chamber. The movie is remembered for these things-the deep-dyed "luscious" robes of royalty against flitting grass and sprinkling blood; Harada Mieko's icicle femme fatale distractedly crushing a moth as she feigns tears; a lone rider chasing the shadow of the sun; the Kagemusha-like tableau of thrones as frames within frames, stages within stages; and countless shots of pilgrims fools and balladeers stumbling across gamboge meadows at dusk, the blind leading the blind (into night), as though Ran were the culmination of Kurosawa's many attempts, largely failed, to reconcile total naturalism with total expressionism, a mostly visionary work whose director posed his actors as ceramics and waited till nature acceded to his storyboards.
But its most brilliant touches could be in its sound, even its employment of birdsongs in the background. Kurosawa builds country noises as an entire Greek chorus of natural elements: the spry chirping at the start not just echoing political tides at peace but betraying a self-important state ceremony against the mountains as a tea party in Japan's backyard; the escalation of the chirping to squawks and breezes to gales as the order crumbles to chaos; the crisp cuts to silence and still lives, indoors, as characters play and contemplate their fates in a moral vacuum; the cut to a slow score over a sudden montage of war killings.
These ellipses and shifts, to the sky and a sky-like perspective on a whole world's stage played quietly below-much of Ran looks like God's POV, through a snowglobe-are some of what suggests a natural theater, as predetermined by the weather as it is self-created by agents of anarchy. Every character is pinpointed as a dupe and fool, as the quest for order breeds mayhem; the Lear hero is hero, like Welles' Falstaff, ostensibly because he's too much of a fool to understand the incomprehensible around him (total chaos), or to think, idiotically, like every other character, he has any claim anymore on anyone. He is also, for the viewer, the dubious window onto a brimstone world.
Where before, most Kurosawa heroes were either stooges in a neatly hierarchized system (feudalism, the office) or haunted cowboys and doctors mocking it from the outside, in Ran, Nakadai Tatsuya's Lear is both: victim to a genealogy of violence for which he once was agent, a holy fool, an apocalyptic savior who can't even save himself. He's essentially the ultimate tragicomic hero, a man so at odds with the world that he has trouble recognizing himself within it and staying alive from one moment to the next. A lot of Ran skews comic in Nakadai's Noh-inspired super-expressions against galleries of warrior straight men-his hammy double-takes (in rare close-ups) at the start as he fails to grasp why his porcelain order is being challenged, through to his snowman doom as two black cat eyes searching wildly inside a painted white, frozen face for any point of recognition in midst of the apocalypse. Kurosawa had tried Lear once before as I Live in Fear, about a man terrified by the possibility of nuclear holocaust. He openly declared the subject of Ran was the same. Its genius is in showing, straight-faced, what would happen if the fools were right.
February 5-18 at Film Forum