After the famous first scene of Ran, I realized that in order to truly see this movie, I should move to the front row. We've utterly lost a sense of size in my generation. Everything is made for the size of a TV screen. Nothing human in the movies exists to make us experience awe anymore: movies are either created to be CGI extravaganzas or direct to DVD. To see Ran at the Senator Theater, however, is something different entirely.
What followed was something truly larger than life. Among the great filmmakers, Kurosawa is not much of a dramatist, and substitutes a kind of ecstatic grandeur in place of most human feeling. He is, however, one of the great visual artists of the cinema. I don't know if he's the single greatest, as though such things can be measured, and any medium that includes Murnau, Lang, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ozu, Lean, Welles, Bergman, Fellini, Ray, Leone, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Coppola, De Palma, Bertolucci, Gilliam, Herzog, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Almodovar, Lynch, the Coens, the Andersons, has some pretty stiff competition. But when you see so many shots that have the grandeur of Michelangelo and the luminosity of Rembrandt, you realize that you're dealing with a cinematic technician of a caliber so great that at times his technique is great artistry in itself.
But movies don't exist just in space, they exist in time as well, and in time is where Kurosawa doesn't quite get it. The unbroken line of great creators in Japanese cinema is one of the greatest glories of 20th century art, but even if Akira Kurosawa is most famous among them, I don't think he's the greatest. Last week, I saw an early movie by Kenji Mizoguchi, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, and I very nearly broke down in tears. It restored my faith in art itself. So much about that story was human and intimate that I don't know if I could possibly do it justice by writing about it. What was it even about? The tragedy of wasted lives? Searing anger at the plight of women? Unacknowledged sacrifices which people make for each other? The pointless chasing of success? The snobbery and prejudice that ruins lives? The raw emotional ugliness of life itself?... I prize Ozu over nearly every other moviemaker, but I can understand how many people, particularly in my generation, may not warm to his slowness and hyperrealism. But I do wonder, if Kurosawa lovers watched a few movies by Mizoguchi like Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu Mongatori, would they completely forget about Kurosawa for a time?
Ran is, of its type, as great a movie as exists. But it's a great movie like broccoli is a great vegetable. Kurosawa is not interested in the pathos of his characters so much as he is in the utterly indifferent cosmos surrounding them - and just in case we don't get it, the movie has an infinite panoply of shots which show the sun peaking out from underneath the clouds and the landscape that dwarves the humans who dwell within them.
Western art, with its emphasis on messiness of individual consciousness over cosmic balance and continuity of tradition was largely anathema to the Far East until the twentieth century. Kurosawa, moreso than either Ozu or Mizoguchi, operates as though he's just discovered the importance of the human individual, and wants to shout his revelation from the rooftops. In Ran, as elsewhere in his work, there is no character whom he truly gives an inner life but his principle. And because this discovery feels so fresh, it calls to mind another civilization that had just given primacy to the human individual.
Ran may have been based on Shakespeare's King Lear, but it feels much closer to Greek Tragedy. Except for Hidetora, none of these characters have anything resembling the inner life of so many Shakespearean creations, they are deliberately one-dimensional. His characters are not so much characters as cogs in the wheel of a society in which war is unremitting and existence is only a small remittance from the moment when we have to be sacrificed to the great god of death. As in Greek Tragedy, the point is not to illuminate the mysteries of the individual, but to illuminate the mysteries of why fate acts as it does.
The most extraordinary sequence in the movie, and one of the most extraordinary in the history of film, is of course the famed silent battle sequence at the 'Third Castle' when Great Lord Hidetora's vassal betrays him. Nobody who sees it could ever fail to be shocked by its nihilistic majesty. This is the full ugliness and violence of war on total display. The Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is utterly impossible without its example. Indeed, there is a very strange agon of influences occurring in this sequence. Kurosawa is portraying violence with all the ecstatic bloodletting which was then de rigeur from the then new masters of Hollywood like Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, De Palma, Friedkin, Ridley Scott, and yes, Steven Spielberg too. All of whom, to a man, were influenced by the rich pageant shown and manly tales told by Kurosawa's earlier samurai epics.
And yet there are still earlier influences present all over. Kurosawa carries out this battle in silence, with only Toru Takemitsu's Mahler-influenced score for sound (seriously, it's basically just Das Lied von der Erde...). What we see in Ran is the violence of Spielberg and Scorsese and the technique of Kubrick, carried over into the much earlier style of the silent movies which Kurosawa no doubt saw thousands of as a boy. But so complete is the artistry of this sequence that if you froze any frame, I'm sure you could see echoes of Michelangelo and Goya and Bosch and Breughel and Bacon and Grunewald and Titian and any of the other great artists who haunt our nightmares. What is on display is not mere horror that goes 'boo' and startles us, this is the nightmare that haunts us in our moments of deepest sleep and reverie, and all the moreso for being so near to real life.
Kurosawa was seventy-five when Ran was released in 1985, five years younger than King Lear and five years older than the Great Lord Hidetora. Unlike Ozu who resolutely stayed in modern times, and Mizoguchi who moved freely between medieval and modern Japan, Kurosawa clearly preferred medieval epics in which modern life can be dealt with allegorically (at least he did later in life...). There is no direct confrontation with the great issues of modern Japan, but it is impossible not to see in Ran a metaphor for the Japan of his generation. Hidetora is a dictator in every sense of the word, and a man with vast, bloody deeds upon his soul. Only at the end of his life, when suffering was inflicted upon him, could he begin to come to terms with the terrible suffering he inflicted. Who can see the Third Castle go up in flames and not think of the firebombing of Tokyo. Who can see Hidetora wander among a wasteland of a burnt out forest charitably called a 'plain', and not think of Hiroshima? What Hidetora once did to his people was what Japan did to Manchuria and Malaysia and the Phillipines and Papua. He has, finally, paid for his crimes by visiting them upon his head and the brief kingdom of peace he claimed to work fifty years to build. Ran is a work of enormous, tragic pessimism, in which horrible people visit horrific crimes upon other horrible people, virtue is inevitably punished, and the only true certainties are hatred, envy, and violent death. It's an extraordinary movie, but I don't think anybody actually enjoys it. It's not interested in human concerns, it rather takes a larger than life view of ugly human animal from the point of view of the cosmos itself.