Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

In its second year as a regular column on Sonic Cinema, “A Movie a Week” has found its sea legs…as well as its own section on the front page of the site. That means no more obstruction of Oscar blogs & end-of essays. I figure some of you will be happy about that. I know I am… 🙂

As for the column itself, the basic structure of it (with films typically timed for big releases; a mix of good and bad films; classic and more recent; and a filmmaker bookend for the year) has found itself more or less set. And 2011 will feature more of the same, including a January-February lineup that personally, kind of rocks.

So get ready for another year of intrigue and cinematic fascination with the likes of Welles, Wood, Tarkovsky, Proyas, and Bergman as I close 2010’s “A Movie a Week” out with Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran”. I hope you enjoy!

Brian Skutle
http://www.sonic-cinema.com

“Ran”– A+
In watching “Ran” again, the key moment in the film comes early, when Great Lord Hidetoro (Tatsuya Nakadai) gives his sons a test. He has just told them that the eldest son Taro will be given control of the lands, with his other sons Jiro and Saburo in support. He hands each son one arrow, which they break easily. He then hands them a bundle of three arrows, which is not so easily broken. The lesson Hidetoro is trying to convey is that if the three work together, their father’s empire will be protected. But Saburo breaks the arrows together over his knee, hoping to show his father that this plan will not work. Instead, exile is his reward for his blunt nature and honest words.

Immediately, we see the seeds of “King Lear” planted within Akira Kurosawa’s fearless and masterful epic. Made in 1985, and only the fourth film he’d shot in 20 years, “Ran” was the final of Kurosawa’s samurai films, a string of classics that include “The Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro,” “The Hidden Fortress” and “Kagemusha,” the 1980 film backed by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that was intended as a dress rehearsal for this film. Sadly, it would take another five years (and funding from the French producer Serge Silberman) before Kurosawa (who had long been out of favor in his native Japan) was able to realize his dream. By this point, K (as he was sometimes known) was 75, had failing eyesight, had attempted suicide years before, and yet still managed to fill notebooks with costume and production designs and storyboards in hopes that he would be able to fulfill this particular “dream” project.

There are many times in fact when “Ran” feels like a dream, or more appropriately, the nightmare of an old man who must watch his world (and greatest intentions) fall apart around him. Maybe it was Kurosawa’s failing sight that resulted in the film’s dream-like quality visually, but it draws us deep into the story in front of us greater than a more natural approach (as was evident in “Seven Samurai” and “Hidden Fortress”) would have. The colors are more pronounced, as if they were the remembrances of a man who hadn’t seen the world in all its beauty and vibrancy in years. That unnatural visual palette (which the music by Tôru Takemitsu playing perfect accompaniment) adds to the effectiveness of the film as human drama, and as a violent and powerful epic of war. Everything is heightened beyond the point of reality, which makes Hidetoro’s madness more tragic to witness, and the battles of his sons (including the exiled Saburo, who returns to fight for his father’s kingdom) all the more extraordinary to see. These aren’t the computer-generated armies of “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars”; these are hundreds and thousands of extras on those fields. It’s a staggering accomplishment Kurosawa would have been shied away from even ten years later. By that point however, he had said everything he wanted to say here and in three final works: “Dreams” (a visually striking though dramatically uneven anthology); “Rhapsody in August”; and “Madadayo,” in which a retired professor gathers on his birthday every year with the students who loved him to declare “Not Yet!” when his students ask him if he is ready for death.

Hidetoro is not ready for death when we first see him on a boar hunt; instead, he is ready to enjoy peace for the first time in half a century. He thinks that by splitting his empire up between his sons, he will be able to assure a peaceful end to his life. Instead, he is driven mad by their jealousy, their arrogance, and in the simplest terms, their basic human nature. By rejecting the tough love of Saburo, he is destined to be betrayed by his eldest sons Taro (whose wife Lady Kaede– played by Mieko Harada in a role of pure evil not unlike that of Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth –has her own agendas in dismissing Hidetoro) and Jiro (who will eventually take over the realm, and take the scheming Kaede, whose eventual demise is one of the great such moments in cinema, as a mistress). As he walks the wilderness of a land in turmoil, consumed by bloodshed, he is left to his madness by everyone but his Fool and Tango, who was banished with Saburo, but has returned out of loyalty to Hidetoro. Hidetoro is allowed some peace, however, in a scene where Tango, the Fool and the Lord take shelter in the home of a blind man who is the brother of one of Hidetoro’s women Sue. He is given a moment of clarity of mind that leads to genuine regret and sight of the reality his own reign meant for others. It is the blind man, playing his sister’s flute, that will have the last impression on the audience in a haunting and sad final shot.

As I was thinking about what Kurosawa films to bookend my “A Movie a Week” series with in 2010, I originally chose “Ran” and “Ikiru” because they are my two favorites of the great filmmaker’s work. Watching them again, however, you see Kurosawa dealing with similar themes of old age, regret, and attempted atonement for an otherwise wasted life in both films. That they were made 33 years apart, but even at the age of 42, you feel like Kurosawa understood what it was like to live a long life, filled with regret, waiting to die alone. Okay, so I just quoted “Inception” there, but the words apply beautifully to not just “Ikiru” but “Ran,” where life gets away from an old man, who at the end of his life hopes to do one thing that will leave this world a little better than it was before. In “Ikiru,” we are left with quiet success. In “Ran,” we see nothing but catastrophic failure. As the saying goes, those who live by the sword die by the sword. It’s a lesson Hidetoro comes to learn the hard way.

2010 “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“Ikiru” (1952)
“Life is Beautiful” (1998)
“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (2008)
“The Year of Living Dangerously” (1983)
“The Lion in Winter” (1968)
“This is Spinal Tap” (1984)
“GoodFellas” (1990)
“8 1/2” (1963)
“Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
“F for Fake” (1972)
“Lolita” (1997)
“Bullet in the Head” (1990)
“Clash of the Titans” (1981)
“Facing the Giants” (2006)
“Therese and Isabelle” (1968)
“Dirty Thoughts” (2003)
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
“X-Men” (2000)
“Black Hawk Down” (2001)
“Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
“Armageddon” (1998)
“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
“Toy Story” & “Toy Story 2” (1995 & 1999)
“Everest” (1998)
“Unbreakable” (2000)
“Breathless” (1960)
“Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds” (1989)
“Leon the Professional” (1994)
“Ever After: A Cinderella Story” (1998)
“2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984)
“The General” (1927)
“Rocky IV” (1985)
“Millennium Actress” (2003)
“THX-1138” (1971)
“Rounders” (1998)
“Jail Bait” (1954)
“JFK” (1991)
“Fight Club” (1999)
“Cat People” (1942)
“Creepshow” (1982)
“Wait Until Dark” (1967)
“Nosferatu” (1922)
“Bulworth” (1998)
“The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
“The Star Wars Holiday Special” (1978)
“Rudy” (1993)
“Rebecca” (1940)
“Nostalghia” (1983)
“Strange Days” (1995)
“The Ref” (1994)
“Ran” (1985)
See Brian’s list of 2009 “Movies a Week” here.

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