There’s nothing modern about Kurosawa.

Least of all in the 1980s, when he was scrounging international funding to make Ran. It has a lot of King Lear in it, but that wasn’t the inspiration. The inspiration for Ran was the life of a 16th century warlord. And while the film may address the conditions in the hearts of men that drive them to evil, Kurosawa once said that the film was also about the specter of nuclear holocaust.

In that sense the film may be a failure. Rather than depict a world where violence and carnage have been outsourced to the fringes of the common citizen’s life, Ran depicts a world where the common citizen– under the tutelage of a warlord– must necessarily fight and die for those above him. This is now the exception rather than the rule.

Maybe that’s a privileged position.

And aren’t the other characters– the real characters, the main characters, the named characters– aren’t they in control of their fates? They make their own destinies, by committing their own sins. They’re mostly despicable. That seems like the dynamic of an alien age. Mostly, violence happens far away now. Our culpability amounts to: we voted for that guy.

Maybe that’s a privileged position.

There are parts of the world where war is present, real, and violent.

But the horizon of modernity is a place where carnage has been divorced from violence, made palatable by so many screens. Carnage is televised, and violence thereby made unreal.

Kurosawa’s particular brand of “moral” violence is on display here, in which the consequences of violence are rendered with care and accuracy. But it feels, today, fairly palatable. The blood here isn’t blood, but “red.” (Paradoxically, and on neither side of the case for Kurosawa’s relevancy: the violence in Seven Samurai was both more glorified and more “bloody”– possibly because that film was in black and white, and necessarily rendered blood as black matter.)

Ran is a crafted film, and one of staggering substance and weight. Nothing escapes aestheticization. Kurosawa directs classically. Even when he breaks rules, forms ellipses, he’s always intent on capturing the way things seem and look, rather than the way things are. An exception would be the ghost of Throne of Blood, and the (yes) very modern Rashomon.

In Ran he is most evocative working within tableaux, still images, paintings, burning towers and the cartoonishly ghoul-ified still-living. But he never evokes by action, only by image. It’s this essentially loud and bruising way of speaking about the heart that has dated Ran. For all its image-making, it’s essentially a talky. For all its talking, it’s essentially a telling, rather than an event.

And for a late masterpiece, Ran is puzzling. Much has been made of its pessimism, which doesn’t seem potent to me. Ran takes a twisty, meandering path to articulating an easy-to-spot meanness in the human condition. People want what each other have, and they’re quick to forget favors and generosity. People are self-interested.

But by 1985, besides its most basic underpinnings, the world that Kurosawa was so painstakingly recreating had ceased to exist.

People are still self-interested, but their self-interest generally manifests as vanity, and not carnage.

Even the broadest system the narrative leans on, the family in which there is such real duty that absolute betrayal is possible, has largely vanished from the privileged modernity for which Ran was produced as a work of art.

I’m speaking broadly, and literally, and probably too literally. 

But anything timeless that Ran says, could have been said quicker. Its strengths are its expert crafting. Its precision of movement. Its raucousness. It’s loopy-ness. Its transportive power. Its balance, and its willingness to pour forward so methodically and unstoppably. Ran is huge and thrilling, but it’s an artifact.

-Max Berwald



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