Now, for “Film Favorites”, two of the most beautiful experiments in color ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, they say, but seldom has a film been so accidentally beautiful as Akira Kurosawa’s final epic of the cinema. Nearing his ’80s, the ever-productive Kurosawa could no longer see across the great distances required to aim a camera at the monumental swaths of chaos and order he wished to assemble and unleash in front of the camera. Functionally, in essence, he couldn’t direct the film he wanted to, but that didn’t stop him, nor did it hamstring him.
The ever-resourceful Kurosawa instead turned a potential detriment into an accidental strength. He spent the better part of a decade painstakingly painting the storyboards of his film up-close (where he could see better), and used them as a literal canvas upon which to verbally direct his cinematographers to shoot. Not that a film’s backstory is required to analyze the finished product, but more than any of Kurosawa’s films, Ran could not exist in its finished state without the specific manner in which it was produced. In a fit of bad taste, one might say Kurosawa had to go blind to complete his arguable masterwork. Apologies for the poorness of that comment, but that last part requires no apologies, however. Excepting maybe Seven Samurai, that most seminal of world cinema classics, Ran is Kurosawa’s best film.
Graced with the international success of Palme d’Or winner Kagemusha (a showpiece for Kurosawa’s understanding of color, and a sister film of Ran in more ways than one), Kurosawa was granted a remarkable iron grip over what would become his grandest, lushest work ever, and the director (perhaps sensing his end as a director was nearing) cherished every moment of it. He saw fit to construct an adaptation of King Lear filtered through the visual traditions of Japanese theater in an attempt to concoct his greatest melding of East and West ever.
But it would not be a direct adaptation, nor a direct approximation and update of Kurosawa’s own work. For the famed director of sublime hopefulness balancing on the edge of a sword and dueling with a more bleak outlook, Ran sees bleakness having pushed hopefulness off into the cavern of its doom. The tale approximates the particulars of King Lear: in Japan’s feudal period, warlord Hidetora Ichimonji cedes his rulership to his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, near the end of his life, and two of the sons contest for power. But Kurosawa’s film does not explore the potential for greatness in the three sons and the classically Shakespearean tragedy of their falling to the dark side, nor is it as meaningfully invested in the “good” son fighting the “bad” sons for control. The narrative is there, but the tone is not the tragedy of King Lear.
No, Kurosawa’s tale is an unmitigated breath of cruelty and unremitting nihilism. When Hidetora announces his plan, one son impulsively rejects the offer as foolish on Hidetora’s behalf (he knows that Hidetora ascertained power through barbaric means, and his sons would likely follow suit). Hidetora responds in kind with the impulsive banishment of this son (the one son who would have come to his aid, despite his father’s cruelty). The other two almost instantly plot Machiavellian power plays with Hidetora’s name on it. Kurosawa, it seems, had grown angrier with age, and his contempt knows no quiet. Ran is not a tale of the failure of hope, of the slippery slope between good intentions and brutal actions; his film’s father figure is not the innocent fool of King Lear, but an evil demon in human form. His downfall isn’t tragic per-se, but horrifying, and horrifyingly earned. It is not a tale of humans giving in to the dark side and shunning the light. It is a fable about how the light never really existed, about how the dark was all there ever was, and about how the thin, diaphanous veneer of civilization is but a newer breed of cruelty and deranged, murky murder and barbarism. There is no requiem for good in Ran, no paean to human nobility. All Ran sees is death. Not the tragedy of death, mind you, but the numbing, absurd fact of it.
Fitting then, that Kurosawa’s technique seems to have developed a new and entirely fitting cinematic language for death altogether, primarily filtered through Emi Wada’s costumes (he won the sole Oscar for the unfairly abandoned Ran). Wada filters each army through a primary color (blue, red, and yellow), gilded fixtures of disagreement and hatred transformed into surface-level mockeries of each soldier’s fellow man. In battle, the effect is harshly chaotic and luminous, with Ran (which features the great battle scenes of the cinema, bar none) transforming war into a meager, pointless escapade into nihilist anarchy and purposeless masculine rage. Watching the grubby, meaty fights attains a concrete painfulness, but it is abstracted to a level where each color battles for supremacy over the other colors, viewing each other, for reasons no one knows, as enemies. The pandemonium of inter-human conflict is embodied in the perceptual war of color striving for supremacy over the screen. Watching Ran is perhaps the closest a (non-avant-garde) cinematic experience has come toward recreating the primitive sensory elegance and social disarray of a Jackson Pollock painting. The film becomes a study in presentational, abstracted bedlam, with the costumes serving as reminders that the lustful colors know no purpose other than pure commotion and havoc.
Colors that might mean nothing if not dwarfed by Kurosawa’s intricate planning, filtered through an unparalleled three cinematographers (Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai) working in tandem to film shots from different angles at once so that Kurosawa could have prime pick as the final editor of his production. The effect is sublime, allowing a divine array of shots for Kurosawa to intercut at odd, entropic schedules. He begins with languorous, lengthy, elegiac shots that recreate civility and order, only for Kurosawa to bleed into increasingly nasty showcases in dynamic, clipped, quick editing. The structure of the film, the very clockwork machinations of the editing rhythms, becomes its own vernacular for the transition from barren stability to disorder.
All of which is subsumed by punishingly wide shots that minimize the importance of the characters and transform Kurosawa into a mad doctor experimenting with human indecency and watching from afar like a god looking down into an aquarium of no escape. On the subject of wide shots, Ran is a showpiece for Kurosawa’s location shooting, which allowed him nearly unheard of access to the lush history of classical Japanese fixtures (Mount Aso, Castle Kumamoto, and Castle Himeji among them). Here, these locations serve ambidextrous purposes as markers of a gilded civilization turned to faded, barren dust, the civilization hiding its emptiness in opulence. By using the history of Japan, its national monuments, to nihilistically tear down historical Japanese culture, Kurosawa rather unapologetically laments Japanese history under the guise of a more fable-like study in human corruption (no wonder Japan passed over the film for its nomination to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film that year).
A fact that only adds one more notch to Ran’s belt, an item of clothing donning the skulls of the victims of cinematic history Kurosawa at once pays tribute to and disowns. His grand nihilism feels like a bitter rejection of the history of Japanese jidageki (period drama) films, which were themselves often self-critical but never quite as openly as in Ran. It feels too like a break from Shakespeare, turning a tale of a blind fool into the logical annihilation of a supposedly civil system built on cruelty to begin with. Fitting then that the means by which the film was produced, with storyboarding and canvases taking the place of conventional filmmaking techniques, feels like a cinematic upheaval, a simultaneous ode to and brash rejection of classical cinema. Just as the film’s subject matter is at once a scathing rejection of history and an ode to Japanese art (Noh theater in particular, especially in the ghostly character make-up and the long, abject silences and stillnesses of the actors juxtaposed against their sudden bursts of violent movement). Nothing other than this radical style could be a more perfect cinematic lexicon for one of the great studies in classical structures turned into bitter ash as they give way to the tumult that birthed those structures in the first place.