1985 was a year of fantasy and youthful vigour in Hollywood. It was a season of films for the young – or in the case of Ron Howard's Cocoon, the young at heart – and the selection, often aided and abetted by the associates of Steven Spielberg, now looks bountiful: Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club…
At the same time, in Japan, a master was preparing for the end.
Akira Kurosawa was in his mid seventies by the time Ran was released and there is little doubt that he identified with the film's central character, Tatsuya Nakadei's Hidetora Ichimonji, an ageing feudal lord. Both the protagonist and his director were aware that time was bringing frailties to the fore, and that when they were gone their legacies would be examined and, possibly, upended. That Ran explores the latter possibility with such calamitous certainty can only make you think that the filmmaker had already settled on what he foresaw happening
The movie, which screens on SBS TWO on Friday 5 November at 9.30pm, is the pinnacle of the formalism that marked the legendary Japanese director's final works. Like his previous release, 1980's Kagemusha, it uses the massed ranks and strict structures of Japan's historic feudal system to create a world where both groups and individuals moved towards their fate, unwilling to deviate even when they knew what awaited them. To rupture the established system is to encourage chaos and destruction, leaving a bitter choice for the characters and a thematically rich palate for the filmmaker.
Kurosawa's latter period is somewhat at odds with the breadth of his early work. Born in Tokyo in 1910, he trained to be a painter but instead made his debut as a filmmaker during World War II, a time that was of influence on his subsequent work. For all the talk as Kurosawa as a leading light of the world cinema, he also had an appreciation for American forms – it was no coincidence that 1954's The Seven Samurai was remade so successfully into 1960's The Magnificent Seven, or that 1958's The Hidden Fortress, with its ageing general, pursued princess and two bedraggled peasants, is echoed so clearly in George Lucas' Star Wars.
His early works included a police procedural (1949's Stray Dog), a highly influential period mystery (1950's Rashomon) and a severely truncated take on Dostoevsky (1951's The Idiot), and with a leading man in Toshiro Mifune who excelled at playing an outsider, Kurosawa looked like he was offering a critique of Japan's rigid society in the aftermath of World War II's disastrous outcome for the nation.
But Kurosawa's career experienced difficulties that were at odds with his image of the exacting, unruffled director. From the mid 1950s onwards, beginning with the critics who would form the French New Wave, he was considered by some cineastes deficient when compared to the older Kenzo Mizoguchi, who passed away in 1956 after a career spanning four decades. Kurosawa's popularity was also never guaranteed in Japan – he was a bigger draw outside his homeland – and in December 1971, after the commercial failure of the previous year's Dodesukaden and with future financing looking unlikely, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slitting his wrists.
He survived, and eventually returned to work, but after that incident he worked slowly, and with international funding. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped get Kagemusha made, while Ran would be a French-Japanese co-production. Tragedy also struck during the shoot of what was the most expensive film made in Japan to date, when Kurosawa's wife of almost 40 years, former actress Yoko Yaguchi, passed away.
The director allowed himself one day away from the set following her death, an act of discipline that would have been noted with approval by Ran's Hidetora Ichimonji. The storyline is heavily influenced by Shakespeare's King Lear, although it is three sons, not daughters, which the ageing ruler decides to divide his lands amongst. Flattering himself, Hidetora imagines prosperity and co-operation will eventuate, but as his youngest son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) points out, they were raised by a brutal conqueror amidst constant wars. The father banishes the son, but he is speaking the truth: only conflict will come of the division.
Ritual and legal precedent soon become tools of humiliation, as Hidetora's two older heirs plot first again their father, then each other. In one of the film's vast set-pieces (extras often number in the thousands), their two armies massacre Hidetora's escort and household. It is both beautiful and brutal, with waves of colour-coded soldiers pouring forth, while Hidetora's concubines are killed en masse when they try to shield him. Like Kurosawa, the disgraced Hidetora tries to kill himself and fails (his sword has broken), so he flees, literally driven mad by what has eventuated.
Kurosawa would subsequently make three more films in the early 1990s, before he died in 1998 at the age of 88, but it is Ran that remains the final major achievement of his career. “Sound the horn or become the quarry,” a general advises a young ruler, but Kurosawa's tragic spectacle shows that no matter what you do some fates are already sealed.
RAN is screening on SBS TWO this Friday, 5 November @ 9:30PM
Watch the RAN trailer here
Find out more about the 30 Years of Film on SBS retrospective here