(Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1985)


In a discussion of the contemporary representation of warfare on film ("Star Wars", Art and Text, no. 22, 1986, pp. 15-18), Paul Virilio brackets off this film by Kurosawa and its predecessor Kagemusha (1980) from the prevailing dominant trend of "a return to the war propaganda film". These "studies of medieval Japan" by Kurosawa are proposed as "celebrations" of the "archaeology of chivalry".

There's certainly something extraordinarily nostalgic and wistful in Kurosawa's conjuring of feudal power relations; a certain regret over the loss of that time when the patriarchal Lord or King could wage war, as it were, through his very eyes and with his very body. That is what, initially at least, Kurosawa's filmic style – those enormous, static landscape vistas rendered in deep focus – indeed 'celebrates': an interweaving of a great man's omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, each attribute enabling the other.

But Ran says something more elaborate and disturbing. Its symbolic tie to the present is not only in the looking back to what can no longer be; it also charts, within the terms of its fiction, the gradual and catastrophic move from one mode of warfare to another. For Kurosawa systematically haunts and destabilizes the initial premise of the film by introducing into the plein air of feudal power the new and disturbing condition of the blind spot, the unseen, the hidden stage upon which history is machinating its next move.

This is what, from the start, the Fool taunts the Lear-like hero with (his game of making others believe that he is aware of something moving in the open space of which they are unaware, and thus warning them of its potential); this is what the magnificent Lady Kaede will exploit to the hilt in her plan of revenge (the duplicity of her appearance and manner); this is the new regime of war which Lord Hidetora invites upon himself and his world the moment he thinks he is handing his power down to his solely trusted and beloved son, instead of passing it, as he in fact is, into the arena of treacherous and shifting group alliances.

Symbolically, then, the catastrophe of the title and the frightening image of ignorance perched precariously at the edge of the abyss with which the film leaves us is not so much existential (universal and timeless in the arthouse's preferred interpretative mode) as it is immediately and relevantly political: registered profoundly (if only suggestively) here is our whole terror in suddenly facing the nuclear age, and trying to comprehend the steps that got us there.

MORE Kurosawa: Yojimbo

© Adrian Martin January 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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