With the launch of the Criterion Channel this past April, I was finally able to achieve that which humankind has been trying to accomplish since we first emerged from the Garden of Eden: watching every Akira Kurosawa movie back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Before you ask, Kurosawa directed 31 feature films spanning 1943-1993, and as most of them clock in over two hours (and a few approach four), we’re talking almost 100 total consumption hours of Kurosawaness. And before you ask, yes, that’s going on my résumé.
Bottled retrospectives like this are typically undertaken in order to then distill all of that beautiful creative magic into a ranked list ascending from “worst” to “best.” I’ll spare you that, except to say that the five Kurosawa films that stuck with me most are (in loose order):
- Ikiru (1952)
- High and Low (1963)
- The Hidden Fortress (1958)
- Stray Dog (1949)
- Dersu Uzala (1975)
I swear I didn’t arbitrarily pick stuff from different decades; Kurosawa was just actually that consistently good. One interesting note is that I found his contemporary-set stuff (particularly the soulful Ikiru and the razor-wire High and Low) to be as powerful as the samurai epics for which he’s become famous. And while it’s still evident throughout Rashomon why that particular movie marked his breakout in the West, it probably would rank on the lower side if I ever got around to ordering all 31 features.
Viewing Kurosawa from any kind of broad perspective usually reveals that all roads lead to Ran. After a tumultuous ’70s, a string of critical and commercial failures, and a near-total loss of funding options for future films, Kurosawa managed to turn out a bona fide masterpiece a full decade after most cinephiles had written him off as past his prime. Whenever people would ask the prolific director which of his own films he considered to be the best, he’d typically say “the next one.” But after 1985 Kurosawa started giving a different answer: “Ran“.
The immediate impact of Ran — that gut-punched, breathless feeling you get while being whisked across the vistas of Segonku-period Japan — could be traced to a paradox at heart of a lot of everlasting art. Pablo Picasso’s subjects were treated as both essential and disposable in many of his paintings. Cormac McCarthy regularly writes about perverted, heretical degenerates using flowery, near-Biblical prose. And in Ran, Kurosawa made a stunningly colorful epic about the utter bleakness of life.
After more than forty years behind the camera, the director knew how to film a gripping sequence (maybe “samurai of the beholder”). But Ran was only his fourth film in color, and while those other three — Dodes’ka-den, Dersu Uzala, and Kagemusha —boasted cinematography typical of the master, the primary colors in Ran really have no parallel. Even still, it’s the stark juxtaposition against the theme of Ran that makes color, miraculously, more than visual. It begs questions in the world of the film: has the worth of Lord Ichimonji’s life truly faded, or is he just blind to all the vibrancy still thriving around him? Do the bright green fields and blue skies actually just underscore the darkness Ichimonji fathoms in the hearts of others?
Color in Ran begs questions in the world outside of the film, too: what would a black-and-white Ran, maybe made during Kurosawa’s 1950’s heyday, look like? Would it have the same impact? What if Seven Samurai or Yojimbo or The Hidden Fortress were made for a multi-hued world? Would we find themes in those films that were otherwise hibernating, brought out by an injection of color?
Maybe those questions belie the intentionality Kurosawa employed in coloring Ran. Symbolically, assigning primary colors to each of Ichimonji’s sons means the film’s opening sequence could likely work the same way without any dialogue at all. Their varying reactions to the dividing of an empire are reflected in their clothing, particularly in the case of the youngest son Saburo. His garb is blue, symbolizing his youth, and indeed his passion-driven outburst leads to his exile by the end of the scene. Ichimonji himself, in the first scene as protagonist of Ran, is meanwhile garbed in tabula-rasa white:
But Kurosawa also let these color assignments persist through the entire film, with the armies of each respective son utilizing that same color in their uniforms. In lining up with the themes of war, these fit impeccably: yellow is representative of courage in Japanese culture, while red symbolizes violence in Japan and universally. But on a purely visual level, the image of a red army surging forth conjures another — that of blood flowing from a mortal wound — at precisely the moment the main battle of Ran enters its most chaotic phase:
Taken as a whole, it might be said that Ran presents a sort of heightened version of reality through color. The vibrancy and brightness are nearly otherworldly; again, though, in a damning paradox, the strangest and most disconcerting aspects of Ran are still those earthbound, inevitable phenomena of war and death. We may never comprehend the true extent of Kurosawa’s work with color in Ran (for example, there’s a story about an entire wheat field spray-painted gold for a scene that was ultimately cut from the film). In an era where “epic” filmmaking frequently equates to CGI battles saturated with shadow and lens flare, the the power of detail present in Ran‘s colors shine all the brighter.