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Chaos Theory

With his epic Ran, Kurosawa stared human desperation in the face until he could see a hopeful light

The 15th-anniversary reissue of Ran underscores a singular irony: If lives and careers could be plotted as satisfyingly as movies, then Akira Kurosawa's epic interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear would have been the late, great Japanese filmmaker's grand finale.

Even Kurosawa's most devoted admirers are forced to admit that his subsequent efforts, including Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1992), are lesser works that add little to his legend. Indeed, Kurosawa's very last film, Madadayo (1993), was widely dismissed as a sentimental trifle, and did not receive even minimal U.S. theatrical exposure until earlier this year, nearly two years after Kurosawa died of a stroke at the age of 88.

In sharp contrast, Ran remains undiminished in its stature as something altogether magnificent -- not so much a film as an elemental force of nature, inspiring awe and exhilaration with its majesty and astonishing beauty. The story behind the story is equally compelling: Even more than Kagemusha (which Kurosawa filmed five years earlier), Ran signaled a triumphant comeback for the director of Rashomon, Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai after a dispiritingly long period of critical and commercial failure. During his darkest days, Kurosawa was so despondent over his perceived obsolescence that in 1971 he attempted suicide. (Remember, this is the man who once warned: "Take myself, subtract movies, and the result is zero.") That Kurosawa survived and thrived -- and created his final masterpiece at the age of 75 -- is the stuff of real-life drama.

A peaceable kingdom: Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) learns late in life that all he needs is the love and understanding of one faithful son.
Winstar Cinema
A peaceable kingdom: Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) learns late in life that all he needs is the love and understanding of one faithful son.

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Rated R

Kurosawa completed the Ran screenplay long before the cameras started rolling for Kagemusha. "But it was universally turned down by everyone in Japan," Kurosawa admitted in a 1980 interview. "And not just because of its great expense. There was a superstition among the film industry people that films featuring people in armor, set in this period [the 16th century], would never do well at the box office. So I not only had financial problems to overcome -- I had to overcome superstition as well."

Another obstacle: Kurosawa -- known as Sensei ("Master" or "Teacher") to his many champions, but nicknamed Tenno ("Emperor") by those unimpressed by his autocratic manner -- had fallen into critical disfavor in Japan. He remained sufficiently beloved as a pop-culture figure to command substantial sums for appearing in TV commercials for whiskey and home electronics. But as a sympathetic New York Times writer noted at the time: "Younger [Japanese] critics tend to regard him as an anachronism. His humanistic concerns and worship of classical art seem out of place in postmodern Tokyo."

Undeterred, Kurosawa wrote Kagemusha, his stirring period drama about a bandit who doubles for a slain warlord, "because I needed something that would be less expensive to film," he said. "And all the while I was filming it, I was thinking of how to use horses, how to handle the locations, and how to direct the people in the armor. It became overall an exercise to see how I would complete Ran."

Unfortunately Kurosawa found it difficult to raise even a drastically reduced budget to film a downsized epic that might serve as a "test run" for his magnum opus. During this period, he considered, then rejected, the offer of easy money for directing Shogun, the American-produced miniseries based on James Clavell's novel. ("It seemed so far from the truth of any historical events in Japan, and I was so shocked by this that I did not think it was an appropriate thing for me to do.") But just when despair threatened to overwhelm him once again, the emperor received assistance from two loyal subjects.

During a brief visit to San Francisco, Kurosawa casually mentioned to a couple of guys named George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that he was having trouble raising the $6 million budget for Kagemusha. By Hollywood standards, $6 million was a meager sum. At the time, however, it would have made Kagemusha the most expensive film ever produced in Japan.

So what happened? Shortly after Kurosawa returned home, Lucas and Coppola convinced 20th Century Fox to purchase Kagemusha for all areas outside Japan. This was a precedent-setting arrangement. For the first time, distribution rights for a Japanese film had been sold to a major Hollywood distributor before production had begun. Kurosawa recognized, with profoundly mixed emotions, that it was this show of interest from abroad, not his own reputation, that convinced Japanese producers to pony up the rest of the budget.

Kagemusha was modestly successful in theatrical release, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. But when Kurosawa resumed preparations for Ran, he found that even turning a profit with his test run wasn't enough to entirely convince Japanese producers. Once again, he turned to outsiders for help: Ran, which ultimately cost $11.5 million, was made only after French co-producers invested in the enterprise.

Ran -- the title loosely translates as "chaos" -- clearly is the work of a man who has lived long and learned much, but who never has ceased to be amazed by the human capacity for deceit and destruction. And it just as clearly is the work of a man who has reached the point where he feels compelled to refute his once-cherished illusions. Forget about the noble warriors of Seven Samurai or the rousing antiheroics of Yojimbo. In Ran, Kurosawa emphasizes timeless and terrifying truths: War is slaughter, warriors are murderers, and blood will have blood. God has nothing to do with it -- he might weep or rage, but we keep killing each other anyway.

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