In the week that British political landscape was rewritten, it is fitting that The Dirk Malcolm Film Club should feature this epic study of the destructive effects of power as its monthly screening. The opening scene is typical of Kurosawa, three rival brothers sit crossed legged as their father , Hidetora, confers the last of his fading power to his eldest son, Taro. He urges the other two brothers to support their brother in a coalition which he illustrates by breaking a single arrow compared with the strength of a full quiver of arrows.
The peace between the three brothers soon collapses into bitter in-fighting and rivalry and the old order of chaos and self-destructiveness returns. There is a splendidly realised central battle scene where the old man sits in a catatonic state while a violent battle ensues around him. Music is used sparingly in Kurosawa’s films, but in this central set-piece battle-scene there is a great moment where the music takes over and elevates the violence to an operatic effect. The violence is given emphasis with smoke, infused with red, enveloping the characters as arrows and bullets fly and horses pound across the screen pell mell. Its an exhilarating piece of cinema.
Interest in Kurosawa in the 1980’s was boosted by an acknowledgement by George Lucas of the indebtedness that he owed to the japanese auteur who was his staple diet at film school in the sixties. Much is made of how the narrative of STAR WARS is delivered from the perspective of the driods, which Lucas lifted from THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) where the story is told by the rouges who are witnessing the battles between nobility and higher castes. In RAN, the roles of the fool, Kyoami, and man-servant, Tango, perform a similar function. Stylistically Lucas borrows broad-wipes to move from scene to scene. He has also adopted Kurosawa’s style of compositional style – the early ‘arrow-breaking scene’, for example, involves the characters sitting cross-legged in colour coded robes to indicate their relationship to each other – in much the same way as the Jedi Council does in the Star Wars prequels.
Where the influence on Lucas is most striking is the use myth. Western critics tend to refer to RAN as a remake of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, as Kurosawa re-told Macbeth with samurai in THRONE OF BLOOD (1957) (Derek Malcolm’s choice), however he also took inspiration from a sengoku-era warlord, Mori Motonari who famously had three loyal sons who maintained his power base through working together. This jidaigeki (jedi!?), period drama is an imagined version of a history where the brothers fail to work together and are willingly manipulated by the malicious Lady Kaede into a self-destructive path to tragedy.
I wonder if Cameron, Clegg et al will be watching this stunningly realised film as part of their monthly film club? Pass me those arrows Vince.
Check out the following: The Battle Scene