(04/01/07) – Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) is a samurai overlay or echo of King Lear, reverberating in a deathly feudal Japanese milieu. The film’s landscape is one of ridges, grassy banks, ash-covered plains and ruined fortresses through which the characters are players in a stylised drama. It’s a great work of cinema and this DVD presents the finest chance yet of viewing it.

The film is not entirely locked in to the Lear pattern – the original counter-plot of Gloucester and his sons Edgar and Edmund (innocence and treachery leading to a paternal blinding) is absorbed into a back story for the retiring Lear-figure, Hidetora; the three sisters are now three brothers yet the spirit of Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan is transfigured into that of the revenge-seeking Lady Kaede, the catalyst for the ensuing ran (meaning "chaos") which is unleashed against Hidetora and then between the factions. As Hidetora succumbs to madness, and is left to stumble through the windswept grass, the leaves of which are as numerous as the souls of those he once slaughtered to gain power, the film becomes a multiple cry of death – Hidetora’s cry, shut out, miserably looking for a place to die; the cries from crowds of brightly dressed men rushing forwards beneath their respective yellow or red banners; and a pervasive hiss as the regime of codes and signs which make up the feudal, honour-bound life burn up in a human hell, the flaming arrows which buzz across the screen, which often teems with sharp points, compositions filled with pure puncturing diagonals.

This scale of spectacle had been seen in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), but the human pessimism of Ran stands out among different strands of work more commonly linked by their simple humanism. It makes us reassess the director’s earlier films, for with Ran, the metaphysical film-maker is revealed most fully, an artist interested in creating great breathing-spaces of drama who now creates his grandest piece, finally covering it in a glowing pall. The peasants, who were at the centre of Seven Samurai (1954), are off-stage in Ran, Hidetora contemptuous of the peasantry at the angry last, feebly ordering their villages to be burned on a whim when it is his world which is set to flame – a ritualised world which had drawn its power from the peasantry but was now evaporating off in steams of blood and gun-smoke before his eyes.

Takemitsu, who provides the score, is a composer who characteristically combines Western and Eastern traditions, so he was an inspired choice for Ran‘s collision of tragic inheritances. We hear bursts of piercing phrase which give way to longer, elegiac tones, particularly in the centrepiece battle sequence in which the soundtrack is given over entirely to Takemitsu’s music, an interim of terrible awe.

This DVD presents a new transfer which is the clearest rendering of the film I’ve seen – without the colour-enrichment of the region 1 Criterion edition (which some, however, may prefer), and with optional rather than burned-on subtitling (which was the case on a previous region 2 release from Warner). The audio tracks include the original 2.0 Stereo as on other editions, along with a new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix which boosts certain elements – music, effects – in order to achieve a sharper sound. As for extras, on disc 2 is Chris Marker’s A.K. – The Making of Ran (71mins). This is an on-set documentary, and there are plenty of uninterrupted sequences showing the director at work – waiting for the fog to clear, demonstrating how an actor should stand, arriving in his car. Kurosawa appears as a figure of sprightly focus wearing a striking hat, much like Tarkovsky in similar on-location films. Film fans will have their own opinions on whether they want the ultimate spoilers – how they constructed that shot, where the barrel of smoke was located – which such documentaries reveal. Certainly, it’s alarming (for the collective lungs of the crew) to see cement dust liberally spread on the ground so the horses will kick it up for the camera. Marker mentions Kurosawa’s ‘three-camera diagram’ method of shooting, without going any further into showing this at work, though this lack of detail is consonant with his emphasis on creating a sparse visual essay, which – continually referring back to shots of a TV set showing Kurosawa’s old movies as disembodied memories – also resembles Marker’s travel-meditation Sans Soleil (1983), which is in part a visual letter from Tokyo. Kurosawa himself is heard in the documentary to say, "To create is to remember."

Ran is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.