The glories of both Japanese industry and Japanese cinema were founded on the country’s war economy, which extended from the early 1930s up till at least the 1970s, when the government relaxed it.i Is Ran a reflection of this wider phenomenon? A threnody upon an essentially immoral social order that produced the post-war prosperity on which the Japanese film industry was founded? Aware of the paradox of an essentially authoritarian state providing the means for the richest of cultural freedoms was Kurosawa issuing a warning to the avant-garde of his own country, with their too easy iconoclasm which falsely equates political with aesthetic revolution; the former a certain disaster for radicals as well as conservatives? Art dependent on values that are essentially pre-capitalist, and which the 1960s, by removing the older social order, destroyed.ii
At the end of Ran the state collapses, and outside forces invade and conquer it. A metaphor for America and its capitalist battalions? Smashing up the old studios did not create a new golden age of Japanese cinema, but a chaos that allowed Hollywood to take over – with its values and content if not actual control. For sure there were many great films made in the 1960s, but after that “revolutionary” decade they were lined up against the wall and shot; or more banally: the money men took over and the blockbuster became king. In the 1970s the artists lost control of their medium.
“Show more respect for the culture that created us, no matter how evil its antecedents.” Could this be the message here? Akira Kurosawa, although now an internationally famed director, still obsessed with local questions and with the country that spawned him – thus for all Michael Wilmington’s talk of nuclear holocaust this film feels too specific, too Japanese, to be about anything else than Japan itself. It is also a warning that life is more complicated than appearances; any major social transformation requiring hard thought and careful attention if it is not to fall into ruin.
This is a wise film, and a conservative one, whose nuances are lost in the critical revelries on universal themes; its beauty and its references to Buddha belying its realpolitik concerns. Hidetora is not condemned to suffer because he is a bad man but because he is a foolish one. He gave away his patrimony too easily.
[i] See Chalmers Johnson’s classic, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975.