The seven samurai may have lost the battle and the war, but at least they fought for honorable and just reasons. That sense of honor and the code of bushido is completely lost in the world of Ran. It couldn’t Kurosawa killed it in 1954. Just look at the world of Yojimbo there is barely any honor in that. That was a world ruled by capitalism and the lowly merchant class. The world of Ran still hasn't found capitalism instead it is the aristocracy, the Ichimonji clan and surrounding lords. They are made out to be dishonorable ruthless people who only lust for more power.
After Lord Hidetora abdicated his position he divides his kingdom among his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Foolishly expecting his sons support one another and treat him well with all the normal honorifics and power he once had. His youngest son, Saburo, points out the gap in logic since Lord Hidetora came to power through ruthless, violent means. Hidetora married his two oldest sons to rival clans and then massacred everyone but the new brides to gain their holdings. Angered he banishes Saburo. Taro and Jiro soon begin to use their father as a pawn in further attempts at gaining total control.
Rejected Hidetora retreats to the now abandoned third castle. His remaining sons launch a surprise attack on the castle intent on killing their father to gain further power. The battle is mainly shown in one long montage as Hidetora begins to have a psychotic break.
Kurosawa already did a conventional montage with his climactic battle in Seven Samurai. The battle of the third castle is instead a dialectical montage. Kurosawa is more interested in getting across the chaos of battle, horrors of war, and the fraying psychological state of Hidetora, then simple expressing his way through a protracted battle sequence.
As Joa Knott has noted, the images of Ran indeed do not “illustrate” the story. The film is not a realistic rendition or illustration of the Lear story, nor was it intended to be. Rather (again, Knott’s terminology), the images become the “eddecene,: the “sign.” THey do not illustrate the story, they are the story. And when these images might on their own enforce too much empathy, or too much illustration they are subverted so that their true functions become paramount. (Richie 218)
There are two distinct segments of the castle attack. The first being the a dialectical montage of Hidetora’s men being utterly destroyed. Followed by the psychological destruction of Hidetora himself.
A shot of the tower with smoke that nearly blankets the sun. The frame has been filled with smoke and the only color that stands out is blood.The normal sounds of battle are all erased and replaced with the Tōru Takemitsu’s score. The overt use of music mutes and disconnects the audience from any sense of normal time and space. Putting the audience at ease at the seeming illogical combination of shots. Kurosawa does not go completely off the rails he responds with a reverse shot of combatants being shot down after guns were fired. The shots fired are a necessary inclusion to get to the next shot and get the montage rolling. Soon the castle walls are breached and the combined forces of Taro and Jiro storm the castle. Forcing their father to retreat into the tower with his few men fighting to the last. A long shot of a cloudy sky save for the a small patch mirror Hidetora’s predicament. The tower is not safe from the chaos of battle as the remaining women begin to commit suicide together or are cut down by bullets. The montage returns to what remains of the battle outside the tower. Focusing on the lifeless remains of men from all sides, covered in oddly vibrant blood. Between the shots of bodies are large wide angle shots of just hundreds of men on horseback or on foot streaming in and around all the dead bodies.. Flanking these masses with more smoke and the sparks of rifles. This is no longer a battle it is a slaughter with nothing really being gained for the men on the ground. No advancement of honor or rank. Triumphant Taro marches in only to be suddenly shot down by a random bullet ending the nearly five minutes of soundless imagery. Music is replaced by the hail of gunfire and shouts of men both alive and dying.
Hidetora has been trapped in the lone remaining tower. All the while the attacking forces are shown firing bullets and flaming arrows at the caste. A statue like Hidetora sits motionless as a near constant stream of arrows fly through the windows setting fire to his castle. The only thing he can do now is commit seppuku and die with honor. He can’t even do that, his sword was broken in battle and he has nothing left to cut his abdomen open. The music returns at this call but does not completely drown out the sounds of battle. As his castle burns Hidetora goes more and more insane suffering a complete break as his castle is engulfed in flames. Timpanis role as Hidetora marches around his burning castle slowly making it outside completely mad. The lowly foot soldiers can not cut down Hidetora slowly making it past the gates into the wasteland that now surrounds the castle.
There was no honor or glory for anyone in this set piece. Taro and Jiro launch a surprise attack on their own father and murder hundreds, if not thousands of men. Brother turned on brother as Jiro secretly had his older brother killed. The foot soldiers are cut down in their masters attempt to gain more power. The world has been destroyed because of the siege. What was the point of it all in the end. By the end of Ran the Ichimonji clan is completely destroyed and their kingdom destroyed. Only the coming of rival lords can take the world out of this chaotic state.
Editing is the synthesis point for all the extraneous parts of filmmaking, all the loose strands that individually don’t make a movie. In the editing room Kurosawa is able to turn the strands into a rope. It is for this reason that the editing of Kurosawa is where the narration and is found. In 207 minutes he displayed efficiency in telling the story of Seven Samurai. Showing the honor and will samurai should have, juxtaposing it against a harsh climatic battle. Yojimbo saw him use quick cuts, like Sanjuro, starkly showing the impact of a swordsman on a lawless town. Finally showing the futility and great cost war brings with it in the third castle attack montages. Kurosawa had a meticulous approach to filmmaking trying to make everything capture perfect and believable. If that mean burning down a functioning castle in order to get actual footage for him to cut together then so be it.
Ran is streaming on Netflix Instant GO WATCH IT
The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Third Edition, Expanded and Updated: With a New Epilogue By Donald Richie: Richie is one of the few western authors to write extensively about Kurosawa and has mainly written about Japanese cinema and culture. The third edition has some expanded content and new material written by Joan Mellen. The book itself is a bit unwieldy (Product Dimensions: 9.9 x 0.6 x 9.9 inches) since it is built more like a coffee table book than well a normal book. It's a complete run through of the Kurosawa filmography with various subsections looking at the production, treatment, story, characterization and a couple of other film specific ones. Amazon
Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema By Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto: Yoshimoto was a Associate Professor of Japanese, Cinema, and Comparative Literature ar the University of Iowa and a Professor of East Asian Studies at New York University. Like Richie he dose a complete run through of the Kurosawa filmography as well as a over view of his views on the state or lack there of film criticism concerning Japan, using the work of Kurosawa as a base. He applies a range of theory from auteurism and genre among other things. His journey through the films isn't as systematic as Richie, more essay like in nature. There is a certain amount of prior knowledge Yoshimoto expects from the reader but nothing a quick google search shouldn't solve. Amazon
Akira Kurosawa: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers) Bert Cardullo (Editor): As the title suggests the book is a series of interviews with Kurosawa. Editor Bert Cardullo includes a short biography of the filmmaker. The current going price on Amazon is really pricey but my local schools had a copy in the libray so hit up your local library. Amazon