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Ran: Analyzing Violence in Kurasawa’s Films.

04/13/2011

A soldier holds something in his hand, wrapped up in cloths.  He begins unwrapping it, and gasps in horror.  We cut to the headless body of one of our female leads and think, “Awww maaaan,” because unlike most other filmmakers, Kurasawa’s violence is something to be regretted.  In the average war movie, the audience will often look forward to battle scenes, thinking these to be the most exciting.  But in the cinema of Akira Kurasawa, violence is rarely condoned, and just as rarely shied away from.

There are several things that set this apart from the earlier Kurasawa films that I’ve seen.  The first I will discuss is the unique use of musical score, as being either totally absent from a scene, or overpowering.  I did not notice a single musical queue until midway point of the film where the Old King’s castle was being burned down.  And then, it was nearly a ten-minute battle sequence with no sound besides music.  This created a much more powerful emotional connection to the scene at hand, because up until this point we have been satisfied to observe the film as if a play, carried by actors, and not by editing, effects, or music.  There is much sadness in this battle scene.  No glory, little excitement.  This isn’t the type of action sequence where you’re rooting for the violence.  Instead, we regret its occurrence.  We want it to end.  This would have been a shockingly gory film for 1985.  I’m reminded of the “infamous blood explosion” at the end of Sanjuro where the effects team apparently packed far too much fake blood and squibs under an actor’s shirt.  (search for “Sanjuro Slaughter Scene” in YouTube, you won’t regret it)

But what is truly significant about this film is how it builds upon the stories told previously by this director.  He often addresses issues of greed that leads to violence and manipulation that leads to corruption.  This story encapsulates all that, and brings it to a larger scale and production value than anything Japan had seen before. In Seven Samurai, there is a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys.  The bad guys are the bandits who use violence to serve their greed.  The heroes are the Samurai who stand up for the peasants.  They use violence as a necessity to counter-act the violence of the bandits.  In Yojimbo, the lead character allows the more greedy characters to live violently with each other, while he stays relatively free from taint.  In Ran, we see violence as the necessary tool for achieving worldly desire.  Greed creates desire (and vice-versa) in such an extreme way that greatly contradicts the Buddhist ideals of humility.  The victims in Ran shout the same as those in Seven Samurai, “There are no gods, no buddhas!”  This is because of the expectation that “everything under Heaven is just.”  But worldly experience contradicts this Chinese ideal.

Blood is the essence of life in these films.  When we see blood splash against a wall, we see the character’s life force leaving them.  Its not simply there for the shock value – its there as exposition.  Characters don’t seem to bleed, unless they are dying.  When characters do bleed, it comes out in mass quantities, but also in relation the death scene’s importance to the story.   In a Kurasawa film, the main characters will bleed significantly more than the supporting characters.  This draws special attention to their demise.  We feel more that something has been lost in the story when we can witness the literal effect of the character’s death on the local surrounding.

Much can be learned from Kurasawa’s use of violence in contrast to traditional American portrayals.  And it is a shame that with exception of the original Star Wars film, few American directors seem to have been inspired by Kurasawa’s sense of cinema-violence.

 

 

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