Ran is not an English title but a Japanese one, roughly translating to “confusion” or “chaos” — the chaos, critics have long understood, of the film’s erratic, turbulent war. But it isn’t difficult to imagine the production itself overwhelmed by disorder and turmoil. Thousands of costumed extras, hundreds of trained horses, a small army of technicians and assistants on call: A more ambitious film had never been made in Japan, and as a logistical feat alone it staggers. You can hardly mount a project like this without havoc.
But chaos wasn’t Akira Kurosawa’s way. You can see him in A.K.: The Making of Ran, Chris Marker’s candid behind-the-scenes documentary made in 1985, presiding over his shoot with imperturbable serenity, as though staging a sixteenth-century samurai war were no trouble at all. Marker finds him puttering around a set, in cap and shades, adjusting this or that before strolling back to his canvas chair. Or else he’s running the cast through a shot’s 45th rehearsal, pausing on occasion to correct, very gently, an actor’s recurring mistake. The languid approach is nevertheless efficient — exceptionally so. “Kurosawa can shoot seven battle scenes,” Marker observes, “in the time it takes another man to shoot a poker game.”
“I simply make a film as I want it to be,” Kurosawa tells Marker in response to any question about motivation or intent. For Marker this humility is related to the director’s orderliness and skill. He identifies it, in fact, as a kind of national characteristic, and much of A.K. is spent lingering in the busy company of Kurosawa’s capable, like-minded crew. Armor-clad extras mill about the mountains in the cold, yawning placidly as they await instruction from their director, who’s off with the camera on a distant hill. Some nap; others kid and banter. Electricians take to helping out with the gardening as grips lend a hand (or a body) to the stuntmen trying out new moves. Everybody seems quite content to remain there for hours, ready to do whatever needs to be done when it’s needed. You can sense Marker’s pleasant bafflement. Where on earth do you find such diligent and gratified workers?
Kurosawa was a benign perfectionist — perhaps an ideal leader. And yet despite its tranquil production, Ran isn’t lacking in ferocity or vigor. Those battle scenes, so handily orchestrated by their conductor, still feel explosive, tremendous in scope and exhilarating in a robust, tactile way. (The inferno that engulfs the Third Castle during the siege on Hidetora, in particular, remains an exemplary effort in practical effects work.) What Marker has done with A.K. is dispel the illusion of mayhem that is the founding myth of every epic. He reminds us of an important truth of filmmaking: What the camera captures needn’t be reflected behind the scenes. From peace and harmony can still emerge a volatile samurai sprawl.
A.K.: The Making of Ran
Directed by Chris Marker
Opens February 19, Film Forum