I picked up the new issue of Akira Kurosawa's RAN, probably one of my two or three favorite films of all time, now finally released in an edition that does it justice. I think I have owned a copy of it in every major home video format it was ever issued in. Criterion previously issued the film Stateside on DVD, but lost the rights to it when Studio Canal acquired them for all territories outside of Japan, and their version of it was so dismal I could scarcely believe they had the nerve to put it out there. Now we have this release, and it's grand to behold. But my reason for talking about it isn't a review; I have an older one in my archives here that's serviceable, and a new one on Ganriki (my other blog focusing on J-culture) that you'll want to dig into. RAN was how I had my life changed, and to rewatch it is to remember the exact process of how that happened.
When I was ten or so, I was in a bookstore with my parents, and I had two whole dollars to spend (a colossal amount of money at the time). The discount paperback bin at the front of the store caught my attention, and out of it I bought three books. One was Splinter Of The Mind's Eye, the Star Wars spinoff story Alan Dean Foster wrote shortly after the movie broke the bank. Like most every other kid my age, I had Star Wars on the brain, so I snapped that one up. But the other two books were ... get this .. the first two installments in Yukio Mishima's Sea Of Fertility tetraology, Spring Snow and Runaway Horses.
To this day, I can't begin to explain what compelled me to buy those books. All I remember was that I had to have them, that they needed to be mine, that some greater reason existed that drew them into my hands. It didn't matter that I couldn't even read the first sentence on the first page. Not yet, anyway. Someday I'd get to that level, I told myself; someday I would be worthy of it.
Every few months I'd take out Spring Snow and try to read it. Every time I did, I got a little further in, but no more than that. But I kept at it.
I was eleven-going-on-twelve when Return Of The Jedi came out. It wasn't clear if there would be more movies in the cycle; Lucas had been making noises for some time about moving on. And with coverage of Lucas came discussion of his influences. The name "Kurosawa" had been waved under my nose a couple of times by critics and journalists, how the word "Jedi" was itself a mutation of part of the Japanese term for a historical epic (jidai-geki). The name stuck. Japan, again, I thought.
I was twelve-going-on-thirteen when RAN appeared in U.S. theaters. Here was Kurosawa once more, after years of cinematic exile and ill health and being unbankable in his own country. All this I knew only at arm's length from articles and research. Of everything else -- the rest of Kurosawa's oeuvre, the whole of Japan beyond that -- I knew nothing, as I still felt too intimidated by the whole thing. But when my mother offered me the chance to go with her to see RAN after a friend backed out, I took her up on it.
Dazed was the best word for what I felt afterwards. I'd been thrilled by Star Wars -- what kid at the age of six isn't going to be thrilled by that opening shot of the Star Destroyer thundering past the camera? -- but RAN overwhelmed me so thoroughly I didn't even know how to respond to it. All I knew was that I now had an immolating curiosity about Kurosawa, and beyond him Japan as well, one I wasn't even sure how to satisfy. And part of why I wasn't sure was because I knew full well I was still too young, too psychically and spiritually undisciplined, to not make a mess of it. Where would I even begin?
You have to understand something about me from that time, something I've only recently started to make sense of myself. I had this weird inability to investigate things on my own, to only act when I stumbled across something or had it shoved into my face by life. I realized, in my own awkward way, I was going to have to take the initiative somehow.
It wasn't until I was out of high school that I had developed some idea of how to do that. I managed, at last, to read Spring Snow. I found books on Kurosawa (Something Like An Autobiography), on Japan itself. I discovered a monthly magazine aimed at English speakers learning Japanese, Mangajin, and even wrote for them briefly before they folded. And as I went along, I found myself no less intimidated by the scope of what I was immersing myself in, but feeling a great deal less helpless in the face of my self-imposed mission.
Throughout my journey, up to the present moment, I revisited RAN. And each time I did, I felt I knew myself a little better, but could only know the work and all that it meant by so much. Not an obstacle. This was merely how the direction of the path I walked became clearer, how the lesson of the film and all it had inspired me to know had taken its greatest and most complete definition. If my time on earth meant anything, it was to love well and thoroughly, and to perhaps attempt to leave something behind, something that was as fearless and outside of time as RAN, and that would incite others to seek as thoroughly both within and without themselves.
For now, my debt remains unpaid. I may never be able to repay it as completely as I hope to. But every day I do my best to pay what I can.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind