Akira Kurosawa has turned once again to Shakespeare for source material, just as he did nearly 30 years earlier when Macbeth became the memorable Throne of Blood. At age 75, the director has made his most costly epic to date, and it’s a dazzlingly successful addition to his distinguished career.
The basis of Ran (literally Chaos) is King Lear, but with a few minor modifications. Chief of these is that the old king’s offspring are now three sons rather than three daughters, though all the basic motivations of the original remain intact.
On his 70th birthday, Lord Hidetora announces he’s passing authority on to his eldest son, Taro; when his youngest, Saburo, who genuinely cares for his father, violently protests, he’s banished. Subsequently, Taro treats his father shamefully, as does the middle son, Jiro, and eventually the two join forces to attack their father’s castle.
Kurosawa starts the film in a leisurely way as he sets up the drama and intros the principal characters, but from the very beginning his use of bold color and dynamic camera angles indicates a master at the peak of his powers. The two major battle sequences, the first about an hour into the film, the second providing the climax, are superbly staged.
In addition to these genuinely enthralling sequences, Kurosawa provides gripping drama and intrigue in the court scenes. Changing the sexes of the king’s heirs provides not only fine roles for three excellent actors, but also gives Mieko Harada, as the evil, scheming Lady Kaede (who goads first one brother then another into war and destruction), the opportunity to play an unforgettable character role, a role similar to that of Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood. Tatsuya Nadadai, in superb makeup, is the king, and it’s a tribute to this relatively young actor that he’s so convincing in the role. In the part of the fool, the king’s loyal jester, Peter, a well-known Japanese transvestite, is startling and touching.