Ran ★★★★

I don't think I'll ever enjoy Kurosawa's samurai epics as much as his more humanist dramas and thrillers, but it's easy to see why this one is so revered. It was so great finally seeing a Kurosawa film in color, especially given how beautiful and explosive his palette is, and the story was more nuanced than his samurai films generally are. The scope is bigger than anything he's done before -- only Seven Samurai comes close -- and the film's power lies in how effectively he contrasts that with the smallness and intimacy of certain scenes. In a film of such excess, you really notice when the vastness and scope is stripped away, and you're left with quiet and nothingness.

As for the battle sequences, it really cannot be understated how great they are. I don't think a film like this could be made today, and would necessitate at least some CGI, but in a world where practical effects still ruled the day, Kurosawa crafts some of the most amazing battle sequences ever filmed. One sequence in the middle of the film was particularly striking, because there was no sound -- only music -- and it was beautiful and awe-inspiring in a way that's hard to describe.

The story is ultimately the weakest part of the film. The themes are worthy and well-explored, there are some strong characterizations, the editing is brilliant, and I've already talked about the stunning battle sequences, but the narrative leaves a bit to be desired. In general I've found that Kurosawa's stories are at their best when they have the least to work with on a production level, which is perhaps why my favorite films of his are Ikiru, High and Low, and Rashomon. These are films with small productions and scopes, and Kurosawa's brilliance is in taking these understated locations and limited scopes and churning out something beautiful and powerful. I think of Mr. Watanabe on the swing, as the snow falls lightly and death closes in; of the final image from Rashomon, of the man carrying the baby in a plea for humanity in the relative irrelevance of objective truths. These are moments of startling beauty, that uplift the soul and conjure tears. This movie almost finds that in its own final shot, but the scope of this King Lear retelling distracts, I think, from a narrative of somewhat muted significance on its own.

But even if I don't think I'll ever love Kurosawa's samurai movies, this is, as I said, one of the very best. It's hard to imagine anyone else directing this, and impossible to imagine it being done with as much skill. Akira Kurosawa is a gift to cinema, and one of the bright spots of quarantine -- few though they may be -- has been diving into his films and discovering all they have to offer.

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